Tag Archives: death

Exposing The Horror and Disgrace Of America’s Drone War

Green for Growth & Peace

After carefully reading the new human rights reports issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on America’s drone war, I can best describe my mood as equal parts nauseous and horrified. The reports are, in a word, gruesome. And while I have problems with various aspects of both – among them the overreach of each in conflating unintended collateral civilian casualties as war crimes – I nonetheless have to consider the fact that a great-many innocent people (up to 900 in Pakistan alone) have been killed, and their deaths seem to have come at the hands of my country’s government.

Like many others Americans my age, my formative years were consumed by a seemingly never-ending conflict between “good and evil” or “us vs. them”, aimed at justifying America’s engagement in I-don’t-know-how-many conflicts and moral crusades in order to “safeguard our freedom and way of life”. I was a kid (13) when the towers fell and we began this continuing trend of extremist-eradication at-all-costs. But then, in 2008, Barack Obama ran for President, and I’d never seen anything like it. I was too young and uninterested to remember the Clinton years, really. Everything I knew about Presidential power, and the exercise of it, I knew from George W. Bush and Dick “Chancellor Palpatine” Cheney. So when, in 2008, Obama ran on principles of transparency, honesty, accountability and justice, I was naturally inspired; hopeful that the world Bush and Cheney created would finally be jettisoned for something good.

As much I would like to follow the lefty herd and blindly claim that somehow, someway, we’ve gotten ourselves out of the same rut that consumed us during the breadth of Bush’s term(s), the truth is that we haven’t. The truth is we’ve replaced open evil with closeted evil.

Obama visits Pentagon

For years now the president and his senior advisers have made public claims about America’s drone program that have been found to be categorically false. We know, for instance, from top-secret intelligence documents, that “contrary to assurances it has deployed US drones only against known senior leaders of al-Qaida and allied groups, the Obama administration has targeted and killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified ‘other’ militants in scores of strikes in Pakistan’s rugged tribal area.” (Jonathan Landy) These revelations don’t just illustrate that the drone program is out of hand or that the Obama administration has become incapable in accounting for it, but that the Obama administration knowingly misleads the public about the scope of who can be legitimately targeted by unmanned aerial vehicles.

Here’s a crucial point: the Obama administration/US military/intelligence agencies often have no idea who they are killing. Even the CIA – whose intelligence reports are basically the means by which targets are chosen – often has zero idea of the identities of many of the people they target for death. President Obama, much like his predecessor, approves of the use of something called “signature strikes”, where the least important factor in the decision making process to target someone for a drone strike is who they are. More important to the decision making calculus the government employs – and the reason many are targeted for death despite their identity being unknown – is intelligence gathering suggesting that the individual is a ‘militant’ if he engages in a pattern of life more commonly engaged in by ‘militants’. The NY Times reported that “the joke [at the State Department] was that when the CIA sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks’, the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp”.

Chinook flight

I should note that the Obama administration has – prior to the reports – signaled its intention to embrace a policy shift away from drones towards various other counterterrorism measures. But because Americans are largely agnostic towards the use of drones in far-away places like Pakistan, and since that ambivalence means neither Republicans nor Democrats will pressure the President to make good on his campaign promises of accountability and transparency, there’s little chance he will.

Photos: Kashif Mardani; US Army

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Fear and Loathing in Washington D.C.

Washington DC Capitol - HDR

“President Obama will negotiate with the Syrian butcher Assad and erase his red line, will capitulate to Vladimir Putin, and he will negotiate with the happy face of the killer regime in Iran, President Rouhani, but not with Republicans over issues all presidents have always negotiated over.”

That quote – from American conservative radio host/shame-free liar and propagandist Hugh Hewitt – encapsulates how far the U.S. has to go to overcome the most embarrassing and pathetic government shutdown in the history of the country. Not every conservative in the United States is as crazy or deluded as Hewitt, but enough are to where an angry, xenophobic, racially charged minority, belonging to one faction in one house of government, has been able to manufacture a government shutdown threatening to destroy the US and global economy unless the party opposite capitulates to their bidding.

The truth is, no American president has ever “negotiated” repealing a duly enacted law [the Affordable Care Act] whilst being blackmailed with the destruction of his government, or indeed with the destruction of the global economy. But this line of baseless rhetoric has become the new mantra of the Republican Party and their apologists: repeat the lie until enough Americans have been coerced that they [Republicans] are not singularly to blame for the disastrous impasses the country continuously finds itself in (e.g. sequestration, shutdown, debt ceiling, etc.). This isn’t just a minority problem – it’s a party problem. The American Tea Party may be [entirely] comprised of callous fools and disgraceful opportunists, but we’re mostly here because “moderate” Republicans have consistently folded to these vandals rather than stand up to them.

It’s important not to forget that Republicans manufactured the U.S. government shutdown for one reason and one reason only: to stop poorer Americans from getting health insurance funded by cuts to Medicare and the taxing of the richest Americans. Let’s also keep in mind that Congress itself passed the healthcare law in 2010; the Supreme Court then affirmed its constitutionality through its landmark ruling earlier this year; and the majority of Americans want it – as proven when they re-elected the President who signed it.

In a few weeks (or sooner), the shutdown/default crisis will long be over and maybe even forgotten. The federal deficit will in all likelihood continue to fall, and growth will probably resume. But the long-term inadequacies of the U.S. political system will continue to be exploited by the Republican Party, creating a sort of dystopic future for American politics. The American people put pretty much all of the blame of the shutdown/default crisis on the shoulders of Republicans, but conservatives can still expect to hold enough seats in the House come the 2014 midterm elections (mainly because of the way district lines are drawn. Republicans were lucky enough to have had a huge win at the state level in 2010, which coincided with post-census redistricting or gerrymandering). Democrats may very well win the White House again in 2016 with Hillary Clinton or Papa Joey B, but the Congress will probably remain the same, meaning we’ll see more shutdowns/threats of defaults before it’s all said and done.

I’ve been able to gauge the puzzled, incredulous looks of my international friends at the LSE – many of whom come from democratic countries – when they hear that an extremist minority party caused the “most powerful” democracy in the world to close up shop. I tell them that American politics, as constructed by James Madison (“father” of the Constitution), was designed with stagnation, derision, and polarization in mind. But the country’s founders couldn’t foresee something as inane as the Tea Party (and warned against political party’s altogether); they couldn’t possibly expect the damning practice of gerrymandering districts or the influence of special interest groups both in elections and public policy.

Mostly, I’ve had to tell my foreign friends that what they’re currently seeing and reading about is not at all what American politics was meant to be. But they better start getting used to it, because it’s here to stay.

Photo: Nicolas Raymond

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Judgement Day

By Cato

Step 1: Turn on speakers
Step 2: Open this video in a different window.
Step 3: Read this news story while the previous link plays in the background.

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Could The Shutdown/Debt Ceiling Cost Republicans The House?

Because the American people are a fickle bunch, the usual order of things is that the sitting President’s party loses seats in the House during the midterm election. Conventional wisdom would then lead one to accept the points expressed by The New Republic and Real Clear Politics in their estimation(s) that it’s unlikely Democrats will overturn the Republican majority in 12 months. The rule has exceptions, of course. Clinton’s Democrats actually picked up a few seats in 1998, following Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 21 day government shutdown.

It’s been reiterated quite exhaustingly that one of the main reasons Republicans have been able to keep the House despite losing the national popular vote to Democrats by 1.5% is that they enjoy the considerable majority of gerrymandered districts. In short, Democrats needed to win the House by a margin of more than 7% to become the majority party.

Fast forward to today. If this WaPo/ABC news poll is any indication (and I’d like to think it is), the country soundly puts the blame of the shutdown and the upcoming debt ceiling disaster on the shoulders of the GOP.

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But while public opinion of the GOP might be very low, commentators have rightly noted that President Obama garners considerable blame (deservedly or not) for the current Washington impasse. That may be true, but luckily for the President and his party, Obama is not running for re-election in the next 12 months. That point led Public Policy Polling to conduct a set of district-level polls meant for ascertaining Congressional preference — which has, in the past, tracked the national vote pretty closely. So, PPP set out to survey 24 congressional districts held by Republicans, and asked voters there to chose between their current Congressional representative and a Democrat. Here are their results, plotted against last year’s election result:

It’s important to note that we’re talking about surveys taken during a government shutdown explicitly engineered by Congressional Republicans, but the results show that Democrats swung 23 races (below the red line) while Republicans held one race (above the red line). If the results hold (and I don’t expect them to), Democrats will win the House. Comfortably.

I say I don’t expect this to last because, well, Americans have the tendency to forget about things like the shutdown when it comes time to vote. The midterm elections are still a long away off to where Republicans can successfully coerce their constituents to re-elect them to the House. I do expect Democrats to pick up some votes, which is not totally inconsequential since they’d be able to force the chamber to actually vote on resolutions that Boehner refuses to allow.

The survey doesn’t take into account how voters will feel about House Republicans if the Government hits the debt ceiling, but given the plausible disaster that would ensue if such a thing were allowed to happen, when compounded with the shutdown and the [still] terrible sequester, these results could hold true to the midterm, and possibly even increase.

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Did The Worst Chemical Weapons Attack In Decades Just Happen In Syria?

20130821-103116.jpg(YouTube Screenshot)

Syrian rebels claim that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against “women, children”, and themselves in the suburbs east of Damascus, affecting at least 1,300 people:

BEIRUT/AMMAN – Syria’s opposition accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of gassing many hundreds of people – by one report as many as 1,300 – on Wednesday in what would, if confirmed, be the world’s worst chemical weapons attack in decades.

George Sabra, one of the leading opponents of Assad, said the death toll was 1,300 killed by poison gas released over suburbs east of Damascus.

“Today’s crimes are … not the first time the regime has used chemical weapons. But they constitute a turning point in the regime’s operations,” he told a news conference in Istanbul. “This time it was for annihilation rather than terror.”

An opposition monitoring group, citing figures compiled from medical clinics in the Damascus suburbs, put the death toll at 494 – 90 percent of them killed by gas, the rest by bombing and conventional arms. The rebel Syrian National Coalition said 650 people had been killed.

If the cause of death and the scale of the killing were confirmed, it would be the worst known use of chemical weapons since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.

It’s always difficult to figure out exactly what happened, or who to believe, but Foreign Policy reports that videos “showed Syrians lying on the floor gasping for breath, medics struggling to save infants, and rows of bodies of those who had reportedly died in the attack.”

https://twitter.com/lizobagy/statuses/370209257569804288

But it has to be noted that all of the information coming out of the Ghouta region, where rebels enjoy broad support, has yet to be confirmed by independent observers. The videos do suggest some sort of attack, but some have expressed doubt that the released footage shows enough of the symptoms that would follow a chemical weapons attack of this kind.

So we’re really left with one option here: dispatch the UN observers who are already in the country to the affected areas ASAP. If they find that chemical weapons were indeed used, then we can verify what the rebel groups have been saying and go from there. If they aren’t allowed into the area by the Syrian regime, then we have Assad basically admitting guilt.

The interesting question here is what will happen if the reports are confirmed and the worst chemical weapons attack — let’s just call it a good old fashioned war crime — since Saddam in 88′ just took place. Will Obama finally be moved to intervene? Would intervention be the sort of disaster I’ve been saying it would be? Or will the U.S., and the UN, simply turn a blind eye yet again to Assad?

Probably the latter. But let’s wait and see.

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So You Want To Live Forever? Americans Say No.

Pew Research on Tuesday released a really eye-opening survey that posed to Americans this question: would you — with the help of life-extending science and medicine — prefer to live until 120 or more, or die earlier? The majority of Americans chose the latter.

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In fact, most Americans answered that they thought the “ideal” lifespan hovered somewhere between 79 and 100 years old. Only 4 percent said that they would want to live beyond that.

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The reason I’d fall within the 78 and 100 range is because I don’t want my latter years to consist of me in a degenerative state being a nuisance on my family (assuming I have one). But Pew identified some other pointed reasons as to why Americans are trepidatious of extending lifespans — not only for themselves, but for the rest of society as well. Many respondents were weary that any sort of treatment program to extend life would be offered before the science was sound, thus having potential side effects. Most — and I would be one of these — said that extended lifespans would have serious consequences on natural resources. And a majority simply agreed that extending life to 120 years — like this National Geographic cover suggests — would be “fundamentally unnatural”.

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I do think that extending lifespans would cause undue harm to natural resources. Then again, if people live longer, they can theoretically work longer, meaning that the already archaic rule of “retire by 65” could be pushed to somewhere like 80. That would assume of course that there would be plenty of jobs to go around (there isn’t). But I have to think that most Americans, and really most people in general, would be more optimistic about living longer lives if they were confident that their later years would be at least semi-productive.

Anyway, i’m not greedy. Give me 80 good years and i’ll leave with no complaints.

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Obamacare Works Very Well When State Officials Want It To

Obamacare on the steps of the Supreme Court

The emerging pattern is simple: states that aren’t soliciting bids for next year’s healthcare exchanges will have higher premiums than states that do. Via Steve Benen:

In recent weeks, there’s been a proxy war of sorts when it comes to the projected rates on health care premiums. A “blue” state like New York will announce great news, which leads a “red” state like Indiana to announce poor news. Democratic officials in California say residents are going to going to have more money in their pockets thanks to the Affordable Care Act, to which Republican officials in Ohio say the opposite.

The pattern isn’t exactly subtle: if you live in a state where officials want “Obamacare” to work, the law looks great. If you live in a state where officials are actively trying to undermine the law, regardless of what it does to you, your premiums, and your family’s access to quality and affordable care, then — you guessed it — the news isn’t as encouraging.

That said, the emerging pattern nevertheless suggests folks in states like Maryland, New York, California, and other bluer-than-blue states are going to be immediately happier with the results of the federal health care law because they’re living in states where officials actually want the system to work effectively.

My question is, what happens in those red states when residents start looking across borders and they wonder to themselves, “Why aren’t my benefits as great as theirs?” In theory, this should prompt those folks to start asking their state officials to do more of what works.

All signs point to the pattern continuing, but it’ll be interesting to see what the final numbers look like. If the law is effective, I can’t see how this ends any other way than the whole country benefitting from lower healthcare costs, despite the best efforts of Republican politicians and their super-lobby of healthcare insurance corporations. Red-state constituents will eventually see that their blue-state counterparts are paying less, and will demand the same.

(photo by flickr user Will O’Neill)

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This Chart Shows Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid Of Flying, Ever

There’s been a heck of a lot of media coverage of the Asiana Airlines crash that took place in San Francisco over the weekend, and I’m pretty sure that within a 30-minute segment on CNN, I saw the full video replayed over 1000 times. Plane crashes are surreal, weirdly exciting and totally newsworthy, but that’s mostly because they are so rare. How rare? Well, thanks to a very wonkish graph created by Matthew Yglesias, we know that you’re 70 times likelier to die by car:

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Now, people tend to have a problem with these comparisons since people drive more often than they fly, but note the units Yglesias uses here: fatalities per 100 million passenger miles. In other words, it holds passengers equal, controlling for that problem.

I fly to London in a couple months, and there’s no one on this earth that has a more serious panic attack than yours truly when a plane takes off or lands. But it remains true that I have more of a chance of dying on the way to the airport than anything else. So, for now, i’ll take some comfort in statistics.

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Assad’s Regime Calls For Mursi To Step Down For The Sake Of The Egyptian People

Bashar al-Assad propaganda

Well if this isn’t rival-state trolling, I don’t know what is:

(Reuters) – The Syrian government, fighting to crush a two-year-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that started with peaceful calls for reform, said on Wednesday Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi should step down for the sake of his country.

Relishing the possible downfall of one of Assad’s most vocal critics, Syrian television carried live coverage of the huge street demonstrations in Egypt demanding Mursi’s departure.

“(Egypt’s) crisis can be overcome if Mohamed Mursi realizes that the overwhelming majority of the Egyptian people reject him and are calling on him to go,” Information Minister Omran Zoabi was quoted as saying by the state news agency SANA.

(Photo by flickr user watchsmart)

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Is This The End For Bitcoin?

Nerd Merit Badge 10: Bitcoin

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of Bitcoin, but ever since it’s operationalization, most signs have caused me to become hugely pessimistic of the lauded virtual currency. In fact, I’m surprised it’s even survived this long.
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Evaluating The Motivations For Suicide

A groundbreaking study from the University of British Columbia becomes the first scientifically tested measure for understanding why people commit suicide, as “different motivations require different treatments and interventions”:
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Poem of the Week

Anger of the Guns
Anger of the Guns (cc photo by Ben Powis)

The Next War

“War’s a joke for me and you,
While we know such dreams are true.”
Siegfried Sassoon

Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death,-
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,-
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,-
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, -knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.

Wilfred Owen

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The Coming Epidemic of Coronavirus

WHO Director General Chan and Bill Gates Lead Discussion on Polio at WHAWHO Director General Chan and Bill Gates (cc photo by United States Mission Geneva)

WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan’s statement from the sixty-sixth World Health Assembly:

Addressing participants at the closing ceremony, WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan thanked delegates for their efficiency and productivity during the debates. At the same time, she sounded an alarm on a new threat that she warned requires urgent international attention.

“Looking at the overall global situation, my greatest concern right now is the novel coronavirus. We understand too little about this virus when viewed against the magnitude of its potential threat. Any new disease that is emerging faster than our understanding is never under control,” Dr Chan said. “These are alarm bells and we must respond. The novel coronavirus is not a problem that any single affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself. The novel coronavirus is a threat to the entire world.”

Over at NPR, Scott Hensley notes the location where the disease seems to be originating from:

All the cases reported so far have a link to the Middle East — the people either lived there, had traveled there, or were in close contact with an infected person who’d been there.
Now, there’s a report in The Lancet that two people in France fell ill with the virus, too. A 64-year-old man who had visited Dubai in April was hospitalized in northern France later that month. A second man, who hadn’t traveled abroad recently, shared a hospital room with the first patient for a few days in late April. At the time, the doctors didn’t suspect the first man was infected with MERS-CoV.

And Michael Smith at MedPage finds that despite the threat, the disease is not so easily spread:

The novel coronavirus emerging from the Middle East can be transmitted between people, but not easily, according to reports in two separate journals.

The incubation period for infection may also be longer than expected — up to 12 days — and samples from the lower respiratory tract may be needed to identify the pathogen.

The new virus — now officially named Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-CoV — infected four members of a large Saudi Arabian family late last year, according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine.

But another 24 members of the family who lived in the same building, including some who cared for the patients before hospital admission, were not affected, reported Ziad Memish at the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Mass Gathering Medicine in Riyadh, and colleagues.
There have also been no cases among healthcare workers who looked after the patients while in hospital, Memish and colleagues reported.

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Senators from Oklahoma who voted against Sandy aid ask for some tornado aid

Senator Coburn Makes A Surprise Visit to Veterans Bill Press ConferenceSenator Tom Coburn (cc photo by Senate Democrats)

Natural disasters can happen in any state, at any given time. That’s why federal agencies like FEMA exist, to provide disaster relief at a moments notice. The agency has already said that the estimated $11.6 billion it has in its disaster fund should cover whatever relief is needed in Oklahoma, so that’s the good news. The awkward and ironic part to all this is that the state’s two senators – not too long ago – vehemently opposed the relief bill meant to provide aid to Hurricane Sandy victims and their families. Senator Tom Coburn opposed it because in its hasty development, plans to offset cost by cuts elsewhere were unaccounted for. Interestingly enough, he said yesterday that he’d stick by that principle even in this situation, which means that he may very well oppose an aid package meant for his home state. Good luck taking that to the polls. Senator James Inhofe, for his part, offered a double standard comparison of sorts when he said that the reason he’s asking for aid and should get aid with minimal fuss is that during Hurricane Sandy, “Everybody was getting in and exploiting the tragedy that took place – that won’t happen in Oklahoma.”

Lawmakers aren’t going to hold the people of Oklahoma responsible for the actions and statements of their elected officials – nor should they. Even without budget offsets, aid is going to be provided to Oklahoma tornado victims. Hopefully, other senators who voted against Sandy relief are taught a valuable lesson here: don’t be a hypocrite; vote for disaster relief every time you’re asked to.

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Iran’s vicious crackdown on journalists

For the everyday Iranian, life is pretty tough. It’s a place where, if you’re in any way disillusioned by the iron fist of the powers that be, you’d better keep it to yourself or face harsh retribution. For journalists, it’s an even scarier place. The above video by the Committee to Protect Journalists details the billowing trend in reporters being imprisoned, tortured, and even killed, on charges ranging from “insulting the supreme leader” or “spreading propaganda against the state”. The problem has only worsened since the much disputed 2009 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that saw millions of Iranians take to the streets in what was a peaceful protest but became bloody massacre by thug groups like the Basij – employed and operated by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
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