Civil Rights

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16 Jun

Bin Laden's Dirty Underwear and Civilian-Based Defense

in Civil Rights, Law Enforcement, Nonviolence, Surveillance Society, Terrorism, TSA / Homeland Security
From the photograher, Dean Shaddock: This was ...

Image via Wikipedia

When you fly trans-Atlantic as frequently as I do, the trips tend to blur into one another.  One constant, however, is the frenetic and arbitrary suspicion I encounter at the U.S. entry points.  Be it drug-sniffing dogs, the Egyptian stamps in my passport, or the general contemptuous stares from under-trained TSA yahoos, there may as well be a sign above the jet bridge reading “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  Add the TSA’s plan to capture and track your airport movements through your personal gadgets, an air marshal program that costs approximately $200 million per arrest (the marshals themselves have been arrested with far higher frequency), the constant pillaging of our first, fourth and fifth amendment rights, and our $30 billion annual losses of public and private funds (countless billions more in its assault on the tourism industry), and you’ve got a boondoggle of paranoia combined with egregious corporate cronyism to produce a system whose expense is exceeded only by its utter uselessness.

Festering underneath all of this is the industries’ dirty little secret – that for all reforms elsewhere in law enforcement and intelligence, airport security is running the exact same playbook that failed so miserably to prevent 9/11.  You can put as many badges and blue uniforms you want on them, but the TSA are nothing more than the same old cast of players, spasmodically trying to dazzle us with their shiny new (yet demonstrably ineffective) props while phoning-in dialogue from the same, tired script.  This kind of expensive theater may have been appropriate in the weeks and months following 9/11, but it’s time we grow up.  The bottom-line is that none of this Madison-Avenue bravado is helping to capture actual terrorists - nay, of the 29,000 or so arrests from the DHS, nearly all were for unrelated charges such as counterfeiting, narcotics, and child pornography.  Of the average 50 or so of those arrested annually on “terrorist-related” activities (based on incredibly broad metrics) culminating in convictions, nearly all have resulted from investigations operating well outside airport jurisdictions.

Considering that 9/11 was an aircraft-centric attack (and planes always make attractive targets), our disproportional obsession with airport security (at the expense of more potentially catastrophic targets such as shipping ports, network infrastructures, etc.) had a certain short-term logic.  Yet as seductive as this may have been, the time has come to recognize that in the near decade since 9/11, not a single one of these airport security programs has withstood an independent investigation of its efficacy.  Rather, on the occasion that an actual terrorist – say, the shoe or underwear bomber – managed to pull off an attempt, what prevented casualties was not the billions we spend in anticipating absurdly-specific attack scenarios, it was not the endless hours of theater spent removing shoes, and it certainly was not the confiscation of a four-year olds play-do or the destruction of an old man’s rectal seton.  No, in each case it was not the TSA but us - fellow passengers who understand that sometimes our safety is in our own hands.

In the ad-hoc sense, this is the perfect example of civilian-based defense (open-source security in the modern vernacular) and I would not be the first to point out that this is generally a good thing.  After all, surrendering your security to a third party not only breeds complacency but dismantles our most effective means of front-line defense.  I believe moreover that this kind of self-determination fosters a more committed civic engagement while providing substantial returns on effectiveness.  Yet I would level the same criticism at civilian-based defense that I would at our “professional”  systems – namely that security must be carefully balanced with a clear definition of precisely what it is we are securing.  If we want to secure the safety of our physical bodies, whatever the costs, then marshal law is probably our best option.  If, however, we want to secure our right to life – that is, our right to preserve and freely participate in our socio-cultural system of choice – then we must be certain that our means do not dismantle our ends and become a causal factor in the very problem they purport to address.

Case in point is the FBI’s sudden realization that, thanks to programs like New York City’s ‘See Something, Say Something’ campaign, all terrorists need to do is leave a harmless bag of underwear lying around in order to cause mass panic, disrupt commerce and distract law enforcement.  Ordinarily I would file this under the ‘no duh’ folder and move along.  But the fact that the chief federal law-enforcement agency of the United States has just figured this out – and that the media outlets find it newsworthy – demonstrates that after nearly ten years, most people still have little to no clue – no clue about who terrorists are, no clue why they hate us, and no clue how to fight back.

Authoritarian conceptions of security diminish our ability to protect ourselves.  At their core, ‘See something, Say something’ programs and their ilk are not only the worst possible perversion of civilian-based defense, but as evidenced by the panic they reap, are actually themselves a form of insecurity.  Even putting aside the fact that such campaigns have never once (repeat: not once) resulted in a terrorism-related arrest, the entire concept reeks of the same self-aggrandizement inherent to all forms of domestic counter-terrorism since 9/11 – that terrorism is somehow akin to conventional warfare and therefore remains the domain of government.  It is a nod to the fact that only an engaged citizenry can defend against a diffuse and nebulous network of attackers yet a simultaneous refusal to cede central authority in the solution.  It infantilizes people by providing the  illusion of open-source security without any of the concurrent tools and empowerment.  Worse, they come with the implicit admonishment that we should all remember our place in this conflict and leave security to the professionals.

Why must it be this way? Perhaps there is some plausibility to the assumption that the government has failed to focus on the only demonstrably effective avenue of security because they simply have no expertise or awareness of civilian-based defense.  Suspending our disbelief for the time being, this would indicate such a tremendous oversight that we must seriously question the leadership in the DHS.  No, the more logical, albeit tremendously more cynical, explanation is that the continued focus on centralization is tied into the governments twin obsessions over ownership and indispensability.

With regards to the latter, the government is more than aware that it is running out of things to justify its present incarnation.  After decades of ceding political authority to international corporations and simultaneously eroding its own regulatory powers, security is virtually all it has left.  As we the people have defined the job, this is the state’s primary responsibility – to ask the people for help would be akin to an admission that they are not up to the task.  There is no such thing here as ‘change we can believe in’ – as in the final days of the Soviet Union, security-related expenses account for more than half of the national budget.  While this fact may be part of a far larger discussion that needs to take place, for the time being the government will continue to claim a monopoly over the means and direction of security.

Of course, the state is likely also aware that this need not be a zero-sum issue.  After all, an effective civilian-based defense requires coordination, training, study, planning, instititutionalization – all the things that government is really good at.  Yet while centralized bureaucracy may pursue such indispensability, it will find it nearly impossible to maintain ownership.  When those who wish us harm are unified only by ideology, security is affirmed only by articulating a counter-ideology; an explicit yet fluid vision of the world we would like to see and a set of principles by which this will be actualized.  And therein lies the contradiction of ownership – when real people are asked to provide for their own security, we are going to demand returns – we will not be content to view this as a permanent state of warfare, but rather insist on a proactive and sincere analysis of the underlying causes.  And this will seriously undermine the case for the corporatist, neo-liberal planet upon which those who control government now depend.

23 May

Rand Paul and the Hypocrisy of Mainstream Libertarians

in Capitalism, Civil Rights, Corporatism, Elections, Libertarianism, Politics, Racism, Republicans, Tea Party

Libertarians embrace a worldview trending towards anarchism (or at least government minimalism), a position with which, as a Neo-Gramscian Marxist, I have an abundance of affinity.  In fact, on a long enough timeline (where units are measured in centuries anyway), I’ve little doubt that this is where the human condition will trend – presuming we manage not to destroy ourselves in the process.  For those of us in the present tense, however, Libertarianism, like Marxism, gets a bad rap for the fact that some of its most visible proponents are either vacuous, dangerous opportunists (Palin being the most obvious example) or else otherwise intelligent individuals who are transparently inconsistent and self-serving. 

One in a series of posters attacking Radical R...

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Case in point of the latter is Dr. Rand Paul, the movement’s latest media darling, who was elected to the Kentucky Senate seat last week.  The news outlets and blogosphere are in an unusual flaming accord this week over his recent example of government overreach in the Civil Rights Act of 1964: (WSJ: Paul's Civil-Rights Remarks Ignite Row, Wash Post: Rand Paul comments about civil rights stir controversy, Eugene Robinson: GOP's Tea Party invite might still be in the mail, The Hill: Rand Paul causes Civil Rights Act controversy with desegregation remarks, AP: Rand Paul Is 'Kentucky Fried Candidate' Over Civil Rights Comments, Lexington Herald-Leader: Paul's statements on discrimination stir controversy, NYT: Tea Party Pick Causes Uproar on Civil Rights, Salon: More historic legislation Rand Paul wouldn't have supported, PoliticsDaily: Rand Paul: An Anti-Government Conspiracy Theorist? (h/t Americablog).

If you’ve been asleep at the wheel on this one, Paul’s position is that the act, which covers a wide range of civil rights issues on interstate commerce, is but a single an example of federal intrusion in the individual liberties of business owners to determine the nature of their clientele.  In the context of this example, Rand concedes that this would naturally expand to the right refuse service to people of color, gays, Jews, etc.  Paul’s continued inability to staunch the blood flow on this kicked the GOP spin machine into overdrive and lead Paul to cancel his appearance on Meet the Press – only the third person in 62 years to do so.

I care far less to what degree Paul may personally be racist than I do in the fact that this degenerative myopia is completely consistent with the Libertarian platform.  However persuasive I may find this mode of thought in the abstract, it presumes a fundamental faith in humanity to do the right thing without the force of law.  Individual liberty is not an absolute - it comes with the caveat that one person't liberty cannot infringe on anothers.  With regards to the Civil Rights Act, we state that you are free to operate a business in our country, but you are not free to restrict your operations based on the color of someone's skin.

Indeed, the universe may trend towards global justice, but it has a long, long way to go.  The restaurant owner who hangs a no-blacks sign up in his window will, in the 21st century, probably get run out of (most, though not all) towns by a combination of enlightened objectors and those too embarrassed to wear racism on their sleeve by frequenting a regressive patron.  But what about no-gay, no-Democrat, no-punk, no-Catholic policies or the every-more-likely no-Arab policies?  Sometimes our laws exist to compel American ideals even when our citizens find them offensive for the simple reason that we share our national identity and don’t want bigots forming an outward part of our cultural landscape.

For the time being, I still manage to disconnect my emotional processes from the issues enough to understand the difference between personaility and ideology, but herein lies the problem – this may be a particularly egregious example of Libertarianism carried to its logical conclusion, but it is nevertheless conssistent with the overall platform.  Where the movement’s present incarnation really breaks down is in its outward hypocrisy in preferencing the liberty of commerce over individual or collective liberties.  Indeed, lost somewhat in the row over lunch-counter segregation is the fact that Paul also had harsh words for Obama's supposedly ‘un-American’ stance in blaming the oil spill on, well … the company actually responsible for it.  In Paul’s universe, the same liberty that allows corporations to escape the regulatory oversight of those who would be affected by disaster should likewise extend to absolving such entities of blame when their self-policing predictably breaks down.  As Robert Slayton points out:

Advocates like Dr. Paul claim that they are speaking on behalf of the little guy, against the steam-roller of a large institution like big government.  The problem with this claim is that there is another big institution that harms the ordinary citizen in our world, and that is big business. And in that case, libertarians have little to condemn, and thus show their true colors. … So their dirty little secret is out. Libertarians are not really for the little guy, against structures that would grind down our individuality. They're really just right-wingers, pro-business and anti government, the only institution with the power to limit large corporations when they commit abuses. Rand Paul is sincere, but in his blindness and dogmatism, he becomes a shill for big business, not the champion of citizen's rights he claims to be.

Without doubt, we exist in an era where power is increasingly consolidated into the hands of a few multi-national corporations which, unlike government, have no responsibility for social welfare.  In the U.S., capitalist malfeasance has been kept in check through a strong judiciary whereas in Europe there is strong regulation.   Yet if we are to judge the Libertarian movement by it’s leaders, then we must conclude that it is a facade for what right-wingers have always pushed for – a system of commerce in which neither mode of enforcement remains available to protect citizens from the dark side of the profit motive – a conservative nanny state where the government is expected to stay out of the way - expect when necessary to ensure that capitalist movements are free from civilian oversight.  In this manner, it is a disease masquerading as a solution, spouting the ideals of liberty while covertly working to dismatle the very freedoms it's adherents espouse.


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27 Mar

Appeals court rules that police can electrocute anyone they damn well please

in Civil Rights, Judicial Failures, Police Abusing Power

In a 2-1 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Seattle police were operating within the law when they tasered a pregnant woman – tasered her again, and then tasered her a third time – while she was strapped into the driver’s seat of a car with no keys in the ignition.  In an unusually strongly-worded opinion, the dissenting judge, Marsha Berzon, called the decision “off the wall” and chastised her colleagues:

“I fail utterly to comprehend how my colleagues are able to conclude that it was objectively reasonable to use any force against Brooks, let alone three activations of a Taser, in response to such a trivial offense," she wrote. … Berzon said the majority's notion that Brooks obstructed officers was so far-fetched that even the officers themselves didn't make that legal argument. To obstruct an officer, one must obstruct the officer's official duties, and the officers' only duties in this case were to detain Brooks long enough to identify her, check for warrants, write up the citation 10085096athe-bill-of-rights-fourth-amendment-postersand give it to her. Brooks' failure to sign did not interfere with those duties, she said. Furthermore, Brooks posed no apparent threat, and the officers could not have known how stunning her would affect the fetus, or whether it might prompt premature labor — another reason their actions were inexcusable.

The most stunning aspect of this case – aside from, you know, the electrocution of a defenseless pregnant woman for having the audacity to not be nice to her bullies, is that the defense was able to successfully argue the use of force was justified based on the potential threat the victim might pose at some hypothetical point following the traffic stop.  Hall wrote: "It seems clear that Brooks was not going to be able to harm anyone with her car at a moment's notice. Nonetheless, some threat she might retrieve the keys and drive off erratically remained, particularly given her refusal to leave the car and her state of agitation."

Yes.  And she also could have also been hiding a bomb in her trunk, been planning to download copywritten materials, or had a genetic mutation allowing her to spit acid out of her eyes.  Yet we are afforded protection by the fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution against having to defend ourselves against potential crimes when there is no reasonable expectation that such crimes will be committed.  As the prosecution and single sane judge rightfully argued, being angry at a traffic stop is not a crime, refusing to sign a ticket is not an arrestable offense, nor is it against the law to resist an illegal detention.  It IS, however, unlawful to physically assault a helpless pregnant woman who poses no threat to your safety.  

This trend is disturbing – not simply the fact that wearing a badge seems to make anything you say a de facto lawful order – a fact that most minorities in the U.S. are already familiar with, but that the courts – and worse, the American people – seem to be increasingly willing to bypass constitutional liberties in favor of authoritarianism.  As digby points out - “where are all the anti-authoritarian libertarians now? It seems as if they only care about the constitution when it comes to taxes and guns. Someone else's right not to be electrocuted for refusing to sign a traffic ticket? Not their problem.”

25 Jun

Fixing Airport Security

in Civil Rights, Police Abusing Power, Security Studies, Terrorism, TSA / Homeland Security

Nobody knows more about airport security that Bruce Schneier, and his work on subverting the TSA formed one of the central arguments of my doctoral thesis.  Bruce has a new essay up that is worth checking out – if for no other reason than the importance of keeping this issue alive:

book-sos-175wThe Constitution provides us, both Americans and visitors to America, with strong protections against invasive police searches. Two exceptions come into play at airport security checkpoints. The first is "implied consent," which means  that you cannot refuse to be searched; your consent is implied when you purchased your ticket. And the second is "plain view," which means that if the TSA officer happens to see something unrelated to airport security while screening you, he is allowed to act on that.

Both of these principles are well established and make sense, but it's their combination that turns airport security checkpoints into police-state-like checkpoints.

The TSA should limit its searches to bombs and weapons and leave general policing to the police - where we know courts and the Constitution still apply.

21 Jun

Marriage: The Way Grandma Used to Recommend

in Civil Rights, Religion, Video

Betty Bowers, America’s “greatest” Christian, explains the finer points of biblical marriage.

16 Jun

Oklahoma Highway Patrol Finally Releases Video of Trooper Attack on Paramedic

in Civil Rights, Police Abusing Power

This is not pretty and definitely NSFW (or kids for that matter).  It’s always the bad seeds that get the spotlight in these cases, which is too bad for the rest of the force, but behavior like this part and parcel of management and hiring practices.  People like this should not get to carry a badge or gun under any circumstances.  Period.

Let me walk it down for you. An ambulance, with Maurice White acting as supervisor and paramedic, is taking an elderly woman, who had collapsed, to the hospital for treatment. Her worried family follows.

Trooper Daniel Martin, who was responding to a stolen car report, came up behind the ambulance on a two-lane country road. In Oklahoma, those shoulders are notoriously tricky for even a car to pull off onto. But there's another factor involved. As the dash cam clearly shows, a car is on the right-hand shoulder, partially obstructing the highway. Just as the highway patrol pulls up behind the ambulance, the medical unit must swing out to avoid colliding with the parked car.

Let me repeat that, because it's important: if the ambulance's driver, Paul Franks, had immediately pulled over when the racing trooper came up behind him, he would have created an accident. It is impossible to safely pull over while slamming into another vehicle.

03 Jun

Sex With Ducks & Gay Marriage are the Same!

in Civil Rights, Funny, Video

If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of discovering Garfunkel and Oates then I truly recommend a quick romp through youtube lane.  Here they are weighing in on teh gay:

30 Oct

Another cop caught on film assaulting the innocent

in Civil Rights, Police Abusing Power

In case the video isn't clear enough, this guy was targeted because he was a community leader for bicycle activism.

When will these guys ever learn?  I suppose once the force starts admitting people with a slightly higher IQ.  Seriously, though - for every jerkoff like this, I'm sure there are 10 guys who are more interested in doing their job than abusing the uniform.  But unfortunately, for every jerkoff like this, there are a thousand who didn't find themselves caught on camera.

Sigh.

17 Sep

Homeland Security to open domestic spying office

in Civil Rights, Surveillance Society, TSA / Homeland Security

Without any congressional input, the executive branch has begun structuring a department to conduct domestic surveillance spying.  With a moniker that would make Orwell blush, the National Applications Office will have virtually unfettered access to classified intelligence data, including the ability to access inch-level spy-vs-you satellite detail to observe the citizens of the United States.  Snipped from their own website (emphasis added):

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) National Applications Office (NAO) is the executive agent to facilitate the use of intelligence community technological assets for civil, homeland security and law enforcement purposes within the United States.  The office will begin initial operation by fall 2007 and will build on the long-standing work of the Civil Applications Committee, which was created in 1974 to facilitate the use of the capabilities of the intelligence community for civil, non-defense uses in the United States.

Despite opposition from both Democrats and Republicans on the committee that the program violates the Posse Comitatus Act, the Assistant Secretary for Intelligence & Analysis continued to assert that legal and civil rights oversight concerns were misplaced.  And rightly so, I mean honestly, who wouldn't trust such a forthright bunch?  Are these tactics part of the instruction they get when getting a homeland security degree?  Seriously ...

The committee has issued a request to Cherthoff to suspend the program until such time that congress can discuss it.  Though, since this project comes directly from executive loins, I don't see Cherthoff taking any action to intervene.

Hat tip to Granny Doc - I don't know how the hell the rest of us haven't heard about this yet!