Saturday, January 24, 2009

Maverick News: Small Expectations

This Week: Reading between the lines of Obama’a inaugural address, the torture issue, and first steps toward restoring basic rights. Global: a new survey of freedom around the world. Vermont: A casino gambling proposal. Plus, the Drug Report.

MIXED MESSAGES. Millions of people jammed into Washington, D.C., to see history being made this week, celebrating the start of what they hope will be new era. Yet a conflict between the hope Barack Obama has inspired and the realities of US politics ran through his inaugural address.

In describing the current economic crisis, for example, he said, "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." But the people suffering the most didn't "fail" to make "hard choices" about the greed and speculation on Wall Street. They didn’t get to choose at all. And they didn’t share in the gains that preceded the crash. Yet now they're being asked to take responsibility and sacrifice.

Millions of people probably would make some sacrifices – if the goals are things like a real national health care program. But so far all we’re mainly getting calls to be patient. Meanwhile, the second half of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout is expected to save some banks, but do nothing for the people in danger of losing their homes.

What about Obama's comments on foreign policy? He struck a different tone than Bush, offering the Muslim world "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." Yet he was silent during Israel's assault on Gaza—carried out, by the way, with US-built F-16 jets and Apache helicopters, after a blockade that cut off food and medicine.

Obama said he would "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals"—a pointed criticism of the shredding of civil liberties under Bush. But he also claimed that "our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." This and other lines could have come from Bush's speechwriters.

Other troubling signs from Team Obama: calling for more US troops in Afghanistan without a clear explanation of what they’ll do there… giving a misleading impression about how soon and how many soldiers will be removed from Iraq by using the term "combat troops" – 100,000 mercenaries and up to 60,000 troops may remain… approving unspecified bailout amounts for unspecified purposes with unspecified oversight… picking a budget director who favors cutting Social Security for those under 60… picking an attorney general who supports continued immunity for illegal wiretapping and secret searches of library and bookstore data files… Plus, support for the war on drugs, the Patriot Act, and the death penalty.

On the other hand, Obama has issued a call to unite and work together to overcome adversity – to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." This is a time-honored call for American political leaders. But it’s also about actually doing something. And what people do in the coming months and years will be key in determining what kind of change this new era brings.

TORTURE LOGIC. This week Obama also announced that the US won’t torture prisoners anymore. Yet, one of the events not captured on TV during Inauguration day – the "Yes We Can Arrest Bush" rally, held along the route of the inaugural parade at the FBI building on Pennsylvania Avenue – raises a related question: How far will he go, and will he uphold his oath of office?

Related to that, Ralph Nader and Bruce Fein, a Justice Department attorney in the Nixon administration, sent a letter to Barack Obama on inauguration day. Here’s are some excerpts:

"The United States ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 1994. Article 12 of the CAT provides: 'Each State Party shall ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.'

"Former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Richard Cheney have both openly conceded that they authorized waterboarding on at least three Al Qaeda detainees. Among others, Attorney General-designate Eric Holder has characterized waterboarding as torture. ... "The federal criminal code punishes torture in accord with the CAT. See 18 U.S. C. 2340A. The United States recently prosecuted and punished the son of Liberia's Charles Taylor for torture perpetrated in Liberia.

"The public record clearly gives reasonable ground to believe Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and their subordinates are implicated in torture. Article 12 of the CAT thus requires that your administration conduct a 'prompt and impartial investigation' of the individuals and their superiors involved in waterboarding the Al Qaeda detainees and in interrogating Mohammed al-Qahtani. We urge that the investigation be conducted by a special prosecutor with a Republican Party affiliation appointed by the Attorney General to forestall charges of partisanship. If no investigation is forthcoming, you will have violated Article 12.

"During your presidential campaign, you assailed the unilateralism of your predecessor which flouted international obligations or responsibilities. You promised change. You should not ape former President Bush..."

FIRST STEPS. Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, says that the Bush years have been a nightmare especially for those feeling the brunt of the administration's militaristic, inhuman, and illegal outrages. … The wars and killings in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza; the torture and detentions of thousands held at prisons in Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and secret sites; the implementation of a surveillance and spy state here at home with arrests on trumped-up terrorism charges; and the suppression of speech characterizing a terrible moment in all our lives.

"The country under Bush has moved well along on the road to a police state. ... The excitement of Obama's election can only take us so far. Bush's unconstitutional practices must be reversed. Constitutional rule must be reestablished.” As Ratner sees it, this means an end to:

* Perpetual detention without trial

* Torture and inhumane treatment of detainees

* Trials in kangaroo courts such as the military commissions

* Off-shore penal colonies and secret prisons

* Rendition of people to other countries for torture

* The surveillance state with its warrantless wiretapping, spying and suppression of speech

* Rule by presidential fiat

Constitutional rule means that those who violated fundamental rights be prosecuted. The question is: will the torture team be brought to justice?


THE STATE OF FREEDOM. Freedom House, an advocacy group founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt that fights tyranny around the world, says that freedom was in retreat in 2008. According to the group’s just released annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, this is the third year of decline in a row. Sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union led the way down, while South Asia showed some improvement.

The report, "Freedom in the World 2009" examines the state of freedom in all 193 countries and 16 territories. It analyzes developments that occurred in 2008 and assigns each country a freedom status – "free", "partly free" or "not free." Overall, 34 countries registered declines in freedom and 14 registered improvements.

The number of countries judged as "free" in 2008 was 89 – 46 percent of the world’s population. Sixty-two countries were listed as "partly free,” 20 percent of humanity. And 42 countries were classified as "not free; that’s the remaining 34 percent. Eight countries received the survey's lowest possible ranking for both political rights and civil liberties: North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Burma, Libya, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and Somalia. Two territories are in the same category: Tibet and Chechnya.

Eleven other countries and territories received scores that were only slightly better: Belarus, China, South Ossetia, Laos – all in Asia, Saudi Arabia and Syria in the Middle East, Cuba, and, in Africa – Zimbabwe, Chad, Eritrea, and Western Sahara.

The number of electoral democracies dropped by two and now stands at 119. Developments in Mauritania, Georgia, Venezuela and Central African Republic disqualified them from the electoral democracy list, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bangladesh became electoral democracies

In Sub-Saharan Africa, twelve countries and one territory—about one-fourth of the regional total — experienced setbacks. In addition to Senegal and Mauritania, declines were registered in Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Namibia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Somaliland.

The most significant progress occurred in South Asia, where several countries saw improvements linked to elections. In addition to improvements in Pakistan, Maldives and Bhutan, progress was also seen in Nepal, Kashmir, Malaysia and Thailand. Declines were registered in Afghanistan, Burma, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Singapore and Tibet. China increased repression instead of delivering the human rights reforms promised in connection with hosting the Summer Olympics.

In the Former Soviet Union/Central and Eastern Europe, non-Baltic countries continued their decade-long decline in freedom, now ranking below Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East on several survey indicators. Russia and Georgia, which went to war over South Ossetia, were among the notable declines, as well as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova. Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe remains strong, despite setbacks in Bulgaria and Macedonia.

After several years of modest gains, the Middle East and North Africa are experiencing trouble. Iraq was the only country to show improvement, mainly because of reductions in violence, political terror and government-sponsored Shia militias – although it’s still considered “Not Free.” Jordan, Bahrain, Iran, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli-Occupied Territories also declined, freedom-wise.

Latin America managed to maintain its democratic character despite economic problems, an increase in violent crime in some countries and the rise of populist demagogues. Paraguay and Cuba saw improvements, although the Castro government continues to be pretty repressive. Colombia, Nicaragua, Mexico and Venezuela were among the countries where freedom took a hit.

Western Europe and North America continued to get the highest scores. The election of Obama could lead to reforms of counterterrorism policies. But freedom did decline in two European countries: Italy and Greece. The survey also expressed concern about potential threats to freedom of expression in Canada and England.


CASINO TIME? Vermont's state auditor Tom Salmon says the state should consider putting a casino at Killington — or some other resort area — to raise money to repair the state's crumbling roads and bridges. But the suggestion is getting a cool reception at the Statehouse.

The state is facing a major budget gap, and lawmakers warn that drastic cuts to state spending are likely. With this is mind, Salmon wrote a letter to legislators, outlining 13 proposals to bulk up state government's depleted coffers. One of them was this: "Consider a state-owned casino in a resort area like Killington, with net profits directly to roads, bridges and infrastructure."

It isn't the first time casino gambling has been floated as a way to improve the state's finances. In 1995, a Las Vegas developer proposed a casino in Pownal. Bill Bauer, who owns The Summit lodge in Killington, thinks it's worth considering. “If we can fill the beds and the restaurants, that's all we're trying to get out of it,” he said. “We have the infrastructure: We have beds, we have restaurant seats, we have a wonderful ski resort, two championship golf courses right in town. A casino would just enhance the resort experience.”

Would a casino diminish Vermont’s allure? What about the possible side effects -- gambling addiction, crime? And what would it be called?

According to the Attorney General, lawmakers could approve casino gambling. But they’re apparently leery. Thus far the House Speaker hasn’t yet found one lawmaker ready to introduce a bill.


ZYPREXA PAY OFF. Eli Lilly will pay $1.42 billion to settle criminal and civil charges related to the marketing of its anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa. It’s the largest fine in a health care case, and the largest criminal fine for an individual corporation ever imposed in a US criminal prosecution of any kind. The pharmaceutical company admitted to promoting Zyprexa for unapproved, "off-label" uses between 1999 and 2001, including for treatment of dementia in elderly populations.

Zyprexa is approved for treatment of schizophrenia and various types of bipolar disorder. It has been Lilly's top-selling drug, bringing in more than $37 billion in world-wide sales since its US approval in 1996, according to the Wall Street Journal. In 2007, Eli Lilly tried to keep websites from posting copies of its Zyprexa marketing documents. Internal documents also show that the company downplayed Zyprexa's side effects, including an increased risk of diabetes.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA. In Minnesota, a bill to allow incurably ill patients to legally purchase marijuana is up for consideration in the Senate. The Medical Use of Marijuana bill is nearly identical to a bill that passed the Senate last year and almost passed the House. It has broad support, although last year Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he would veto such a bill so long as law enforcement opposed it. The bill would make it legal for patients to procure up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana from a state-regulated nonprofit.

TEENS & DRUGS. Cigarette and alcohol use among young people continued to decline in 2008. However, the decline in marijuana use among middle and high schoolers has slowed, and the perception that they’re harmful has decreased. That’s the conclusion of Monitoring the Future, an annual survey released this week by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The survey says that marijuana use among eighth, 10th and 12th graders, which showed a consistent decline since the mid-1990s, has leveled off. 10.9 percent of eighth graders, 23.9 percent of tenth graders, and 32.4 percent of twelfth graders say they smoked during the past year. In addition, the proportions of eighth graders who see smoking marijuana as harmful and disapprove of it have decreased.

Perhaps more troubling is the continuing high rate of prescription drug abuse among teens. There has been little change in the past six years. In 2008, 15.4 percent of 12th graders said they abused prescription drugs. Among those, nearly 10 percent reported nonmedical use of Vicodin, and 4.7 percent reported abusing Oxycontin. Seven of the top 10 drugs abused by 12th graders were either prescribed or purchased over-the-counter. The number of 12th graders who see use of LSD as harmful is also declining, as is the proportion of 8th graders who perceive inhalants as harmful.

Cigarette smoking is at the lowest rate in the history of the survey. There has also been a gradual decline in alcohol use in all grades, with a significant decline among tenth graders in binge drinking. And a gradual decline in the use of amphetamines, methamphetamine, cocaine, and crack. Nevertheless, close to 25 percent of seniors reported having five or more drinks in a row sometime in the two weeks prior to the survey.

The survey is in its 33rd year, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan. 46,348 students from 386 public and private schools in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades participated in this year's survey.

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