Mr. Sandman's Sandbox

The musings of a Deaf Californian on life, politics, religion, sex, and other unmentionables. This blog is not guaranteed to lead to bon mots appropriate for dinner-table conversation; make of it what you will.

Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A Moral Rubicon

Our nation once stood as one of the most admired countries in the world. Our nation advanced the ideals of progress, human achievements, and concepts of justice, liberty, and freedom for all. Our United States of America, from July 4, 1776 on, was a model for other nations, individuals, and peoples to examine, dissect, and emulate. From the French revolutionaries in 1789 to Símon Bolívar to the colonial founders of Liberia, America has stood as an ideal to aspire to.

The last few years, however, this proud history and legacy has been tarnished. It is difficult to say today, speaking in the year 2006, but I believe future historians and peoples will look back and say that September 28, 2006 marked the beginning of the end of the American Republic.

To the casual reader, this may seem an alarmist, drastic statement to make. But I disagree; for yesterday, the House of Representatives, and today, the Senate of the United States of America voted to permit the President to determine when to use torture. While torture is still not officially codified, it is now more or less government policy, despite the earlier grand show of protestations by John McCain & Co. The restrictions on torture thus far only apply to the military, but not to the CIA. The fact that the final decision is being left to the executive branch places far more power than should be allocated into the hands of just one man. For several decades, no U.S. president or government has had any difficulty following or defining what was permitted and what was not allowed under the Geneva Conventions-- through several undeclared wars and conflicts, from Korea to Vietnam to Grenada to the Gulf War, and up until very, very recently. All of a sudden, there is now a rush, a mad dash to "clarify" what has up until now been clear to generations of leaders and Americans.

Our legislators voted to abrogate habeas corpus, a right that has its origins in Magna Carta, the document King John signed at Runnymede in 1215. Since the 13th and 14th centuries, the Great Writ has emerged as one of the cornerstone protections in Western civilization. As of today, both houses have decided that the detainees we have at Guantanamo and elsewhere cannot avail themselves of the ability to use habeas corpus in their attempts for redress. Habeas corpus is protection for individuals against the state. Right now, only non-citizens are being barred from this ancient legal right; but this leads to a slippery slope. Who's to say which group of people will be limited in their use or rights under habeas corpus next?

Finally, the amendment of the War Crimes Act of 1996 was also a package of the bill that has passed in the halls of Congress. Originally drafted and legislated to define war crimes as violations of the Geneva Conventions and issued to protect American nationals abroad from suffering at the hands of others, it is now being revised to provide retroactive immunity for any and all persons for post-9/11 actions.

Taken all together, these are the desires of the current administration: the wish to be able to use whatever means necessary to elicit information; the ability to escape punishment for past violations of federal and international law; and the opportunity to erode a foundation of our legal system. The fact that Congress has complied indicates a legislative body not only complicit in weakening what this country stands for, but willing to diminish its own responsibilities to conduct oversight. In this nation, we supposedly have a balance of powers: the judicial, the legislative and the executive branches all have checks and balances. Today is a step towards radically and permanently altering the structure of our government.

As I've stated before, perceptions are very important. It's not just a matter of good public relations (something the U.S. needs a giant shot in the arm of); it's a matter of reciprocal treatment. You think other nations are going to say, "Oh, we'll just keep following the Geneva Conventions, now that the United States has decided to alter the playing field to its advantage"? Most will, but some decidedly won't. It'll be a game of, "You're doing it, so it's okay for us to do it too." Allowing torture is not just wrong on a basic level of human rights; it's also wrong because at some point down the line, some unlucky soldier, diplomat, or government representative may needlessly suffer because some nation, government, or group has decided that it too can afford to ignore international protocols. It's not about coddling terrorists or prisoners; it's about providing equal protections across the board.

Additionally, I've commented on Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. The portions concerning habeas corpus are the one part of this odious bill that I think will ultimately be defeated, or at least retarded; the Supreme Court has made it clear that there are fundamental legal rights and protections that Bush and his cronies cannot tamper with. Still, the fact that our Congress thought it was okay to limit habeas corpus depresses me, makes me sick to my stomach. The path to tyranny, throughout history, has been marked by actions such as these: the abrogation and termination of the rights of the individual versus the rights of the state.

Finally, the evisceration of the War Crimes Act infuriates me. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al have stated that they view the Geneva Conventions in a dim light; indeed, Alberto Gonzales called portions of the Conventions "quaint" and "obsolete." Yet they are obviously perfectly aware that what they are doing is wrong. If the acts permitted under this government are legal, then they have nothing to worry about. Why fight it out in the courts? Why try to amend and change laws? I grew up believing immunity was something granted only to criminals; why does our gummint need immunity? For a better opinion piece on this matter, see here.

It isn't just those of us on the left or in the center that harbor serious doubts about the events of the last few days. Even Andrew Sullivan has come out stating that this "kind of political pressure... is breath-taking and shameless."

There comes a time when every nation faces a turning point in its history. A time when a nation either grows, expands, and rises beyond its past to new heights; or a point where it plateaus, or in many cases, begins to slowly stagnate, and eventually fall. In the case of our United States of America, over the last few days, we've faced a crossing that will place us on an irreversible path. I fear that today we crossed a moral Rubicon.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Deaf Literary Salon

As you already know from numerous previous posts, I have a Thing for Books. There's five bookcases here, and an additional 20-odd boxes of books in storage. We're rapidly running out of space, but to me, books are treasures. They transport you to other places, times, and planes of existence. Books aid the imagination, and believe me, the imagination is a wonderful thing.

But I don't know that many folks in my life who are as crazy about books as I do. My once and future walking partner is definitely one, and I've met kindred souls throughout the years. Thus we were delighted last year to be invited to a book club. Although the invitation was extended a while back, we didn't have the opportunity to experience the group until this summer.

Our first foray into the club was in July, when a small but hardy group of us met to discuss Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. I had only vaguely heard about the book, but was looking forward to reading something new. While I wouldn't herald it as the best book ever, or in my top ten, it was an enjoyable book, and definitely provoked discussion. The session leader who chose this selection also picked our meeting place, a wonderful Spanish restaurant in the urban wilds of Echo Park (it was such a good restaurant that we've been back since, on our own!).

The responsibility for our next gathering fell to me, and I chose today for our small coterie to join spirits and minds once again. Since we were entering the month of September, with all that it brings-- fall, school, a return to the daily grind, I decided to go with a "back to school" theme and decided that we'd read The House of Dies Drear, by Virginia Hamilton. We would dissect said book at (yes) Chuck E. Cheese's in Burbank.

Our foray into juvenile literature was a great success. Hamilton's book is about a contemporary family, with the story's background focusing on the Underground Railroad. I had seen this book for years while growing up, but had never gotten around to reading it. When I did, I expected the book to be different than it was, but I ended up appreciating something different. It was the kind of book I would have read as a child (a book about historical events/themes), and worried the group would think I chose this book for that exact reason. But fortunately none of us had read it, all of us enjoyed it, and we certainly had a rather different atmosphere-- costumed mice, loud, flashy video and arcade style games, and edible pizza. My dark secret here is that I'd never gone to Chuck E. Cheese's before this.

I'm not sure what our next reading choice will be, but I'm glad to have the opportunity to participate in a literary salon composed of deaf members. It's gratifying to meet people I can discuss literature with, and it certainly demonstrates both the ordinariness and the potential of deaf people, a reality I wish a lot of parents, doctors, and other professionals would realize: deafness does not have to be a barrier. It's in the mind, and using the mind is the most important thing.

Ironically, I didn't realize when we met up for bland pizza, unlimited soft drinks, and skee ball that it was the beginning of Banned Books Week. This year's observance was the 25th anniversary. It's amazing the amount of censorship/attempted censorship that's out there in a supposedly free nation. Personally, I think it's idiotic; challenging a book will just result in more people who are curious about the book and willing to check it out and read it, compared with if they just said nothing. Some people will even take a perverse pride in reading banned authors; my grandmother's grandfather was an ex-Catholic who annually chose a book from the Index to give to my grandmother on her birthday. This defiance led her to be probably the most well-read child on her block.

If I had known about this beforehand, I probably would have picked a banned or controversial book. Still, suffice it to say, in spite of bland pizza and munchkins everywhere, our Deaf Literary Salon is fast becoming one of my most pleasurable outings.

Postscript: In the wake of my last post, there have been a couple of articles pointing to the seriousness of the healthcare situation in the U.S.; first, according to Reuters, 9 out of 10 Americans could not buy their own health insurance. Additionally, tuberculosis is in the news again, and it's not good news.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Teaspoon of Medicine, A Dose of Reality (and a Lollipop)

Every time I worry about things, or fret about the future, one thing I'm always thankful for (and need to remind myself!) is that I grew up with good health care. No matter how poor we were when I was little, or how hopscotch my benefits have been as an adult, I had a great dentist and a very good doctor. That's something not everyone has benefitted from.

I know in the near future I'll have to find a new dentist and a new doctor, and I do wonder if I can find good ones. But what really bothers me, when I sit and think about it, is how many people in this country do not have adequate access to medical services, how many people do not have medical insurance, and how many people do not have doctors or dentists at all.

One of the things many politicians don't talk about is reforming health care. By "reform," I'm not talking about cutting the public health rolls in regard to Medicare or other similar programs, but actually overhauling the system. HMOs are not the answer, and many people know it. Once upon a time, individual doctors ran their own practices, and could assume a great deal of latitude in terms of who they treated and for how much, the fee scales, and how to make allowances and still protect their bottom line.

Now, it's all done by faceless people in centralized offices who work according to pre-determined charts, formulas, and the like. Some procedures are approved; others are not. Premiums get higher by the year; co-pays go up in tandem.

While I'm not necessarily in favor of providing FREE health care for everyone (I think it should be a progressive system, akin to taxes-- the more money you have, the more you should chip in), I do think there needs to be a massive change; if not universal health care ( a single-payer system), then a new way of accessing medicine than the system that we currently have now. I also think our leaders and politicians not only need to be talking about this, but constantly coming up with ideas of their own.

That's why I'm disappointed in Herr Gropenfuhrer, who is currently the governor of my home state. He has in the last couple of weeks indicated he would veto health-related bills. The first was a bill championed by State Senator Sheila Kuehl that would have provided universal health care.

Today, he vetoed an employer health care bill, advocated by State Senator Carole Migden, that would have required companies to either provide health benefits for their employees or pay into a state health fund. Both times, he claimed it'd be too expensive, and wouldn't solve our problems.

Ok, fair enough. Let's hear YOUR proposals then, Governor. Because I can't really respect someone who talks a good game, but doesn't walk the walk. The problem as I see it isn't so much as one of who pays what, or who *should* pay what. The problem I see right now is two-fold.

1) the system we have isn't working. More and more people are underinsured or uninsured, including children. More people are using emergency rooms for non-emergencies, which in turn comes back to all of us, in higher bills, premiums, and taxes. People are paying through the nose because of high co-pays on pills, and sneaking over the borders to Canada and Mexico, either in person or on-line, to make sure they have their medications. When you have problems like these, that indicates that it's *not working.* That means you don't veto bills; it means you start talking about solutions, and crafting compromises.

2) disease doesn't affect one person; it affects many. When bird flu eventually strikes, or TB makes a resurgence (and in recent years, there have been troubling indications that TB cases are on the rise again), it's going to be difficult to localize and contain the spread of disease. In this era of globalization and rapid transportation, a disease that once took months, if not years, to spread from one corner of the globe to another will now take weeks, if not days. The increase in drug-resistant strains of bacteria and viruses means we are going to have to stay steps ahead if we want to manage disease. It certainly isn't going to help if people do not have access to doctors, to vaccines, to preventative health care.

When an epidemic hits, it isn't going to matter if you're rich or poor; it *will* matter if you have medical and dental care, and it will matter if you have access to medicines and vaccines. For some illnesses though, we have gone for so long without major epidemics that if one should arise, we're in big trouble. When your co-worker comes to work sick, she doesn't have a choice-- she can't take days off because she needs that paycheck. When your employee comes to work sick, he comes in that way because he doesn't have benefits, or the "benefits" he has aren't helping him to stay healthy. It not only costs your office/business in terms of productivity and profits, it also exposes you to whatever disease is being spread. A common cold today could very well be an outbreak of tuberculosis or something similar down the road.

This is why I'm not crazy about denying immigrants, both legal and illegal, health services. There may be legitimate reasons (or not) for barring them from a lot of services and benefits, but when it comes to health, I don't think any of us should be playing games with bacteria and viruses that could be simple- or not. This is also why I think we need to set our politicians straight-- not just Schwarzenegger, but everyone, from county officials up the ladder to Smirk himself. We need to have a national conversation about health care, and we need to come up with solutions sooner than later. No lollipops for our pols until they can stop just long enough from vetoing solutions that others come up with, and start coming up with solutions of their own.

Monday, September 11, 2006


Today, of course, is September 11. There's so much out there on the web, I'm not sure I'd do any good by adding to it. Although it's our collective national tragedy, it has more meaning to New Yorkers and the denizens of DC who were there that day, those who experienced the pain firsthand.

Two places in the deaf blogosphere that I think are good places to remember and share are Ridor's blog, where he's posted his own memories of that day, and invited his readers to do so. If you feel a cathartic need to share with a community, I recommend heading over there, or a similar site.

A fellow lover of history has posted a lovely, haunting poem in remembrance of 9/11. To experience Der Abschied, go to Bellamoden.

In remembrance. 9.11.01

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Mr. Sandman Wuz Here 9/9/06

One thing that bugs me when I go to arboretums, greenhouses, conservatories, and the like is seeing how visitors treat the flora. Most people are respectful when it comes to flowerbeds, plants, and the like. But each time I see a solid tree, or a stand of bamboo, any number of idiots have carved their names, their girlfriend du jour's name, their kid's name, their alma mater's name, their gang's name, their parole officer's name, their birthdate, their social security number... you get the picture. I'll be admiring the scenery, ready to take a picture, and it'll end up with the background looking like a schoolyard or a bulletin board.

My traveling companion shares my sentiments. Her solution? As punishment for carving on a tree or bamboo, the perpetrator should be equally carved up.

Sounds good to me-- anyone got a pocketknife?

Friday, September 08, 2006

It's Definitely Fall

As of last night, pro football season is here again. Time for me to start reserving my Sundays in front of the TV, and actively reading the sports page in the Monday papers again. Of course, I still cheer my beloved 49ers, even though most experts, forecasters, and pundits predict they'll be at the bottom of the heap this year.

That's ok-- I know Alex Smith is looking good so far, but has a ways to go. The team has shed quite a few old-timers and leftovers from the glory days in the last few years, and is a young team, ready to grow and move on. Now if they'd just hang on to a coach and let him grow as well. I swear, the NFL loves to devour its young, and cannibalize their own sometimes.

Like I said, we had our day in the sun-- the SF 49ers *were* the 1980s, and were a dominant team during the 90's as well-- the days of Montana and Young are legend. Speaking of legends, Jerry Rice finally retired. I have mixed feelings about that-- on one hand, the days of Rice, Lott, and Montana were the best years, and he spent most of his career with San Francisco. I can't begrudge him the chance to retire as a 49er.

BUT the man went and left the team-- not only that, he went over to the ENEMY. The Raiders. The Oakland/LA/Oakland again Raiders. There are two teams I have never been crazy about: the Raiders, simply because they're rude assholes, and crosstown rivals to boot, and the Dallas Cowboys. What can you say about a team where half the roster are felons or felon-wannabes? They're not as rambunctious or tinged with potential criminal elements as in past years, true, but I'm not a fan, nevertheless.

So while I'm glad Rice saw fit to retire as a 49er, there's a part of me that wants to deny him that-- a TRUE 49er would have stuck with the team through thick and thin. It isn't like he earned another ring by hanging out across the Bay, you know?

What do you think? Should I cut Rice some slack, and be happy that #80 came back for one final time? Or should I consider him to be an ex-49er, a fair-weather player?

As long as we're on the topic, who are YOU rooting for this year? What's your favorite team, and why?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Governmental Hypocrisy

Gummint officials are funny people: they'll say one thing one minute, then the next they'll do a complete about-face, all the while claiming that what they're saying *now* is what what they *really* meant all along. There's a simple word that sums up the previous sentence: hypocrisy.

Our Farter-in-Chief has been running around the last week or two, giving speeches about "terra." His latest public missive concerns the transfer of fourteen (fourteen that we know of, anyway) suspects to Guantanamo from overseas prisons.

Overseas prisons? Yep, that's right. Smirk has admitted the CIA spirited captured individuals to secret prisons. These prisons are apparently located in European nations, which has EU members pretty ticked off (see here as well). The U.N. isn't too happy either, and nor are national and international organizations such as Amnesty. Seems there's a pesky issue that crops up every now and then, called human rights, and abuses thereof.

This isn't to say that the capture and interrogation of terrorists should cease; on the contrary, I doubt any sane person, Republican OR Democrat, in this country would advocate just letting them go. But as far as treaty obligations, military procedures, and a basic sense of humanity goes, there should be a bright line between interrogation and torture. When you have places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, with the abuses we've seen in those places the last few years, it probably doesn't stretch the imagination to picture the secret prisons as being, well, something quite a bit worse.

It's not just the fact that information obtained through torture could potentially be fabricated (if someone was torturing you, just how quickly do you think you'd say anything, *anything* to get your captors to stop? A romp through the history of legal jurisprudence, in this country and many others, will turn up cases where some were railroaded due to confessions elicited under pressure). It's also the perception of the United States as a nation of laws. If we ignore our laws, if we develop double standards, then how can we expect the rest of the world to follow our lead? How can we expect other nations to emulate our system? I've spoken of this before, here and here.

The United States is a republic, the oldest "democracy" presently existing. I also happen to believe it is the best and most advanced nation in recorded history thus far. We as a nation, and as a people, have a responsibility to ourselves and to the rest of the world to be the best we can possibly be. This isn't to say that we should be or we are perfect; no nation, group, or individual ever is. But we should definitely limit our contradictions, our conflicts of interest, our hypocrisy, as much as possible.

Back to Smirk's speech. The part I found the most amusing (not in a hilarious manner, mind you, but in more of a "mm-hmm, yeah, right" way) was his statement:
"I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world: The United States does not torture," Bush said. "It's against our laws, and it's against our values. I have not authorized it, and I will not authorize it."
Perhaps he never formally authorized torture, and under a different leader, I'd applaud this restatement of basic values. But this is the same man who attached a "signing statement" to the McCain Detainee Amendment (a bill the White House fought tooth and nail to defeat), essentially declaring that Smirk feels that he has the right to insert a loophole in the bill, and allow torture if he chooses to do so. Mind you, this is a bill that states that torture is "against our laws" and "against our values." By issuing this amendment, Smirk is in essence tacitly authorizing the use of torture should he deem it so.

So you'll pardon me if I'm somewhat cynical about Smirk's latest pronouncement. This is an amendment that garnered the support of all but nine Senators (Wayne Allard (R-Colorado), Kit Bond (R-Missouri), Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), John Cornyn (R-Texas), James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)). This is an amendment that McCain, who is no stranger to torture, drafted using the same international standards and policies against torture that already exist. These aren't new rules he whipped up out of thin air, nor are they applicable to the CIA; the amendment concerns the Armed Forces only. It isn't even an extremely strong amendment; it was itself amended by the Graham-Levin Amendment, which allows the consideration of evidence obtained through torture, and expanded prohibitions against the use of habeas corpus by detainees. In essence, the bill is a toothless tiger. So it is hypocritical of Smirk to state he's against the use of torture when he, Cheney, and many others in the gummint fought against the amendment. It's hypocritical to then "accept" the amendment, but attach a "signing statement" which essentially invalidates the message contained within. It's hypocritical to subsequently piously state that he's against torture and would never authorize it. As it is, Amnesty International argues that with the various loopholes, torture is now more or less official U.S. policy.

To me, that means that not only is our gummint condoning torture in our names, it also means we don't have the standing to admonish nations like, oh say, China, for their human rights abuses. The Chinese, among others, know this, which is why our little lectures don't go anywhere.

Another interesting thing about Smirk's recent speech is his throwing down the gauntlet to Congress, urging that new rules be devised for the creation of military commissions to try the detainees at Guantanamo. This comes after the Supreme Court slapped the gummint's hand and issued a lecture of its own on the limits of presidential powers. As I previously stated in my post on the outcome of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld,
Why coddle "terrorists," you say? There's no need to coddle them. Either they are prisoners-of-war under the Geneva conventions and long-standing international military tradition or they are terrorists. If they are terrorists, they are criminals-- at least that's how I see it. What do you do with criminals? You try them, you convict them, you sentence them. You don't hold them for months and years at a time without charging them. What do you do with prisoners-of-war? You treat them according to Geneva, and you deport/repatriate them as soon as you can.
In the same post, I agreed with Neal Katyal that the present-day military judicial system we have should work just fine. Why waste more time dickering over a new set of rules? Why inject a power struggle between the Executive Branch (which is trying to expand its powers and influence as much as possible) and Congress (which is trying to reassert its Constitutionally mandated powers and restore the balance between the branches of government), when you can just use a system that's worked just fine before?

At the end of the Second World War, an international tribunal sat at Nuremberg, to try and bring to justice the war criminals of Nazi Germany. These proceedings had international support, they were as transparent as possible, and above all, they were relatively speedy. The war in Europe ended in May of 1945; the Nuremberg Trials took place in October and November of that same year. While the Nuremberg Trials are not without controversy (for example, the proceedings convened and progressed under its own rules of evidence), it certainly could be used as a template of sorts for the present time.

Obviously, the "War on Terror" is not a "conventional" war, nor can it be said to have "ended." But this doesn't mean we should abrogate U.S. or international law and our values by detaining indefinitely the prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere. It doesn't mean we should try them without allowing the defendants to know the precise nature of the evidence against them.

So far, Smirk's suggested course of action is meeting skepticism; even some GOP leaders aren't inclined to play ball. Lindsey Graham, for one, had this to say:
“It would be unacceptable, legally, in my opinion, to give someone the death penalty in a trial where they never heard the evidence against them,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has played a key role in the drafting of alternative legislation as a member of the Armed Services Committee and a military judge. “ ‘Trust us, you’re guilty, we’re going to execute you, but we can’t tell you why’? That’s not going to pass muster; that’s not necessary.”
Graham is drafting an alternate proposal that would allow defendants access to all the evidence against them. I'm hoping Congress is smart enough to adopt Graham's proposal-- it'll allow the application of some basic judicial principles to whatever system is ultimately crafted to try the prisoners.

Additionally, Smirk wants the War Crimes Act of 1996 amended to provide cover for U.S. personnel. Although this change is to be supposedly aimed at the rank and file in the Army and elsewhere, such a change would provide protection for people like Smirk and his White House cronies. I'm outraged by this; I don't think that we should pretend we are morally superior the rest of the world, because we aren't. Secondly, I think setting up a double standard is a horrible idea. Why should we insist the rest of the world abide by international law and pay for their crimes, but we shouldn't have to?

Ironically, this legislation was initiated by a rather conservative member of Congress, Walter B. Jones (R-NC), who intended it to be used to prosecute those who tortured or abused U.S. troops. As R. Jeffrey Smith wrote in the Washington Post, "Jones and other advocates intended the law for use against future abusers of captured U.S. troops in countries such as Bosnia, El Salvador and Somalia, but the Pentagon supported making its provisions applicable to U.S. personnel because doing so set a high standard for others to follow." Again, there's that notion of a high standard. How can we punish others for violations of the Geneva Conventions if we don't apply the same rules to ourselves? It's called hypocrisy.

Finally, the U.S. Army has amended its field manual, and has incorporated Geneva Convention principles within, such as banning torture and degrading treatment, specifically including nudity and the hooding of prisoners. Even if Smirk wants to continue to be a hypocrite, at least the Army is starting to correct their past actions. There's still a long way to go, but at least it's a beginning.