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All Will Be Revealed…Maybe

Vassar-CollegeThe following is from a letter sent to the alumnae/i of Vassar College and to the parents of the students currently attending the college from President Catherine Bond Hill prior to a discussion to address “…current issues and tensions within our community related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”  This writer is taking no sides in the current debate (yet), but feels that all sides require an airing out, since constructive engagement is clearly the only thing lacking at this juncture. As such, in the words of Shakespeare, “Judge when you hear”:

Vassar has as an abiding principle of “going to the source.”  As you likely know, it comes from history professor Lucy Maynard Salmon, who at the turn of the 20th century encouraged her Vassar students to use primary sources to do their research.  With so much being written in the media and on social media about these issues at Vassar, much of it without the benefit of primary sources at the college, we want to provide our alums and parents the opportunity to hear what is really happening on campus.

I would suggest that the op-ed about Vassar earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal fell far short of the principle of going to the source.  It would have been useful for the authors to come to campus to find out for themselves what is actually going on before writing the piece.  I have extended an invitation to them both to come to campus next week to meet with students, faculty, and members of the administration during our annual All College Days.

If they accept, they will see a vital community, grappling with some of the toughest issues of our time.  Activist students, supporting a variety of issues, are not necessarily committed to dialogue.  And, encouraging balanced programing and opportunities for discussion has been difficult.  But, we are making some progress.

Earlier this week, Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist and political analyst, spoke out against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to a supportive audience. Late last month our Jewish Studies program sponsored a lecture by anthropologist Aomar Boum, who discussed his research at the United States Holocaust Museum detailing a partnership between North African Jews and Muslims to fight racism and anti-Semitism.

In late January, with support from my office, the elected leaders of our student government, the Vassar Student Association, along with members from a variety of student groups with differing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, attended a training provided by the National Coalition Building Institute on addressing difficult issues. These kinds of events make us hopeful for even more productive and respectful exchanges.

This is not to say that we do not face difficult issues, we absolutely do. And, this includes incidents of anti-Semitism. Such incidents are in violation of our college regulations and policies and we do not tolerate them.  We denounce them. A recent e-mail I sent to the community denounced anonymous anti-Semitic comments on the social media platform Yik Yak, and our Dean of the College emailed students this week, urging them to treat each other with the respect that is called for by, and is central to, our code of conduct as a community. I have called on our students to think about the impact of their actions on others in our community.  I also have asked our community to call out actions that offend and harm others.

The recent speaker to campus who has attracted so much attention has also spoken at Harvard, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, and Wellesley to name only a few institutions both in the United States and abroad.  As academic institutions, we must be committed to academic freedom and free speech.  Just as I objected to the call for the American Studies Association boycott of Israeli academic institutions, I will defend the faculty’s right to bring speakers of their choice to campus.  I also will let the faculty who invited the recent lecturer speak for themselves.

Along with many others in the Vassar community, I am dissatisfied with the range of perspectives being presented on campus regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we are working to fill this gap.  While many people on campus work hard to do this, the megaphone effect of those who think they know what is going on but really don’t, damages those efforts. As I have said before, Vassar deserves, and demands, better.

The real tragedy here, of course, is that Vassar College needed to have this conversation at all. But it is foolish to assume that in the great halls of academia where freedom of thought, inquiry and opinion reign that prejudice does not exist. It does. It always has and it always will. Perhaps some important perspective will be found in the days and weeks to come and perhaps not. One thing is certain. A great institution of higher learning has some explaining to do.  Such explanations, however, will do little if people of good will are unwilling to listen. This is essential as listening is the foundation of understanding. It is necessary as understanding leads to healing.

We must remember, however, that bigotry, hatred and anti-Semitism are intolerable in a civilized society. As such, if there is a cancer in this place which so many of us love, it must be cut out, as surely as if were afflicting our own bodies. But a biopsy must nevertheless be done to determine how extensive the problem is. Is it a powerful malignancy comprised of many or the benign idiocy of a few? This we will determine. Some have suggested the patient is already too far gone; that we should now turn our backs and focus our efforts on those still worth saving.

I defy this notion.

Until Vassar College is dead and relegated to history, I, for one, will not allow those who seek to rip us apart because of our religious beliefs, who want wholesale bigotry to define this community, who have already decided that it is an irretrievable cesspool of prejudice or want only their side to be heard and no one else’s any semblance of victory of comfort.

We are Vassar. We are many and we are strong. Do not fuck with us.

The Fall of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and the New Decade of Republican Dominance

One observer noted in regard to the New Hampshire Democratic debate on MSNBC: “The debate was revealing, but the questions were even more so; arguments about how to arrange the deck chairs gave way to the realization that the Titanic is sinking.” It is heartbreaking to admit, but it now appears that the Democrats as a party are at least as splintered and dysfunctional as the Republicans are and perhaps even more so. This is especially agonizing as progressives have long been pointing and laughing at the GOP as a hopelessly fractured party; one that is ripping apart at the seams as more moderate factions within it are beaten mercilessly into submission by Tea Party extremists, rendering the entire GOP as impotent on the national stage. Democrats have become complacent in the Obama years as they have watched the right often flail in the wind as they attempted to impede progressive causes such as the Affordable Care Act, voting rights, environmental protection, gun safety, violence against the African-American community by police, reproductive rights, gay marriage and other important issues.

Now it appears that the shoe is on the other foot and it could not have happened at a worse time. In this election cycle, it is the Democrats who are becoming useless and impotent as their party becomes more and more splintered. Moderates in that party are now being beaten mercilessly by extremists on the left and to make matters worse, Democrats seem to believe that having the party collapse beneath their feet is a good thing, equating implosion with “robust discussion”, because you know…”The Establishment”! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEK! Cue horror movie theme music with the deranged killer ripping off his mask to reveal the face of Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Make no mistake. The Republicans are beginning to smell blood in the water and bile on the beltway. They realize that this is the moment they have waited eight long years for. They know that despite the handshakes and smiles on TV between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, their respective supporters loathe each other. On the GOP side, the vitriol generally comes from the candidates themselves. On the left, it comes from supporters of the two candidates against each other and few are willing to acknowledge the consequences if this behavior continues. Now, Democrats will of course say they want so-and-so to be the nominee but will support whoever is eventually on the ticket.

Anyone who believes that is delusional. It’s their candidate or nobody. Well, guess what? Nobody is going to wind up being a Republican. When Inauguration Day in 2017 comes, that man will have nobody to thank more heartily than progressives who hate each other more than a man who wants to take America to a 1950’s television sitcom world that Republicans believe was real but never actually existed.

I have seen nothing in the press, social media or polling data to even remotely suggest the Democrats will unite around their eventual nominee. This isn’t 2008. Each campaign’s supporters are using the tactics that the GOP developed and each is following that playbook to the letter. To Sanders supporters, Clinton is untrustworthy, endless scandals make her too much of a liability and offers nothing except what amounts to an Obama third term. Besides, she’s in bed with corporations and Wall Street. Clinton’s supporters say Sanders is an avowed socialist who Americans simply will not support in a general election with a plan for massive social programs that will never get past Congress. Besides, does he give any indication he’s the guy you want when that phone rings at the White House at 3AM? Karl Rove would be proud to call himself a Democrat today.

I hate to be a whinging pom, but it seems to me that Sanders supporters will not have any qualms about staying home on Election Day because they can find nothing positive about a Clinton presidency. In turn, Clinton supporters will all too gladly stay at home on Election Day because they can find nothing positive about a Sanders presidency. But I guarantee you the Republicans will not stay at home. They may not like their eventual nominee, but their blinding hatred of the Democrats is far, far stronger than the Democrats inevitable milquetoast support of their eventual nominee. Beware the power of the angry, white, male voter. He is a conservative who never liked Hillary Clinton and sees Bernie Sanders as a Communist and has far more fight left in him than the mainstream media is prepared to acknowledge. His fury, and those who feel as he does, will surely rocket the GOP all the way to the White House in 2016 as Democrats bludgeon their own to the point where it will be only a weak, battered and exposed shell of a candidate who actually makes it to Philadelphia this summer. The social media and beltway press infighting among progressives is exactly what the conservatives have been dreaming of.

“I,Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.”

Don’t like it? Get used to it. It’s probably going to happen.Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States unless the Democratic Party begins to find something good, genuine, decent, intelligent, positive and exciting about one of their candidates and begin to coalesce around that person. Not later in the primaries.


This is Terrorism…isn’t it?

Consider the following mass shooting scenarios: 1.) The Overland Park Jewish Community Center in Kansas, 2.) The Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado, 3.) The Emmanuel AME Church in South Carolina, 4.) The Inland Community Center in California and 5.)The Umpqua Community College in Oregon. In each of the 5 cases, multiple shots were fired with multiple fatalities. The identity of each shooter was not immediately known but authorities quickly made a determination and in some cases the perpetrator was captured and their backgrounds well established shortly afterward. The motive was not immediately clear in any of the cases but seemed obvious to most observers, especially to those who opine on television for a living.

Now let’s look a little closer. We will refer to the shooters as a singular “gunman” for argument’s sake and each shooting to be an “incident” or “engagement”.

A gunman at any Jewish center, regardless of ethnic background or religion, is going to be assumed to have anti-Semitic views. If the gunman is white, those views will be presumed to be neo-Nazi. The same is true with the incident at a Planned Parenthood. Any gunman will be presumed to have strong anti-abortion rights views and probably an evangelical or other Pentecostal Christian; possibly Roman Catholic. A white gunman opened fire at a predominately black church in the South. The logical conclusion is the motive is neo-Confederate, white-supremacist in nature. The incident at the Inland Community Center is presumed to be international terrorism because the gunman is Middle-Eastern in heritage and had made a trip to Saudi Arabia. The gunman in Oregon is reported to have had anti-religious or anti-government views in general but was also reported to have had long-term mental health issues. This makes it the only case where the justice system actually seemed to have a mass shooter with no discernible political, religious or ethnic axe to grind. Perhaps this was the only one of the 5 incidents listed above whom observers on the right quickly classify the perpetrator as “mentally ill”.

Setting aside incidents that are obviously criminal, such as a bank robbery or a narcotics related firefight, most Americans feel the inclination to see any mass shooting as “terrorism”. The FBI defines “mass shooting” as one where 4 or more people have been shot in one incident. Terrorism by definition is the use of violence to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, and as such, try and effect changes in government policy.  This presents us with an unsettling dilemma. Which, if any, of the incidents noted above, are “terrorism”, “hate crimes” or just “crime”? The answer is obvious. Who do you perceive the gunman to be? Your own ideology and worldview will shape how you view such incidents. You will be certain you know what really happened long before any hard facts arrive, long before the press conferences stop and the cable news talking heads fall silent.

Again, consider your perceptions if the following occurred:

What if the Overland Park Center incident was committed by an anti-religious gunman?

What if a Middle-Eastern man had engaged the Planned Parenthood in Colorado?

What if the gunman at the Emmanuel AME Church was black?

What if the Inland Community Center had been engaged by one gunman? Or multiple gunmen but all white?

What if the Community College in Oregon gunman had been devoutly and fervently religious but Jewish?

Suddenly, the line between what we define as “crime” and “terrorism” becomes blurred. Who is a completely sane yet dedicated fanatic and who is just “mentally ill” changes, does it not? What we want to see in huge red print on our online news feed or used as material for our particular political candidate is generally shaped not by facts, but by perceptions, which may turn out to be false and often do. We as Americans often like to say that someone is innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law. But we all know that is never the case in mass shootings. Definitions of who the gunman (or gunmen) are will always advance our pre-determined agenda. Events will be perceived in a way that suits our purposes for television and social media and will tend to prop up what we already know is going on.

Even if we actually have no idea.

The War On Drugs: A Conflict Really Nobody Wants to End

One can debate the merits of statements made by various public officials all day, but it really boils down to this. Until it is the official policy of the U.S. Government that marijuana is no longer classified as a Schedule 1 drug, Michele Leonhart, Director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, should not be fired for doing her job as the nation’s top drug enforcement officer. She will certainly not be fired and was very likely, even in her official capacity as DEA director, within her rights for criticizing the President’s remarks on marijuana use. But this needs to be put into perspective. The President made a comment expressing his views on the health risks associated with marijuana when compared to the health risks associated with consumption of alcohol. Fine. But he was not, as much as advocates for legalization would like to interpret his statements as such, setting official policy. It would be wonderful if everything the President said was official policy. But it isn’t. It may set the tone of a particular debate, such as it was when he expressed his views on gay marriage. But if everything President Obama said as a general comment or viewpoint became official policy, then there would be no debate on issues such as gay marriage, or income inequality, voting rights, healthcare, climate change, women’s reproductive rights, and yes, the legalization of marijuana among other things. It would also make us a dictatorship which nobody should want either.

A recent Huffington Post article notes that the Marijuana Policy Project issued a statement in regard to the comments made recently by Director Leonhart which said: “The DEA administrator’s continued refusal to recognize marijuana’s relative safety compared to alcohol and other drugs flies in the face of the president’s commitment to prioritizing science over ideology and politics…She is neglecting the basic obligations of her job and fundamentally undermining her employer’s mission. This would be grounds for termination in the private sector, and the consequences for Ms. Leonhart should be no different.”

This statement is laughable on its face.

First, the DEA director is not “neglecting the basic obligations of her job”. She is a federal law enforcement officer charged with (surprise) enforcing federal drug laws. Until federal drug policies change, it is not her responsibility or option to refuse to enforce said laws because of marijuana’s “relative safety compared to alcohol and other drugs”. To use this argument is akin to saying the NTSB should not enforce any laws regarding air travel because of its “relative safety” compared to driving an automobile. Also, it should be noted that this is not a private sector job and it is patently ridiculous to compare being the director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency with a job at a private company. In the private sector, you are terminated from your job when you aren’t making money for the corporation. The federal government apparently long ago accepted the calculus that enforcement of marijuana prohibitions would be an unprofitable enterprise yet continue to pursue this agenda without any signs of abatement.

As to her “employer’s mission” of “prioritizing science over ideology and politics”, I would point to the termination of NASA’s Constellation project in 2011 by President Obama himself which turned most of the United States’ attempts to return to the Moon and Mars to (you guessed it) private corporations. Also, to quote a recent article from the Huffington Post from this past September: “Federal spending on research and development has declined by 16.3% since 2010, the fastest drop in a three-year period since the end of the space race in the 1970s, according to an analysis published on September 3 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC.

The most drastic reduction occurred on March 1, 2013, when across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration lopped 5% from the budgets of most government agencies. Science powerhouses such as the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, and the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, began to scrimp by reducing the values and durations of grants, and the number of recipients per application cycle.”

This is the vaunted commitment to science the Administration supposedly champions?

Over the years, representatives of this government have said all kinds of outlandish and moronic things. Regrettably, most of them are still on the job. If we are going to start firing public officials because they say things we don’t like or that collapse under the weight of evidence, then maybe we ought to start with those in Congress who hold the national economy hostage on a regular basis until they extract a political ransom. Or members of the judiciary who are all too happy to undermine the most fundamental of rights we have as citizens, the right to vote, in areas where racial discrimination is still the order of the day. Or how about the guy in the White House himself, who apparently still considers the civilian loss of life in drone attacks to be mere collateral damage and continues the program with only token regret for the colossal loss of innocent life that accompanies it? Sorry people, but the director of the DEA is small potatoes compared to what others in this government say, and do, every day.

As an aside, marijuana advocates have been calling for the dismantling of the DEA and the firing of every director since the agency was founded in 1973. This kind of thing really isn’t news. Even if nobody said anything, there would still be calls for the DEA to be shuttered and the director to be dismissed. So let’s be honest, what’s the story here? Evidence to support the decriminalization of marijuana hasn’t changed official policy on the national level over the years. Change seems to be occurring only at the state level and even there it isn’t the smashing success many hoped it would be, at least not yet. If the only argument you have is that the DEA is an oppressive, Nixonian hangover, and that’s a major argument, then you stand on thin ice. This issue is becoming the left’s version of the right’s argument that the ATF should be dismantled. We as liberals really do not want to go there.

GOP Tests the Meaning of Insanity

Sometimes I simply cannot adequately express an opinion in the way it really needs to be said. As such, in honor of the 40th (that’s right…40th) time Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have tried in vain to repeal The Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) on August 2nd and House Speaker John Boehner’s recent statement on July 21st that “Congress should not be judged on how many new laws we create but on how many laws we repeal”, I offer this assessment of the idiocy currently plaguing the Lower House in Washington. In its zeal to simply oppose and dismantle anything and everything the President supports, I give you the words of the sublime Dana Milbank of The Washington Post. His words speak more eloquently, and bluntly, than I can on this lunacy…

GOP tests the meaning of insanity

By Dana Milbank
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Post
July 18, 2013

WASHINGTON — Well, this is embarrassing.

Republicans have made so many attempts to repeal “Obamacare” that the scorekeepers have lost count.

“Republicans,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., “voted to repeal it 40 times.”

“Their 38th vote to repeal,” Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, tallied Wednesday on the House floor.

“Thirty-nine times,” declared New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee.

“The House has tried nearly 40 times,” the White House asserted. 

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, wasn’t sure. The chairman of the Ways and Means Committee’s health subcommittee referred to criticism that “Republicans are trying for the 38th or 39th time to repeal Obamacare.” 

Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon observed that “my good friend, the chairman, couldn’t even reference exactly how many times they’ve tried to repeal it.”

But let’s not pick on Brady. All the tallies fall well short of the actual number of times Congress has voted to repeal all or part of Obamacare. It has done that — are you sitting down? — 67 times.

According to Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post’s fact checker, there were 37 votes to scale back Obamacare before two votes Wednesday in the House. But those 39 don’t include the Senate, where Reid’s office has documented 28 votes, all but a couple in the form of Republican amendments. This might explain the new findings that Congress is holding more votes than ever but passing fewer bills.

The 66th and 67th attempts went much like the previous 65, except for a mid-debate recess so that lawmakers could have their official photograph taken on the House floor.

“This bill is unraveling before us,” exulted Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, reported that “the train is not coming off the rails; it’s already off the rails.”

On the Democratic side, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan responded by saying, “Einstein observed that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again with the full expectation that the results are going to be different.” Actually, the quote is probably apocryphal — but Einstein didn’t live to see the 113th Congress.

The proposals on the floor Wednesday were relatively mild: One codified the delay in the law’s employer mandate already announced by the Obama administration, and one extended the delay to the individual mandate. And Republicans weren’t entirely logical or consistent in advancing these proposals. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, accused the Obama administration of ushering in “socialism,” while Brady argued the contradictory position that the White House is “just listening to the voices of business” and ignoring “Joe Six-pack.”

But Republican lawmakers were clear about one thing: The tally of attempts will continue to rise.

“Postponing the two mandates are only the latest steps to repeal Obamacare,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida said on the floor.

Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana explained that “each day this law is delayed gives us more time to seek its total repeal.”

The overkill isn’t irrational. As The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff noted, research shows that people resist regulations more vigorously if they think the requirements will eventually be repealed. “If it’s 37, 38, 39, I don’t care,” Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., said this week. “If we do it 100 times, sooner or later we’ll get it right.”

And so Republicans continue to tee up the repeal votes — far more than anybody realized.

“Thirty, 40 times we’re talking about repealing it,” protested Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y.

Or was it, as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., posited, “the 38th time”?

“I kind of lost track,” confessed Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C.

It’s OK, Congressman. So did everyone else.

The Death Penalty: Murderers, Rapists, Spies and the Inequity of Capital Punishment

The United States is one of the few western countries that still has the death penalty. Whether one supports or disapproves of capital punishment is not the focus of this discussion. Rather, capital punishment’s implementation as the ultimate penalty for certain crimes I believe can say a great deal about who we are as a society; that is to say, what types of behavior we as a society absolutely do not allow under any circumstances and will not forgive and, perhaps more importantly, what offenses are not considered so heinous and unforgivable as to merit the offender forfeiture of his life as punishment.

The use of the death penalty among the states has been limited to offenses resulting in the death of another person and generally only if that death is held to be pre-meditated. The 1977 U.S. Supreme Court case of Coker v. Georgia, (433 U.S. 584), a case where the defendant was convicted of aggravated rape and sentenced to death, essentially held that the death penalty was “grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment” for this crime. The ruling ultimately restricted the states to applying a vigorous proportionality test to determine if any given crime warranted the death sentence. As a consequence, virtually all state offenses other than murder are prohibited under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution as cruel and unusual punishment. Seventeen years later, The Federal Death Penalty Act was passed as Title VI of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. In passing this legislation, use of the death penalty under Federal law was codified far more broadly than that the states. In this act, Congress established constitutional procedures for imposition of the death penalty for 60 offenses, including 28 new Federal capital offenses, which “…fall into three broad categories: (1) homicide offenses; (2) espionage and treason; and (3) non-homicidal narcotics offenses.”

I now turn to recent events that have brought the use of the death penalty into sharp focus. The first involves the matter of Ariel Castro, 54, of Cleveland, Ohio, who was charged with 977 felony counts for the kidnapping and abuse of 3 women in the Cleveland area over the course of nearly a decade. The indictment included 512 counts of kidnapping, 446 counts of rape, and 2 counts of aggravated murder. The latter charges stemmed from Mr. Castro’s repeated beatings of his victims which resulted in the termination of pregnancies that he himself had caused through raping them. On July 26, 2013, Mr. Castro entered into an arrangement in which he pleaded guilty to 937 felony charges and was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole plus 1,000 years.

The second involves Edward Snowden, 30, a former CIA employee and contractor for the National Security Agency. Mr. Snowden absconded with 4 laptop computers containing highly classified information detailing surveillance efforts by the NSA and the British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) against American and British citizens domestically as well as foreign governments, some of them allied with the United States and leaked the data to the press.  On June 14, 2013, while in hiding at Russia’s Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Mr. Snowden for espionage and theft of government property.  The espionage charge, under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, carried with it a possible sentence of death. On July 26, 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder submitted a letter to his Russian counterpart, Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov, assuring Russia that the United States would not seek the death penalty if the government in Moscow would return Mr. Snowden to U.S. custody.

Here we have our quandary. For so many of us, after learning the horrifying details of his actions, most of us felt that Ariel Castro must be executed. As a society, we could not conceive that the sheer volume of so many monstrous acts committed over such a long period of time would merit anything but death for the offender. But one could argue that because he did not commit pre-meditated murder, Ariel Castro could not have faced the death penalty. The aggravated murder statutes for which he faced execution derive from a “fetal homicide” law which provides for capital punishment if a pregnancy is terminated unlawfully. Ohio is one of 38 states that have such a law on the books. It has been argued that if Mr. Castro had gone to trial, his defense could have overcome these charges or had them dismissed, as the state would have to prove that Mr. Castro knew his victims were pregnant and that his beatings were the specific cause of the miscarriages beyond a reasonable doubt. There is no provision in any state law to allow for the execution of a person for the totality of crimes committed over days, years or a lifetime. To put it succinctly, the vast majority of Americans recently polled (excluding those ardently opposed to the death sentence as a matter of principle) feel that Ariel Castro should die for his crimes. The reality, however, is that were it not for what amounts to a quirk in Ohio law passed only in 2002, as horrific as his crimes were, Mr. Castro would never have faced the ultimate penalty.

As for Edward Snowden, although he has not committed murder or any other act coming anywhere close to the standard imposed in the Coker decision, the Federal charge of espionage nevertheless carried with it the possibility of the death penalty. The drama that has played out in the media regarding Mr. Snowden’s flight to avoid capture and extradition back to the U.S. to stand trial for the crimes he has been charged with has often hinged on whether or not the death penalty would be imposed if he was convicted of espionage. It is no surprise that Attorney General Holder had to make assurances to Russia specifically regarding the death penalty with regard to Mr. Snowden. In today’s world, it is logical to conclude that any information whatsoever placed on internet could easily be found by “enemies of the state”. As such, we are left with the difficult task of trying to redefine what “giving aid and comfort to the enemy” constitutes. In a time of war or if the accused is a soldier at war, the task is less difficult, although the case of PFC Bradley/Chelsea Manning has proven it is by no means an easy one either. But is disseminating classified information to the press and by extension the public in whose name such secrets are kept to protect, so unforgivable a crime that the offender must lose his life for it? Unless we know that what Mr. Snowden has in his possession could have the immediate result of causing the death of others or putting lives in grave danger, the automatic consideration of capital punishment for espionage seems harsh. The last time this country had this particular discussion was in 1952. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted for conspiracy to commit espionage in a time of war for passing technical information about the atomic bomb to Soviet Union and subsequently executed.  Are we prepared to compare Mr. Snowden’s activities to that of the Rosenberg’s?

As a final thought, I return to Coker to wonder if it is not appropriate to add aggravated rape to the list of offenses punishable by death under state or even Federal law. If we are prepared to execute non-violent offenders such as drug runners, spies and people who did not actually commit murder but were only accessory to the crime, is death not a fitting punishment for a person who commits the most vile act one human being can commit against another? In so many instances, rape survivors have often said they would rather be dead than continue to be haunted by the anguish, humiliation and terror of that moment. Some greater action must be taken if we are to honestly purport to be a country that actively supports the rights women to be secure in their persons from such sickening violations of their bodies.

I wonder if the justice system can or should be changed. If our current laws do not allow the state to punish those whose crimes are so beyond society’s capability to punish through conventional means such as life imprisonment, should there not be a mechanism for which special charges may be brought against such offenders? Perhaps in the case of Mr. Castro, there could have been a provision in Ohio law to allow the state through the Attorney General’s office to petition the Ohio Supreme Court for a writ that would allow prosecutors to charge him with a general “Crime Against the People of the State of Ohio” that carried with it a sentence of death. Also, as a civilized society, what message do we send when we are prepared to level the ultimate penalty against a man who is the final analysis is a naïve and petty thief, who with poor judgment exposed to the world the secret that they too were being watched without just cause?

The death penalty again is supposed to deter violent crime and punish those who cannot be rehabilitated back into society. If given a choice between a man who has essentially commits grand larceny and leaks classified material to the press or a man who kidnaps three women and holds them in a basement, rapes and tortures them over a period of several years, who do we strap to the table for lethal injection? Both men in the end will be punished. But  I submit that when the state must employ execution as a means to maintain order, then maybe we always have contend with the hard questions  from men such as Castro and Snowden and ask those questions over and over again without resolution. Two individuals on opposites ends of what we consider “offenders” and “criminals”, two men who are different in almost every way, but nevertheless both at one time staring at the exact same fate. If there was ever a time to reconsider the law’s use of the term “grossly disproportionate”, this would be good time to have that conversation.

Well, THAT was a waste of perfectly good taxpayer dollars…

Lost among the torrent of news saturating the internet today regarding the birth of Kate and William’s son who shall one day rule a nation slightly larger than Oregon that is not this one, something of great consequence in this country was being grossly underreported. A federal judge blocked the enforcement of North Dakota’s new abortion law, which was one of, if not the most, restrictive in the United States. The law, scheduled to take effect on August 1, would have banned virtually all abortions in that state beginning at 6 weeks as opposed to 28 weeks, which is the measure laid down in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland, ruling for the plaintiff in the case of MKB Management v. Burdick (13-cv-71, U.S. District Court, District of North Dakota), stated in his ruling “The state of North Dakota has presented no evidence to justify the passage of this troubling law…The state has extended an invitation to an expensive court battle over a law restricting abortions that is a blatant violation of the constitutional guarantees afforded to all women.” As the order blocking enforcement is temporary, Judge Hovland gave the parties involved in the case 30 days to let him know whether to schedule a trial on the merits of suit. Comments from the state government in Bismarck are pending as of this writing.

I suppose what I find to be most startling aspect of these cases is the vigor with which Republican controlled legislatures in states houses across the country pursue the most restrictive laws on reproductive rights possible. It’s amazing to consider the Herculean effort that is put forth in so many states to restrict a woman’s right to choose and I often find myself watching with wonder as GOP controlled state houses go through a kind of legislative Bataan death march to pass these restrictions where ultimately the entire process follows the same outrageously predictable, costly and unnecessary storyline. In each body of the legislature, there is first seemingly endless debate or in certain cases none at all, as an attempt is made to railroad the legislation through without any chance for opposing views to be heard and documented. Sometimes it is necessary for the bill’s proponents to amend or even completely ignore the rules of procedure, thus insuring the proposed legislation won’t fail prematurely through parliamentary maneuvering by the opposition. There are also, of course, the public protests and citizen testimony on both sides of the issue that sometimes famously go into the night, day after day for sometimes weeks on end and all with the accompanying bad press that inevitably follows the abortion debate, regardless of whether you support such legislation or not. Finally, after exhaustive work or sheer guile, the bill is passed and finds its way to the governor for his signature. It’s always seems to be “his” signature which I find very telling.

In the end, the fruits of their labors always appear to literally wither and die on the vine. All the work put forth to accomplish these goals is usually for nothing, as legislators watch as their new laws are promptly blocked by the federal courts as unconstitutional. It was suggested to me by a colleague that certain GOP legislators go through what he termed “abortion histrionics”, as it is part of the current Republican raison d’être to legislate as far to the political right as possible. There is a desire to appeal to a base that they are convinced will remove them from office, one way or the other, if they don’t pass unimaginably conservative laws to regulate our behavior. The irony, of course, is that the true extent to which such a constituency wields enough political clout or can bring out sufficient voters to level a credible threat toward lawmakers is uncertain. So it is that these legislators generally know these abortion restrictions are never going to pass muster in court but they try it anyway.

The motivation behind these Sisyphean endeavors I believe is two-fold. First, it pacifies that very dedicated (and mysterious) conservative base which they are convinced will make or break their political careers unless all women, regardless of circumstance, are compelled by the state to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, even one caused by rape or incest. Second, there are those odd true believers within the Republican party that are convinced that even though their efforts will fail when initially challenged in court, they hope to eventually find their bill at the U.S. Supreme Court and thus challenge and perhaps overturn Roe v. Wade, thereby allowing them to claim final legislative victory and bring moral correctness to a nation they see as hopelessly lost and damned for a collective promiscuity that exists only in their heads. They never consider that all would happen in the eventuality of Roe v. Wade’s dismissal is the decisions regarding abortion rights would return to the states, defeating the grand vision of a pure and chaste America that needn’t worry about the problems of women who refuse to simply put an aspirin between their knees.

There is something foul about the continued efforts to restrict abortion rights that go beyond the dictatorial and onerous desire to keep women from exercising their individual rights by controlling their bodies by force of law. Judge Hovland expressed it well his use of the word “expensive” in his ruling. These efforts are not simply misogynistic, which is bad enough. They are a waste of the taxpayer’s money. It costs plenty to litigate these matters and the eagerness of certain lawmakers to keep dipping into the people’s coffers to fund their own personal moral crusade should offend even the most politically conservative among us. What’s worse, they know these laws are doomed to collapse under legal scrutiny, which makes their efforts all the more odious.