Thursday, January 29, 2009

IN Touch: Reminder to Republicans

My fourth post on The Indianapolis Star's IN Touch blog is now online. Oh, and in case you missed it, my third post ("Ties That Bind Us") was published in The Indianapolis Star on Sunday, January 25, 2009.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Guns in Dorms!

For every good bill introduced in the Indiana General Assembly, there are a handful of bad bills. And each year there are also a handful of bills that are so bad that they are just idiotic. Senate Bill 12 (authored by  Sen. Johnny Nugent, R-Southeast Indiana) is the winner (at least so far) of dumbest bill of the 2009 legislative session. The bill would add one new chapter (consisting of once sentence) to the Indiana criminal code:

A state educational institution may not regulate in any manner the ownership, possession, carrying, or transportation of firearms or ammunition.

When I first saw this bill I presumed that it was in response to the tragic events at Virginia Tech University and Sen. Nugent’s letter to the editor of The Indianapolis Star (in response to an opinion column opposing the bill) confirms that presumption. While I understand (well, kinda…) Sen. Nugent’s desire to allow college students to pack heat in order to protect themselves from nutcases who might be intent on violence on campus, it doesn’t take much thought to see why SB 12 is a really, really bad idea.

Let’s consider a few things. First, most students don’t live by themselves on campus. Thus, the gun, when not carried by the student, will likely be sitting in a dorm room to which many other people (roommate(s) and friends, for example) will have access. My freshman dorm room was often a bit like Grand Central Station and there weren’t many good hiding places. And remember that college roommates don’t always get along (I used a jar of gefilte fish when I needed a little privacy; my Korean roommate preferred to use his mom’s kimche). Fights among roommates (whether merely verbal or escalating to something more) are not uncommon. Add to this brew the fact that we are talking about young adults, many of them away from home for the first time, often under a great deal of stress (presuming that they are taking their studies seriously). Do we really want to introduce guns into that situation? Oh, I forgot to mention alcohol. Last time that I checked, use of alcohol (and even drugs) was fairly common on college campuses. And we know how well guns and alcohol mix.

And let’s go back to Virginia Tech for a moment. I suppose that the shooter might have been stopped had another student been armed. Maybe. But unless the other armed student (students?) really knew their way around their firearms, how much collateral damage (i.e., other students) would have been caused. Police officers undergo extensive training before being allowed on the street with a weapon, but virtually anyone can obtain a license to own a gun. If you are the parent of a college student, would you be comforted to know that your child might be protected from a crazed serial killer by other students with concealed weapons? Or, are you more concerned that those weapons will pose an even greater danger to your child than the rare serial killer?

And ask yourself this: Why limit this statute to colleges? Why not allow guns in high schools or hospitals or courtrooms? Maybe if the passengers aboard the planes on 9/11 had been armed, they would not have been hijacked (of course, the passengers defending the planes might have shot out windows and caused the planes to crash anyway…)! Maybe we should require everyone to have a gun! Yeah, that’s the ticket. If we all have a pistol on our hip, an assault rifle on our shoulder, a few grenades on our belt, and maybe a rocket launcher strapped to our back, no one will mess with us and we’ll be free of crime and violence forever! Of course one little misunderstanding could get pretty ugly, very quickly, but I guess that is the price that we should pay for safety, right?

Sarcasm aside, I think that guns are dangerous. They are supposed to be. But when it comes to college campuses, I think that students will be much safer in a gun-free environment. Sure, from time to time someone may come along with a means and motive to do harm. That, unfortunately is part of our society (of course, if that person had a more difficult time obtaining a gun in the first place…). But to address that rare occurrence by allowing yet more weapons is simply asking for trouble and yet more  violence. We should be looking for every opportunity to reduce the chance of gun violence rather than increasing that chance in order to reduce the isolated really bad instances of gun violence.

Please call your legislators (remember, you can check the Indiana General Assembly’s “Who Are Your Legislators?” page to learn who your legislators are and get their contact information) and tell them to oppose Senate Bill 12.

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Playing a Little Offense

Finally, some on the left (or maybe just center) have decided to stop playing defense in the Indiana General Assembly and have, instead begun to offer bills to counter some recent efforts by the religious right. Allow me to offer two examples that have been introduced in the latest session.

House Bill 1317 (authored by Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond) and its companion Senate Bill 258 (authored by Sen. Jean D. Breaux, D-Indianapolis) would require schools that adopt an abstinence-only sexual education curriculum to notify parents of that curriculum choice. Parents would then have the option to have their child excluded from that curriculum. More importantly, the notice from the school’s principal about the use of an abstinence-only curriculum would tell parents:

Your child is receiving abstinence-only human sexuality education.

Abstinence-only education does not teach students how to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases other than by remaining abstinent.

Your child is not receiving the following:

     (A) Information on methods, other than abstinence, for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
     (B) Medically accurate instruction on the risks and benefits, including safety and efficacy, of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved methods for:
          (i) reducing the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS; and
          (ii) preventing pregnancy.
     (C) Medically accurate instruction regarding the correct use of FDA approved methods for:
          (i) reducing the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS; and
          (ii) preventing pregnancy.
     (D) Instruction that provides lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students with the necessary skills for making and implementing responsible decisions about relationships and sexuality, including the use of all effective methods to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
     (E) Instruction that provides sexually active students with the necessary skills for making and implementing responsible decisions about relationships and sexuality, including the use of all effective methods to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

You have the right to review the abstinence-only curriculum in its entirety. Written and audiovisual educational materials used in abstinence-only education are available for inspection.

You have the right to excuse your child from all or parts of abstinence-only instruction.

You have the right to be involved in your child's education.

There are several points to be made about this bill and the notice that it would require. First, for years, those on the right have argued that parents, not just school administrators, should be making decisions about education. This bill follows that philosophy, but, for a change, is giving parents a say in academic curricula decisions that are important to the religious right.

More importantly, look again at what the the notice to parents would say. I suppose that proponents of abstinence-only education will argue that a child in an abstinence-only program does, in a fashion, learn some of the things mentioned in the notice; after all, abstaining from sex will prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Of course, that argument presumes that abstinence-only education works. Studies have shown (see for example, “Experts say US sex abstinence program doesn’t work”) that abstinence-only programs do not lessen teen pregnancies, reduce the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, or delay the age at which children become sexually active. Children in such programs who do become sexually active will not, as the notice reminds parents, have learned those skills and lessons. For that matter, those children, when they become young adults and do become sexually active (even those who wait until marriage), still will not have received the appropriate education on these subjects.

As fellow blogger Masson notes:

Might as well require [school principals] to send out a notice saying, “Hi, we’re being criminally negligent with your child’s education. How soon would you like our resignation?”

I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer that my children had the facts (and medically accurate facts at that) instead of making decisions in an knowledge vacuum.

Please call your legislators (and you can check the Indiana General Assembly’s “Who Are Your Legislators?” page to learn who your legislators are and get their contact information) and tell them to support House Bill 1317 and Senate Bill 258.

House Bill 1238 (authored by Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis) and its companion Senate Bill 20 (authored by  Sen. Sue Errington, D-Muncie) is, in essence, the opposite of the pharmacist refusal bill that I wrote about during the 2008 session of the Indiana General Assembly. Last year’s bill would have given a pharmacist legal cover for failing to dispense legally prescribed medications on the basis of the pharmacist’s religious beliefs. House Bill 1238, in contrast, would require that a pharmacy dispense properly prescribed contraceptives in accordance with the way that the pharmacy dispenses other medications (and, if the pharmacy does not carry the prescribed contraceptive, the pharmacy would be required to obtain the contraceptive or locate the closest pharmacy that does carry the prescribed contraceptive). Even more importantly, the bill provides that “the pharmacy will not intimidate, threaten, or harass the pharmacy's customers in the delivery of services”. In the other words, the pharmacist could not attempt to bully the patient into not using the contraceptive. It seems like such a simple proposition, yet I suspect that this bill will face fierce opposition.

Please call your legislators (remember, you can check the Indiana General Assembly’s “Who Are Your Legislators?” page to learn who your legislators are and get their contact information) and tell them to support House Bill 1238 and Senate Bill 20.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

IN Touch: Ties That Bind Us

My third post on The Indianapolis Star's IN Touch blog is now online. I wrote the piece as I listened to President Obama's inaugural address.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

LibraryThing: "Paul of Dune"

I've updated my LibraryThing catalog with a brief review of Paul of Dune [Heroes of Dune #1]by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. Now I'm reading The Walk-In by Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo.


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I Could Talk About Gaza...

I could write more about Israel and Gaza or the upcoming inauguration or the Franken-Coleman dispute in Minnesota. Or I could look out my aunt's window here in Aspen (Snowmass Village, to be more precise):

The real world will have to wait until I get back from vacation.


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Thursday, January 8, 2009

When the News Media Gets it Wrong … Or Doesn’t Even Try

On Tuesday (January 6), while driving home, I found myself listening to NPR’s coverage of the ongoing conflict in Gaza. While I am a big fan of NPR, I have always been left cold by their one-sided, poor coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yesterday’s coverage proved the rule, rather than the exception. During All Things Considered, co-host Melissa Block interviewed Ahmed Abu Hamda, a Palestinian News Producer who works with NPR and other organizations (I’ll return another day to the use by Western media of Palestinian news producers). During the interview, Block asked Abu Hamda about the use by Hamas of the Palestinian populace as human shields (alluding, apparently, to the Israeli strike against the United Nations administered school in Beit Hanoun):

BLOCK: The claim from the Israeli military has been that Hamas uses the population within Gaza basically as human shields, that they infiltrate what would be civilian sites. And that's why some of these places have come under attack. What do you think about that?

HAMDA: I think this is totally wrong. It's a war media. It's an advertising for themselves. Why? Because UNRWA School has been targeted by the Israeli fighters.

BLOCK: This would be the United Nations school that was targeted.

HAMDA: Exactly, exactly. And innocent people, most of them are wounded and killed. There are no fighters in the UNRWA schools. I challenge them if they have - they say that even they have on tube - that they shoot each rocket and they have it on video, on the YouTube why they shot that rocket or whom they were targeting. I bet them, if they can't approve that if there was a militant or a rocket launched from that school.

Neither NPR nor Block followed up on the “challenge” posed by Hamda. Which is truly unfortunate. Why? Well, watch this:

The building in this video is the UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun that Israel targeted yesterday. Yes, the video is a year old, but the fact remains that Hamas has used the school as a place from which to fire at Israel. Moreover, given the efforts to which Israel goes to minimize civilian casualties, it seems highly unlikely that Israel would have launched a strike against a school, let alone a UN-administered school, without sound reason.

(I know that many will disagree with the basic prospect that Israel seeks to minimize civilian casualties. But think about it for a minute. If Israel didn’t care about minimizing civilian casualties, couldn’t it or wouldn’t it have already inflicted far, far worse damage with far higher civilian casualties?  More than 1.5 million people live in Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, yet in 12 days of fighting, there have only been several hundred deaths. That is less than half the total number who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Israel could flatten Gaza if it didn’t care about civilian casualties; but it does…)

Later in that same interview, Hamda described going to the Shifa Hospital in Gaza and talked about the wounded that he saw. Block asked him about seeing “militants” in the hospital:

BLOCK: You saw young men. You did not see Hamas militants. How do you know when a young man is or is not a Hamas militant?

HAMDA: OK, when someone, Hamas militant, is targeted, where do you think he'll be targeted? Now they are on alert, on war alert. Each Hamas member will be wearing his weapons, will be wearing his war uniform. It will be very clear. But what I see, a mother crying next to a young guy, OK? So it's very, very clear. Very obvious. You can recognize that. A fighter is a fighter.

Again, rather than following up on any of this, Block ended the interview. She did not, for example, ask Hamda why he would expect to see weapons on wounded men in the hospital or why he would only expect to recognize “militants” from their “war uniform” especially given that Hamas is not a uniformed army. Block didn’t ask Hamda about reports that Hamas has set up an independent hospital to treat its own wounded (and for which it steals supplies destined for civilian hospitals). Nor did she press Hamda about the report from Haaretz that I cited yesterday:

The sources also said that senior Hamas officials have been spotted more than once wandering around the maternity ward of Gaza City's Shifa Hospital and even using the hospital to hold press conferences, on the theory that it offers a safe haven from Israeli fire. For the same reason, Hamas forces have taken refuge near buildings that serve as headquarters for various international organizations, such as the Red Cross and the United Nations.

Why does NPR allow “commentary” (disguised as a news story) from a Palestinian “news producer” without critical analysis and without opportunity for a rebuttal statement from an Israeli spokesperson? For that matter, had Hamda seen senior Hamas members at the Shifa Hospital, how likely is it that he would have said such to NPR?

Of course, this poor reporting is only one example of the problems that the media exhibit in reporting on the conflict. For example, still on the subject of the attack on the Beit Hanoun school, how many media outlets reported this official statement from the Israel Defense Forces:

After an investigation that took place over the past hour, it was revealed that terror operatives from Hamas's military wing and a mortar battery cell, which were found in the school, were firing on IDF forces in the area.  Hamar operatives Imad Abu Askhar and Hassan Abu Askhar were amongst terrorists that were identified at the school.

If the IDF has enough information to identify not only what was found in the school but to actually name two of the terrorists, shouldn’t the media at least offer a bit more than “big bad Israel attacked a school”? Even more critically, how many news media reports included the following:

Residents of a Gaza neighborhood are confirming Israel's claim that Hamas militants had opened fire from the cover of a U.N. school where hundreds of Palestinians had sought refuge.

Two residents say a group of militants had fired their mortars from a street near the school, then fled into a crowd of people in the streets.

And consider what the UN has to say about the conflict. The Washington Post reports that John Ging, the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza said:

The civilians in Gaza have international rights to be protected not by verbal protection, but actual protection.

Um. Just curious now, but what about the civilians in Israel? Don’t they have international rights to be protected by rocket and mortar fire from Gaza? What has Ging said about that? What has the United Nations done to protect Israelis? And why does the United Nations permit Hamas to use its schools and hospitals as staging grounds for attacks on Israel?

It is worth considering the official statement from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which concludes:

During its operations in Gaza, the IDF is making every effort to comply with the two basic legal tests of international humanitarian law: (1) are the targets legitimate military objectives and (2) is an action likely to cause disproportionate damage to the civilian population and their property.

Israel faces a particular challenge with regards to determining the legitimacy of intended targets. The presence of civilians in an area of conflict does not stop a military objective from being a legitimate target. This is both the letter of international law and a reflection of state practice. The deliberate positioning of Hamas military targets among Palestinian civilians presents a problem with which Israel must consistently contend.

The Iranian-backed Hamas, as a matter of strategy, refuses to uphold one of most fundamental requirements of international humanitarian law - that of distinguishing between combatants/military instillations and civilians/civilian properties. It follows therefore that while Israel does all it can to avoid harming non-combatants, under international law, any collateral injury to them is the responsibility of the Hamas, which deliberately chooses to operate from civilian structures and fire behind human shields.

(Emphasis in original.)

Three other semi-related stories are worth mentioning. First, there is this report from YnetNews:

A number of reports from the Strip paint a picture of very difficult humanitarian conditions, not least because of Hamas itself. The suspicion is that the group's operatives have seized control of any supplies passing through the crossings – including those sent by Israel and international organizations.

Reports say Hamas takes a cut out of all aid that arrives, including flour and medicine. Supplies intended to be distributed without gain among the population is seized by the group and sold to the residents, at a profit to the Hamas government.

One such incident was recorded Monday, when a convoy of trucks carrying supplies through the Kerem Shalom crossing was opened fire upon and seized by Hamas gunmen. Similar incidents occurred with trucks carrying fuel. 

In other cases, civilians are simply used as cannon fodder or human shields. Reports out of Gaza say residents who attempted to flee their homes in the northern area of the Strip were forced to go back at gunpoint, by Hamas men.

The organization is presumably interested in increasing civilian casualties in order to give rise to international pressure against Israel. Arab media reported that in an IDF strike on a UN school 30 civilians were killed, but there is no legitimate way to prove gunmen were among those killed as Hamas tends to bury these bodies quickly, thus eliminating evidence in Israel's favor.

Other civilian complaints state that Hamas gunmen pull children along with them "by the ears" from place to place, fearing that if they don't have a child with them they will be fair game to the IDF. Others hide in civilian homes and stairwells, UNRWA ambulances, and mosques.

In other reported cases Hamas gunmen hold civilians hostage in alleyways in order to provide themselves with a living barricade to ward off IDF forces.

Of course, none of this makes it into Western news reports.

Then there is this story about a “mistake” from French television station France 2:

France’s public broadcaster was forced to apologise to viewers yesterday after it mistakenly used amateur footage shot in 2005 to illustrate a report on the current Gaza conflict.

France 2 television on Monday broadcast part of an amateur video presented in a voiceover commentary as showing the fallout from an Israeli air strike on a civilian area in Gaza on January 1.

Dating from September 2005, the video, which has been widely circulated on the Internet, actually shows civilians wounded in the accidental explosion of a pick-up truck loaded with Hamas rockets at a rally in Jabaliya refugee camp.

Alerted by the French website, France 2 admitted its mistake yesterday and made a formal apology to viewers in its midday news broadcast.

“It is an error on our behalf. There was an internal malfunction in the checking of information,” a France 2 executive told AFP.

Why do I put the word “mistake” in quotes? Could it be, perhaps, that: (a) this video has been posted on the Internet numerous times with the false claim that it shows the result of an Israeli strike but that those claims are almost always immediately shown to be false (the video can be seen here; the comments are illustrative) or (b) that France 2 has previously been shown to have aired pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli television footage that it knew or had reason to know was demonstrably false? In fact (and this will be a great subject for another post some day), France 2 filed a libel claim involving accusations that it knowingly aired false video. Guess what? France 2 lost.

Finally, an Israeli basketball team set to play a team in Turkey yesterday had to flee the court when fans began throwing bottles at the players and shouting, among other things, “Death to the Jews”. The team had to be escorted back to their hotel with heavy police protection.


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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Do As Norm Says, Not As Norm Does

Since election day, political junkies like me have been following the never-ending recount process in the Minnesota Senate race between incumbent Norm Coleman and challenger Al Franken. If you remember, after election day, Coleman held a razor thin lead; however, as the recount progressed (and the sides battled about this vote and that vote, the recount methods, what to do about missing ballots, and numerous other issues), Coleman's lead narrowed, narrowed, and eventually disappeared. Yesterday, Franken was declared the winner. So what now?

Well, the day after the election, Coleman held a news conference:

"Yesterday the voters spoke. We prevailed," Coleman said Wednesday at a news conference. He noted Franken could opt to waive the recount.

"It's up to him whether such a step is worth the tax dollars it will take to conduct," Coleman said, telling reporters he would "step back" if he were in Franken's position.
Coleman also said that there was "too much at stake for a recount":

Now that the recount has been completed and Franken has been named the winner, Coleman says that he wants to "take the time to get it right" and, to that end, is filing an election contest lawsuit challenging the results of the recount. Senate Republicans have said that they will filibuster the swearing in of Al Franken pending the resolution of any lawsuit that Coleman might file.

In other words, when Coleman thought that he was the winner, there was "too much at stake" but now that he has lost, he wants to be sure to "take the time". Hmm. Nothing like a hypocritical politician that can't even take his own advice... Too bad the "new" Al Franken can't write a comedy sketch about this farce.


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Hamas and Babies: Let’s Compare and Contrast

Two brief stories about the ongoing conflict in Gaza serve, I believe, to underscore the real difference between Hamas and Israel when it comes to respect for civilians and to demonstrate that it is Hamas, not Israel, that is the true perpetrator of war crimes and terrorism. First, on January 6, Hamas launched another rocket attack against Israel and this rocket attack penetrated further into Israel than any other previous rocket attack. The rocket exploded in the town of Gedera (about 28 miles from Gaza). A three-month-old baby was wounded in the attack. Yet, back in Gaza, Hamas leaders were taking refuge from Israeli military strikes. Where? According to Haaretz:

The sources also said that senior Hamas officials have been spotted more than once wandering around the maternity ward of Gaza City's Shifa Hospital and even using the hospital to hold press conferences, on the theory that it offers a safe haven from Israeli fire. For the same reason, Hamas forces have taken refuge near buildings that serve as headquarters for various international organizations, such as the Red Cross and the United Nations.

In other words, while Hamas lobs rocket after rocket into Israel with the express intent to hit civilian targets, wounding babies in the process, Hamas’ leaders take refuge in a maternity ward precisely because they know that Israel, out of respect for civilians and efforts to minimize civilian casualties, would not be likely to attack a maternity ward. At the same time that Hamas ignores the sanctity of human life and the moral obligation not to intentionally target civilians, it relies upon and takes advantage of the fact that Israel does recognize the sanctity of human life and the moral obligation not to intentionally target civilians. What kind of barbaric society would use its own babies as human shields? The same kind of barbaric society that would use its youth as suicide bombers.

When one side to a conflict intentionally targets civilians and intentionally uses human shields, there shouldn’t even be the need for a discussion about which side is committing war crimes or whether efforts to stop such actions are unjust.


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Monday, January 5, 2009

Letter to the Editor Printed in The Indianapolis Star

While I work hard to keep the thoughts and opinions expressed on this blog separate from things that I do on behalf of organizations with which I am affiliated, I do want to note that a letter to the editor credited to me (as president of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council) and David Warshauer (as past-president) was printed as the "My View" featured commentary in Sunday's (January 4, 2009) edition of The Indianapolis Star. Apparently, my second IN Touch blog piece was scheduled to be printed but was scrapped for the more important (and longer) piece.


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