AMERICAblog NewsAnhvinh Doanvo – AMERICAblog News A great nation deserves the truth // One of America's top progressive sites for news and opinion Thu, 14 Jun 2018 19:55:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 As elections are delayed, Palestinian leaders suppresses free speech Wed, 14 Sep 2016 17:07:01 +0000 Pro-Palestinian activists must stand against all rights violations equally, including by Palestinian leaders.

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On September 8, the Palestinian high court in Ramallah postponed the Palestinian local elections due for October.

Against the backdrop of Israel’s ludicrous arrest of a Mohammed el-Halabi, a director of the multibillion dollar World Vision charity, finger-pointing immediately ensued. Both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority accused one another of foiling the election for political reasons. With their arbitrary arrest of journalists, West Bank and Gaza have joined Israel as they politicize their judicial system to demonize inconvenient actors and suppress criticism.

Just as the Israeli military has tried tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians in their courts and beaten arrested children, the PA has repeatedly tried and sentenced Palestinian journalists in military courts. Several prisoners have reported being beaten and starved repeatedly.

The PA’s concern for a forecasted Hamas victory in the local elections has led to continued harassment of journalists in the civilian court system. Charges of libel are regularly leveled against the PA’s critics, and while those arrested may never be sentenced, recurring court adjournments extend the burden of trials disproportionately.

In Gaza, Hamas’s record of violating rights of speech and the press has likewise been long and distinguished. This past week, Hamas police arrested and assaulted Muhammad Othman, a Palestinian journalist. For the first half of this year, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms has reported 22 violations of press freedoms by Hamas in 2015, 43 by the Palestinian Authority, and 133 by Israel. Beatings of prisoners seen in West Bank repeatedly occur in Gaza as well.

Because of how Israel’s political leaders have oftentimes stigmatized UN-affiliated NGOs and critics promoting Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic, media coverage has frequently characterized the challenges faced by human rights organizations in Israel and Palestine as a conflict between NGOs (who are at times alleged to be anti-Semitic) and Israel. Since neither Hamas’s nor the PA’s rhetoric against human rights organizations has taken the center stage, these two governments appear to be apathetic, but not violently reactive, to NGOs’ criticism.

But Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have discarded the rights of the press too often to hold the moral high ground on human rights. Their relationships with NGOs and the press are forged out of political convenience, rather than genuine respect for democratic governance. While Hamas’s 2011 laws restricting NGO activity may have been forgotten, Hamas and the PA have continued to silence their critics to compete in the local elections.

Political leaders like Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein are just as guilty of attacking basic civil liberties as those who support Israeli airstrikes without question when they condemn Israeli rights violations while ignoring Palestinian censorship. This sort of identity politics breeds intolerance, violence, illiberalism, and tyranny that is antithetical to the values that BDS and pro-Palestine rights activists claim to espouse.

The movement against Israel’s illegal settlements, the assassination of journalists tied to Hamas, and the blockade that starves economic development cannot maintain its legitimacy if it fails to fight for reform in the very governments it seeks to empower. Only by standing against all rights violations equally can pro-Palestinian activists keep a Palestinian flavor of tyranny from replacing Israel’s human rights violations in the next decade.

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The Russia-US truce in Syria leaves an Islamist mess Mon, 12 Sep 2016 16:44:12 +0000 With no official documentation publicly available, the latest Syria cease-fire negotiated by the US and Russia has been criticized as unusually vague, nontransparent, and weak. But in the seemingly incoherent array of US policies and alliances between secular and Islamist fighters, the agreement is merely a prelude to a Syria with Islamist groups like the […]

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With no official documentation publicly available, the latest Syria cease-fire negotiated by the US and Russia has been criticized as unusually vague, nontransparent, and weak.

But in the seemingly incoherent array of US policies and alliances between secular and Islamist fighters, the agreement is merely a prelude to a Syria with Islamist groups like the 20,000-strong Ahrar al-Sham, that epitomize how Syrian politics will always stubbornly transcend US and Russian interests.

Despite having perhaps as many fighters as ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham has received little public attention from the US media. Based near Aleppo, it has a record of human rights abuses, including a massacre of Alawite civilians alleged by Russia and the Syrian government in May 2016, and another of Christian civilians in March 2015. It has continued in recent months with the establishment of Sharia courts, giving them license to arbitrarily abduct civilians including human rights activists, women, and children.

As an ally of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly named Jabhat al-Nusra), Ahrar al-Sham has previously had a close relationship with al-Qaeda. One of its early leaders, Abu Khalid al-Suri, previously fought alongside al-Qaeda, and it received mentoring from al-Qaeda during AQ’s attempts to establish a foothold early in the Syrian revolution. Hawkish analysts have thus taken Ahrar al-Sham’s Sharia courts as evidence of its path towards a (presumably anti-American) Syrian theocracy, as though its foreign policy might be antithetical to Saudi Arabia’s pro-American sentiments.

Russia and Syria have seized upon these abuses and have repeatedly called for the United Nations to designate Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist organization. But that can only happen with unanimous consent from the 15-member UN Security Council. Britain, France and the US have blocked such designations, perhaps because of some speculative reports indicating that Ahrar al-Sham is cooperating with the Free Syrian Army.

Ahrar al-Sham’s recent rhetoric has been favorable towards the West, contrary to neoconservatives’ beliefs: in May, it disavowed ties to Al Qaeda, and in August it announced that the US has the potential to play a “positive” role in the Syrian war. According to the Long War Journal, Ahrar al-Sham’ brand of Islamism is unique, having been partly modeled on the Taliban: one that tolerates all Sunnis and is willing to engage in “normal politics and diplomacy” without monopolizing governance.

This presents a rather awkward scenario for those who see the War on Terror as one exclusively against Islamism: Ahrar al-Sham, as a group that may be valuable to the Free Syrian Army’s Aleppo operations and has been at least lukewarm to US involvement and a multiparty Syria, has executed civilians and established conservative Islamism in its own territories. And while condemning Al Qaeda, it has continued to cooperate with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

The mess has been muddied even further as its branches have issued conflicting statements both for and against the ceasefire.

So long as US and Russian policymakers think they can simplify the Syrian conflict as one for or against Bashar al-Assad and Islamic “terrorism”, Western involvement will continue to collapse under its own platitudes. As groups like Ahrar al-Sham demonstrate, Syrian rebels are not simply pro-American or anti-American. Syria’s future likewise will not fall into simplistic categories like “Islamist” or “secular”.

Syria’s rebels represent a diverse array of perspectives, each with a different vision for what Syria and its international relationships should be. When the US and Russia arbitrarily condemns or supports certain rebel groups for their politics, the West is unwittingly writing the future of Syria’s politics.

Just because a group like Ahrar al-Sham has espoused strict conservative interpretations of what Syria’s culture should be and does not mean it is wholly opposed to the idea of a multiparty state. Even its previous support for al-Qaeda’s core is not a simple issue when viewed through an American hawk’s lenses.

The only thing that has been consistently clear in Syria’s civil war is realpolitik: rebel groups and foreign actors like the US operate under fluid alliances and ideologies based on convenience rather than three-way false dilemmas of “Islamic terrorism” vs. “secular rebels” vs. Assad’s dictatorship. Rather than treating Syria as a confusing conglomerate pro-West/anti-West actors, it’s time Syria was understood as a country. Syria’s people are not America’s or Russia’s to bend.

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The media is grossly inflating ISIS’ reach Thu, 11 Aug 2016 14:17:34 +0000 The media is grossly exaggerating when it claims that the Islamic State now operates in “18 countries.”

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The global string of terrorist attacks linked to the Islamic State has broadened the debate over the War on Terror.

Combating ISIS not only means fighting its core in Iraq and Syria, but also supporting US soldiers in Libya, while also supporting wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and more.

The reality isn’t so straightforward. Though ISIS has claimed responsibility for the deaths of over 1,200 people in attacks in 21 countries outside of Iraq and Syria, larger terrorist organizations have arranged only a fraction of incidents labeled as ISIS attacks. Branches with a strong link to ISIS have claimed even fewer attacks.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the self-declared ISIS-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) was accepted by ISIS in the Dabiq magazine, ISIS’s main propaganda publication. American media widely cited the pledge as evidence of its link to ISIS central.

The ISIS flag.

The ISIS flag.

But according to the Pentagon, “command and control and funding from core ISIL is limited” for ISIS’s Afghanistan branch. Though BBC named ISIS-K’s first leader, Mullah Abdul Rauf, as an ISIS commander, Rauf founded ISIS-K as an offshoot from the Taliban. Commanders had called for the split when they began to lose faith in the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, with his long absences.

The media was even more careless with the July attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The New York Times labeled it as an attack directed, and not merely inspired, by ISIS. The NYT seems to have taken ISIS’s claim of responsibility at face value even though Bangladeshi intelligence has pinned the blame on Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). JMB has been “involved in 11 recent attacks” according to the Hindustan times.

Though JMB has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, it has existed for nearly two decades—far longer than ISIS—and its attackers are focused on and from Bangladesh. Ending JMB is likely to have little impact on ISIS and vice versa.

This does not mean that ISIS in Iraq and Syria does not have substantial international connections. The Islamic State’s Libya branch’s first leader, Abu Nabil al-Anbari, spent time in Abu Gharib prison for his support of ISIS in Iraq immediately after the country’s 2003 invasion.

But ISIS’s branches around the world present a bewildering array of various alliances, rather than a plot with a single source in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State—Sinai Province (ISIS-IP), which took down a Russian airline in late 2015, presents the epitome of this puzzle. Though it may have received funding from ISIS central, individual ISIS-IP cells remain loyal to Al-Qaeda, which has condemned the Islamic State’s brutality multiple times.

The media is grossly exaggerating when it claims that the Islamic State now operates in “18 countries.” By imagining an expanded influence of ISIS, they are consistently overlooking the challenges unique to each nation that faces armed rebels.

Ending the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will not end its supposed branches or solve the problems of countries in which they fight. Likewise, targeting ISIS central’s supporters outside of Iraq and Syria will not contribute to Iraqi or Syrian stability.

If anything, this misleading narrative is playing into ISIS’s propaganda, tying all bombings to ISIS regardless of whether they would have occurred without ISIS. It even undermines peace efforts outside of the Middle East, as combat takes the center stage over the real origins of terrorism: corruption, human rights violations, and horrific discrimination against minorities.

So long as the media refuses to recognize Jamaat ul-Mujahideen, Boko Haram, ISIS-Khorasan, and dozens of other groups as separate from ISIS, the legacy of the press’s simplifications will be endless war, not public accountability.

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More conservative Islam-bashing from the Daily Caller Wed, 10 Aug 2016 12:00:46 +0000 Conservative media is now lying about a Muslim pool party in France in order to bash Islam.

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The Syrian refugee crisis has become political cannon fodder for a supposed clash between Muslim and Western values.

Donald Trump and American conservative media like the Daily Caller have claimed that “political correctness” will let Islam impose its (immensely diverse) set of values on Europe and America.

But whenever they take offense at other religions, conservatives are showing that their idea of “religious freedom” and “political correctness” have been built upon rightwing lies and identity politics.

This past week, the Daily Caller’s Jacob Bojesson has gone so far as to cite a source that contradicts his Islamophobic point. His August 4th story had a headline which read, “Water Park In France Bans Non-Muslim Outfits,” referred to a waterpark in Marseille, France.

This “ban” will only occur on one day, September 10th, from 10 AM until 6 PM. Why? Because the pools’ owners had no involvement in the ban—Smile13, a private organization created to foster friendship among Muslim women, reserved the pool for a private event for its members. It asked its members to wear “burqinis”—a full-body, open-faced swimming suit—when attending.

Let’s be clear here: a one-day private event, that the public has no interest in attending, paid for by a private religious organization aimed at fostering friendship, whose members can withdraw at any point in time, is not a “ban.”


Women wearing hijabs, via Shutterstock.

The conservative media’s vilification of Islam is stretching into the presidential election, with Trump himself saying that he’d consider firing female TSA agents wearing hijabs (head coverings).

At the same time, Republicans in Florida and other states have employed the ruse of “religious freedom” to vote against protecting LGBTQ populations from workplace discrimination. When questioned, they continue to defend themselves against “politically incorrect anti-Christian bigots.”

There is no other way to describe Trump-era conservative principles on religious freedom and “political correctness” as anything other than patently hypocritical.

The Republican platform pledge “to defend religious beliefs” is intended to protect the right of Christians to discriminate against LGBTQ and Muslim Americans, without also protecting the rights of gay and trans people, or Muslims.

Trump-era conservatives are only interested in “defending” their own religious beliefs, with little regard to defending anyone else.

Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson would have called their shameless fight nothing less than a sloppy endeavor for a tyranny of the majority.

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Jill Stein thinks WiFi is dangerous Wed, 03 Aug 2016 20:08:04 +0000 Anyone who thinks Jill Stein is a valid alternative to Hillary or Trump should read about her actual views.

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The cringe-worthy Trump-Clinton race has led some Bernie Sanders’ supporters to shift their support to protest candidates like Jill Stein.

As a true liberal, they say, she is eminently qualified to lead the progressive movement. However, her actual positions say otherwise.

For example, at a campaign event this past March she called the use of technology in education a “corporate ruse.” According to Stein, “we should be moving away from screens at all levels of education.” Stein also has concerns about the safety of WiFi — she says we “should not be subjecting kids’ brains to that.”

The World Health Organization disagrees, noting noting that radiation “exposures from base stations range from 0.002% to 2% of the levels of international exposure guidelines.” Humans, in fact, absorb up to five times more radiation from FM radio and television than from WiFi technology.

Tin foil hat cat via Shutterstock.

Tin foil hat cat via Shutterstock.

Animal studies have also demonstrated no link between WiFi and cancer, “even at levels that are much higher than produced” by wireless networks. And scientists have observed no adverse effects relating to brain function, body temperature, or other physiological functions.

The greatest health risk from electronic devices is not the radiation they produce, but rather their encouragement of a sedentary lifestyle. Still, condemning President Obama’s initiatives for expanding computer programming and software education in schools as a “corporate ruse” in essence condemns the progress of science and society itself.

It’s clear that Jill Stein’s candidacy is more a war of words than a sincere effort to confront the complex realities of public health and all the other issues facing this country.

Like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, Stein is seems more interesting in pointing to the angriest voice in the crowd and amplifying it, without regard for the scientific truth.

Stein should be focusing instead on the potential conflicts of interest between the revolving doors between regulatory agencies and the private corporations they control, or are controlled by. Doctors themselves should be brought under the scope of her campaign, as many are paid to promote more expensive, but biochemically identical, drugs to their patients.

These conflicts of interest have had real consequences: According to a 2013 Gallup poll, the Food and Drug Administration has been rated about as positively as the CIA and the EPA, with just 45% saying that they are doing a good job, as opposed to 60% for the CDC.

Citizens that do not trust health-related agencies and their doctors have few incentives to follow the health guidelines by medical professionals. With Stein’s background as doctor-turned-politician, she is in a unique position to push important issues like this to the forefront.

But despite her medical education, Stein has chosen to go down the mendacious road of identity politics. Her fight as an anti-establishment candidate is not leadership for a chicken in every pot, but deceit for a tin foil hat on every head.

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More Syrian civilian casualties Fri, 22 Jul 2016 17:51:39 +0000 The low estimate says 56 civilians were killed, including 11 children.

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While the United States was transfixed by the Republican National Convention, wire reports of an American airstrike killing dozens of Syrian civilians began pouring in. The low estimate from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) says 56 civilians were killed, including 11 children. This leaves US Central Command’s (CENTCOM) reports of the same strikes as targeting “ISIL tactical positions” in Manbij, and indeed, its entire system of accountability for civilian deaths, comically questionable.

Locals reported even higher death counts of 160, and as many as 212, fanning the flames calling for an investigation into the deaths. And the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) called for a moratorium on US airstrikes until the deaths are investigated, as the killing of civilians could “prove to be a recruitment tool for terrorist organizations.”

The current system, however, makes the SNC’s request tactically unfeasible: Recent press releases from US-CENTCOM show that the results of investigations are typically released two to seven months after the investigated incidents—long after they have faded from public consciousness.

Even when CENTCOM finally responds, numbers are likely to diverge significantly: By August 2015, the SOHR estimated that 181 civilians were killed in coalition airstrikes, while US-CENTCOM reported the death of only two.

The same incongruities have been observed in the Obama administration’s recent fact sheets on total civilian deaths due to drone strikes outside of Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Early July, it said that such operations had killed between 64 and 116 civilians and over 2,500 combatants. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, along with other sources, has reported much higher numbers: it estimated that in Pakistan alone, between 257 and 634 civilians, including 66 to 78 children, were killed by 2009.

To be fair, the US government has surveillance capabilities that far exceed those of any one nongovernmental organization. The fog of war makes it impossible to trust any single source. The same SOHR cited here has been guilty of labeling incidents of Kurds torturing and evicting Sunni civilians on a mass scale as “isolated incidents”, despite the confinement of thousands to “security zones” reported by the Human Rights Watch.

But because the President’s report does not even break its numbers down by time, let alone by specific incidents, it is impossible to identify any potential reasons for the disagreements between third parties and the government and improve both sides’ methodologies.

Given the classified and ambiguous criteria used, the results of CENTCOM’s and POTUS’s previous studies leave our military’s estimates bordering on the absurd. It cannot claim to be conducting the “most precise (aerial assault) in history” when Syrians are looking to US-backed forces thinking “they were coming to finish ISIS, but it seems they are finishing us first.”

Real leadership in the war on terror demands accountability for the world after ISIS and Al-Qaeda, but it seems like no politician or policy-maker is interested in planning for a Syrian society beyond today’s war.

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After ISIS: Iraq gets ready for a civil war Thu, 14 Jul 2016 16:52:44 +0000 With the Islamic State’s loss of 45% of its territory in Iraq over the past two years, we may be approaching the end of the war on ISIS. The conflict’s progression nevertheless raises hard questions on the potential resurgence of Sunni insurgencies like ISIS as American and Iraqi governments have failed to rein in destabilizing groups operating […]

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With the Islamic State’s loss of 45% of its territory in Iraq over the past two years, we may be approaching the end of the war on ISIS.

The conflict’s progression nevertheless raises hard questions on the potential resurgence of Sunni insurgencies like ISIS as American and Iraqi governments have failed to rein in destabilizing groups operating in Western Iraq. So long as murder, torture, and other human rights violations recur with impunity among Shiite forces operating in Sunni Iraqi provinces, there will be little reason to remain optimistic for the stability of Iraq.

During the capture of major Sunni cities from ISIS, the Iraqi army’s inefficiency demanded supplementation from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a counterinsurgency umbrella group composed of 100,000-120,000 volunteers operating under numerous, mostly Shiite, militias. In many of the largest battles, Shia PMF militias have played a larger role than indigenous Sunni militias—they’ve made up a third of the forces recapturing Ramadi and Fallujah, and two-thirds of the fighters retaking Baiji and Tikrit. In Tikrit, Shiite PMF outnumbered Sunni militiamen by 20,000 to just 1,000.  In each of these cities, Sunnis comprised the majority of the population, with as many as 90% of Ramadi civilians being Sunni.

Contrary to pro-Shia sources, the PMF’s commitment to the fight against ISIS has demonstrated sectarian aims with little respect for Sunni civilians, not the rebirth of Iraqi nationalism. In Tikrit, 200 Sunni civilians were abducted, and several hundred Sunni homes were demolished by the Shia Hezbollah Battalions and League of the Righteous Forces. Reports of Shia PMF indiscriminately targeting civilians in Ramadi remain unclear, but more recently in Fallujah, they tortured more than a thousand civilians, beating them while dragging them by car. In every Sunni, they see an inhuman enemy, with a militiaman saying that “80%” of Sunnis are part of ISIS.

The PMF’s human rights violations have virtually become a national security risk—the intelligence community has said that because of fears of the Shia militias’ participation in the fight against ISIS, “Iraq’s Sunnis will remain willing to endure some deprivation under ISIL rule.”

To reign the PMF in, and perhaps because militias are prohibited by Iraq’s constitution, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi adopted the PMF as part of Iraq’s armed forces earlier this year, while calling for the appointment of thousands of Sunnis to the PMF. A prison was also established for human rights offenders last year, but these measures have translated into little accountability.

According to the Human Rights Watch, more than 90 men of the Hezbollah Battalions tortured at least 600 civilians during last month’s Fallujah assault, but as of July, only “four or five” were arrested. Basam Ridha, the Washington representative of the PMF, said that “The reality is that they do cover for each other,” making it impossible to find credible witnesses. “They have done a lot of vicious activities… but they get away with it.”

American narratives have hardly helped. Brett McGurk, the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, dismissed the PMF’s violations as “isolated atrocities” just as reports of the mass murder of 300 civilians by PMF forces were appearing.

Today’s incidents of murder, torture, and genocide are not “merely” issues for diplomats—they are tomorrow’s paths to Iraq’s downfall. The US cannot expect Sunni civilians to root out insurgents so long as the justice system remains broken, and Shiite militias can freely murder and torture any Sunni that vexes them. When the Islamic State falls, the dominance of the Popular Mobilization Forces will renew insurgencies fighting against Kurdish and Shiite rights violations, and will tear Iraq along sectarian lines.

And Iraq will move from one war to the next.

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Why Hillary Clinton is not Petraeus, Snowden or Manning Thu, 07 Jul 2016 20:16:34 +0000 Unlike Clinton; Snowden, Manning & Petraeus had the "intent" to distribute classified info. Hillary did not.

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In the aftermath of FBI Director James Comey’s recommendation against charges for Hillary Clinton’s email server, typical Republican and leftwing anti-establishment outrage flooded the media.

Clinton’s “extreme carelessness,” they said, was more damaging to American national security than Edward Snowden’s, David Petraeus’s, and Bradley Manning’s security violations, and thus demanded a proportionate punishment. Though Snowden himself seems puzzled with the verdict, Comey’s statement was well-reasoned on the issues of intent in the criminal prosecution of national security violations.

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

What differentiates Snowden’s, Petraeus’, and Manning’s cases from Clinton’s was that the former three intentionally distributed classified information to unauthorized individuals.

Snowden turned over documents on the PRISM program, among other government operations, to The Guardian.

Petraeus gave confidential information to Paula Broadwell, his biographer and lover.

Bradley Manning sent documents to WikiLeaks.

It does not matter whether any of these individuals’ actions were morally right or wrong. They included an intent to leak that Clinton simply did not have.

Now, Snowden and Manning might be heralded as whistleblowers fighting against an increasingly secretive American government that has violated the Constitutional and human rights of millions of Americans. And It could be argued that they, and Petraeus, did not harm national security if one truly believes that the documents were not exploited by foreign entities (and that’s a bit of a stretch).

However, as in the prosecution of libel, intent matters far more than consequences when proving the existence of a crime. Unless malicious intent—in this case, distribution of classified information to non-cleared individuals—can be proven, careless incidents endangering government secrecy are treated more like liabilities to companies: Employees are fired and security clearances are revoked, but no one is prosecuted.

David Petraeus

David Petraeus.

All individuals whom Hillary Clinton had intentionally communicated with were cleared to access the information. Is it possible that unauthorized and foreign entities accessed the server? Yes, but that does not go the issue of intent, which is lacking in this “crime.” But even if you were to ground an indictment on the basis of consequences, the FBI itself said that though Clinton’s server could have been hacked, there was no indication that it was.

As a matter of law, Comey’s recommendation was spot-on.

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Clarence Thomas’ abortion dissent is right-wing dogma masquerading as law Tue, 28 Jun 2016 13:00:51 +0000 Justice Thomas demonstrates an astounding indifference to the realities faced by women.

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Yesterday, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) made its first significant ruling on abortion since its 2007 decision on the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.

The 5-3 ruling, with conservative Justice Kennedy joining the court’s 4 liberals, struck down state limits on abortion that allegedly benefited women’s health. The court found that the state law “burden[ed] a woman’s right to choose,” without providing sufficient medical benefits in return. In other words, the state law was meant to undermine a woman’s right to an abortion, not to protect anyone’s health.

Though this most recent decision is to be celebrated as a victory for abortion accessibility, the left should take note of Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissent. It’s right-wing dogma masquerading as constitutional law.

Clarence Thomas. Rob Crandall /

Clarence Thomas. Rob Crandall /

Thomas argues that the SCOTUS majority should not have accepted the case because it is the women-patients rights that are arguably being infringed, not the plaintiff-doctors working in the clinics. He adds, “when the wrong party litigates a case, we end up resolving disputes that make for bad law.” Thomas refuses to acknowledge the doctors as legitimate plaintiffs on behalf of their patients, even when those same doctors have a substantial stake in the case as practitioners of abortion procedures.

Such superficial legal ploys are representative of the remainder of his dissent. Thomas believes that today’s law has given precedent for the court to apply different and logically inconsistent degrees of scrutiny in determining the constitutionality of other policies. The majority he says, has chosen to apply an abnormally low standard in identifying “undue burdens” to prop up women’s right to abortions and legislate from the bench. His judicial philosophy is extraordinarily permissive for states infringing on this constitutional right. He says that the alleged benefits (or lack thereof) of abortion regulations should not be taken into account when determining whether such regulations put an “undue burden” on the right to choose. Thomas then goes even further, saying that in the event of disagreement between the medical community, courts, and states, the states have the responsibility to mediate.

Thomas demonstrates an astounding indifference to the realities faced by women today. Because of a 2013 US Court of Appeals ruling, the number of abortion clinics in Texas halved, vastly extending the distances required for women to travel for an abortion. Impoverished women have had their access to abortion substantially constrained by these restrictions, especially considering how 47% of Americans have trouble finding even an extra $400 to pay for an emergency.

Our finances significantly restrict our access to activities like abortion. Yet Thomas refuses to acknowledge abortion regulations as a burden.

The medical community sees no merit in Texas’ restrictions: The mortality rate for women undergoing abortions is minuscule—0.6 per 100,000 procedures, which is less than childbirth mortality of 8.8 per 100,000 procedures. According to UC San Francisco, abortions result in far fewer minor complications than routine procedures like wisdom tooth removals and tonsillectomies, and only require blood transfusions 0.23% of the time.

By accepting deference to state regulations, despite the dearth of evidence showing that these restrictions are medically necessary, Thomas has essentially argued that states may, and perhaps should, use pseudoscience as a ruse to enact legislation that violates the rights of others. Thomas endorses a world in which the state, and perhaps doctors themselves, are forced to be complicit in the proliferation of lies.

Clarence Thomas makes clear that conservatives are continuing their thinly-veiled culture war, against women and more, under the guise of the law.

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Gun safety advocates shouldn’t endorse the validity of the “no fly” list Wed, 22 Jun 2016 14:25:34 +0000 In the wake of tragedy, too often, all judicious reasoning protecting due process is lost.

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The Orlando shooting started yet another Senate debate on gun control that yet again failed.

“No-fly, no buy” was one such proposal — the seemingly common sense notion that people banned from flying should also be prohibited from buying a gun. But by pushing these knee jerk proposals, Senate Democrats and Republicans have unwittingly endorsed a pernicious regime where suspicions “presumptively” equal guilt, instead of pursuing much-needed reforms of the national background check system.

One of the measures, by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), called for individuals on the terrorist watch list, AKA the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), to be examined by the attorney general before purchasing firearms. TSDB is a list containing one million names, of which approximately 5,000 are in the US. Because the TSDB is a compilation of eleven lists, the actual no-fly list is much smaller, with 81,000 names, of which 1,000 are in the US; the “selectee list” which may require additional inspections of passengers or ban them from flights, contains 28,000 names and 1,700 Americans.

The picture painted by documents leaked to The Intercept in 2014 is bleak. To be on the terrorist watch list, you don’t have to be a risk for bodily harm—damage to property, if meant to intimidate a government, counts too. Uncorroborated sources like social media or walk-ins and “fragmentary information” may contribute to someone being placed on the list. In developing the new concept of “reasonable suspicion,” far below “reasonable doubt,” guidelines say that “irrefutable evidence or concrete facts are not necessary, to be reasonable.” Individuals without ties to a US-designated terrorist organization may be labeled, along with their known associates and family, regardless of the actual nature of their connection.

The flaws in the system, which President Obama previously called a “systemic failure,” have led to its failure time and again. In 2005, 38% of a sample of its records had errors, and three years later, it still did not consistently update its records. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office stated that the list was consistently reactive to threats—its size doubled in response to the 2009 attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253, with agencies consistently sending information after attacks, rather than before. And it is practically impossible to be removed from the secret list.

Although Feinstein’s measure did not call for an outright ban, executive agencies have a lackluster track record of challenging nominations to the watch list. Fewer than 1% of nominations to the list have been rejected, as they are “presumptively valid”—the reversal of our justice system’s presumption of innocence.

The logic of “no-fly no buy” assumes that the no-fly list, or perhaps more broadly, the terror watch list, should be the benchmark for firearm purchases. Instead of endorsing a culture that presumes guilt and to protect Americans from gun violence, legislators and agencies must instead reform the national background check system and use the terror watch list as an investigative tool, rather than a preventative one, so long as names are added willy-nilly to the list.

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) offers a system governed by far greater transparency, and far more rigorous standards of evidence, than systems regulated by the intelligence community. It is an opportunity for law enforcement to prevent crime without the heavy-handed and spurious tools of a “national security” ruse. But without a comprehensive overhaul on the entry mechanism in every state, background checks will do little to prevent violence. From 2004 to 2011, just a dozen states reflected the vast majority of a million entries in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Nearly half of all states increased entries by fewer than 100 each. The complete repeal of regulations requiring background checks in states like South Carolina has further hindered the effectiveness of NICS.

By linking issues of gun control to the vague notions of “terrorism” and “reasonable suspicion”, Democrats and Republicans have demonstrated that they are willing to accept the status quo of labeling thousands of Americans as “suspected terrorists,” regardless of whether the evidence against them is anything more than a passing whim. It seems as though in the wake of tragedy, too often, all judicious reasoning protecting due process is lost.

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Britain First and Orlando: Not every violent act is international terror Mon, 20 Jun 2016 22:48:16 +0000 It is dangerous to conflate the actions of "lone wolves pledging to ISIS" with ISIS itself.

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Tommy Mair is charged with assassinating Jo Cox, a British member of parliament, just one week before the Brexit referendum that will decide whether Britain remains in the European Union.

An eyewitness, Clarke Rothwell, said that he heard Mair say “Britain First” as he mortally wounded Cox. British First is a neo-fascist anti-immigration group. Britain First disputes the alleged shout-out.

The far-right group Britain First has had a history of extremism. In 2014, members of Britain First sent death threats to its defectors. Though it claims to be focused on “peaceful protests,” its members threw bricks during a protest in Rotherham, and undergo “combat” training. The group has claimed to be carrying out a “Christian crusade” and has openly stated that “violence is so ingrained in Islam that it has never really stopped being at war, either with other religions or with itself.”

Its founder, Paul Golding, told Christian Today that “Jesus Christ did use physical violence according to the Gospels in the temple in Jerusalem…. He preached love and forgiveness etc, but he also said he didn’t come to bring peace; he came to bring division and a sword, he came to bring fire upon the world to sort the world out.” One could thus easily say that in their fight against the “Islamisation of Britain,” Britain First inspires violence in a global struggle of religion just as ISIS does.

Jo Cox was politically a prime target for Mair, given her stance on several policy issues conflicting with Britain First. In particular, she has opposed Britain’s exit from the European Union in opposition towards Britain First’s pro-Brexit stance. And while police have not confirmed Mair’s motives, Mair’s previous subscription to media “rejecting communism, multiculturalism, political correctness and expansionist Islam” indicates that there may be other issues tackled by Britain First at play here.

The ISIS flag.

The ISIS flag.

As I’ve previously noted, the media has consistently conflated attackers in Orlando, San Bernardino, and Garland with ISIS because of their pledges to the group. The public has reacted accordingly, demanding stronger military responses against ISIS. However, none of these attackers were provided material aid or supervision by ISIS—they did not even maintain any direct links to the organization.

Similarly, by at least some accounts, Mair demonstrated allegiance towards Britain First’s cause. If so, is it possible that his violent politics were inspired by Britain First’s “crusade” rhetoric? Given Britain First’s history of violence and its capacity to inspire extremism, should Britain First be treated as a terrorist group responsible for Jo Cox’s assassination, just as we do with ISIS’s supposed “involvement” in Orlando?

Though Britain First’s rhetoric is extraordinarily counterproductive in the “War on Terror”, there is currently no evidence indicating that the organization provided any direct assistance to Mair—their only connection was a possible political inspiration. Analogously, though ISIS is a heinous organization, it has had no connection beyond political inspiration to any attackers on US soil—pledges have not corresponded with tangible collaboration between lone wolves and ISIS.

Jo Cox’s assassination demonstrates the illogic of our conflation between lone wolves and larger, potentially violent, national groups. Although ISIS is a heinous organization threatening Western interests in Syria and Iraq, it is dangerous to conflate the actions of “lone wolves pledging to ISIS” with ISIS itself, just as it is absurd, in my view, to perceive Mair’s actions as a threat coming from Britain First. The inspiration that both provided is alarming, but absent any concrete association between the wolves and their pack, drastic measures like the banning of Britain First as a terrorist organization or an expanded war against ISIS seem less than palatable.

Britain First perhaps poses a more direct threat to citizens on Western soil than ISIS, given its “mosque invasions” and previously violent mass protests. For the sake of argument, however, neither organization is directly involved in conventional terrorism against the US or the UK. It’s time we stopped confusing ISIS “affiliates” with the core organization. There’s enough fear to go around in this world, and neither Britain First nor ISIS warrants a nuclear response as though they pose an existential and immediate threat to our nations.

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Orlando shows that ISIS is today’s Cold War Tue, 14 Jun 2016 17:14:09 +0000 It’s time we viewed domestic “terrorism” through the same lens we use on the crimes of other mass murderers.

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Conservative headlines might lead one to believe that we are at war. We have been attacked by individuals tangentially tied to ISIS in Orlando, San Bernardino, Chattanooga, and Garland, leaving 69 Americans dead since 2015.  That’s 69 too many, to be sure, but our endeavor to fight the very concept of Islamic terrorism as though it will be a finite war with a definitive victory is a quixotic one, reminiscent of the vague Cold War on communism that the West fought against Moscow during the last century.

According to law enforcement officials, the perpetrator of the Orlando attack had no direct relationship with the Islamic State, despite pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. Similarly, the closest relationship that attackers had with ISIS in San Bernardino, Chattanooga, and Garland were various pledges, though the Chattanooga attacker had in fact called ISIS a “stupid group.”

A man lights a candle in front of the theater Le Bataclan in tribute to victims of the Nov. 13, 2015 terrorist attack in Paris at the Bataclan. Frederic Legrand - COMEO /

A man lights a candle in front of the theater Le Bataclan in tribute to victims of the Nov. 13, 2015 terrorist attack in Paris at the Bataclan. Frederic Legrand – COMEO /

Other non-state armies have done the same. Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban splinter group Jundullah, and the Egyptian Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (aka Islamic State—Sinai Province [IS-IP]) have all pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Where are those groups today? US intelligence officials have indicated that Boko Haram has had no meaningful coordination with ISIS. While news sources regularly paint Jundullah and ISIS with the same brush, intelligence sources have claimed that Jundullah does not receive funding from ISIS. And though Ansar Beit al-Maqdis may have received some financial support from ISIS, individual IS-IP cells have maintained loyalties to al-Qaeda, an ISIS rival, indicating an ambivalent relationship with ISIS.

Anyone can join ISIS—the group itself has stated that the only requirement is a pledge before the attack. But such pledges hold extraordinary influence, as they create the illusion of phantom limbs of the group, infiltrating all across the Middle East and the West. By taking such pledges at face value, the media has ironically empowered ISIS by painting Islamic terrorism as a global struggle with low barriers to entry.

The fear of global and seemingly anti-American ideologies has tarnished our national security in the past. McCarthyism’s House Un-American Activities Committee punished thousands of individuals, including Robert J. Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan project, regardless of whether they were in fact loyal public servants. Enormous amounts of blood and funds were sunk in conflicts associated with communism willy-nilly in Vietnam and Nicaragua despite the lack of an existential threat.

The American defense and intelligence industries operated under the illusion that all communist threats were part of the bipolar struggle of the Cold War and emanated from Moscow alone, when in reality, the indigenous nature of these movements made our intervention more or less unnecessary. The benefits were debatable at best and the blowback, as exhibited by the human rights violations under the Nicaraguan Contras that we assisted, was certain.

We cannot afford to treat terrorism as though it is a unique form of violence perpetrated by the single enemy of “radical Islam”. Violence perpetrated by Muslims, along with individuals of all other religions, will continue so long as humanity continues to exist. Because every single ISIS-affiliated attack in the United States has had no concrete ties to ISIS beyond merely symbolic pledges, they are no different from lone wolf rightwing attacks in Charleston and Colorado Springs and the planned attack by James Howell in Los Angeles.

Eliminating ISIS will not lead to the same results as discussions on homophobia, mental health, accessibility to weapons, and regionally focused strategies against groups like Jundullah will. Instead of playing identity politics, it’s time we viewed domestic “terrorism” through the same lens we use on the crimes of other mass murderers unless a relationship with a foreign army can be unequivocally proven.

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The Islamic State’s threat is closer to Paris than Syria’s refugees Fri, 20 Nov 2015 16:39:32 +0000 When we demonize refugees, the terrorists win.

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Over the past week, attacks carried out by people who were neither Syrian nor refugees have jump-started and fundamentally changed the way the United States is debating how to handle Syrian refugees.

By 7:33 PM EST last Friday, after the attacks had taken place but before the Islamic State’s involvement had been confirmed, Congressman Jeff Duncan, among other social media users, was already making snide comments targeting the European Union’s refugee policies as though they were responsible for the attacks. Knee-jerk reactions against people fleeing war-torn Syria may score political points, but they ignore the threat of homegrown radicals traveling to and from Syrian battlegrounds, and they threaten to reinforce the Islamic State’s propaganda bonanza.

Long before the attackers were even fully identified, though after Duncan’s snotty remarks, police discovered a Syrian passport that was allegedly linked to one of the perpetrators. This ignited a firestorm, with numerous Republican governors instantly assuming that at least one attacker was a Syrian refugee and subsequently calling all Syrian refugees threats to national security. Soon after, however, the story became more complicated for those interested in the truth: AFP reported that the owner of the Syrian passport, who had been loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, had died months before the attack. French officials investigating the situation stated that the passport may have been planted, saying that it was not on the attacker’s body, but “lying nearby, as if meant to be found.”

The deathblow to xenophobia against Syrian refugees here should have been the actual identities of the attackers: All of the attackers identified thus far have been either French or Belgian. Furthermore, Greek officials have said that none of the attackers even set foot in Greece on their way to France, whether they masqueraded as refugees at any point in their travels or not.

These facts have proven irrelevant to members of Congress and presidential candidates, who have spent the week trying to one-up each other over who can come up with the most draconian anti-refugee declarations and policies. Regardless as to whether the passport was planted, the Paris attacks have led numerous pundits and politicians to develop narratives unjustly framing refugees as national security threats. Duncan’s, Donald Trump’sBen Carson’s and others’ profoundly irresponsible and misleading rhetoric have successfully framed large populations of the West as fearful or antipathetic toward Muslims.

They have with poetic irony played into the Islamic State’s strategy, which, as detailed in its Dabiq magazine, is focused on destroying Muslim and Arab coexistence with the West and political pluralism. The Islamic State’s recruitment operations of foreign fighters have long relied upon alienation of Muslims in Western countries. They tell adolescent Muslims that they aren’t welcome in their own countries, and that they need only turn on the TV to see right-wing politicians proving their point. What the Ben Carsons, Donald Trumps and Marco Rubios of the political class fail to understand is that US’s counterterrorism strategies rely upon military action complemented with economic and political outreach efforts used to prevent attacks from occurring in the first place. Bombing terrorists to hell makes for a great headline, but unless you starve terrorist organizations of their source of angry recruits vulnerable to extremist indoctrination, all you’re doing is racking up a body count for the sake of a body count.

How it’s at all possible that self-proclaimed leaders of American conservatism fail to demonstrate the slightest understanding of the role of politics and propaganda in counterterrorism is a question I’ll leave for the reader.

the flag of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (IS). Via Shutterstock.

The flag of the Islamic State, via Shutterstock.

Politically, the Islamic State has everything to gain from xenophobic responses driven by terrorism. It helps them prevent the integration of Arabs into the West, bolsters its attractiveness to foreign fighters and constructs an image of the West as unfriendly to refugees fleeing the Islamic State itself. Stopping the outflow of refugees has become especially important in the Islamic State’s development as a self-proclaimed caliphate — its religious legitimacy relies on the predicted migration of Muslims to live and serve under its rule, and its operations demand populations for extortion, which declined as it lost 25% of its territory in early 2015.

Based upon previous attacks claimed by the Islamic State, the greatest threats to national security, aside from xenophobic rhetoric bolstering its recruitment, lie not with refugees but with Western citizens fighting in Syria. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who allegedly served as a link between the Islamic State and the other French and Belgian Paris attackers, developed his relationship with the Islamic State after leaving to fight in Syria in 2014. As a Belgian citizen, he was relatively free to move throughout Europe, and intelligence gaps had resulted in the failure of surveillance and military action against him.

A similar background has been associated with other attackers allegedly linked to the Islamic State, including the perpetrators of a May 2015 shooting in Garland, Texas. These individuals were US citizens who were inspired by ISIS, though, in contrast with Abaaoud, they were unsuccessful in their attempts to travel to Syria before the attack.

What does this mean in the broader context of national security? At the moment, Europe might be at a much greater risk than the US for Islamic State-inspired attacks. Not because of the incoming refugees, but because of the thousands of EU citizens who have traveled to Syria. In the US, the intelligence community can point to just 40 individuals who have done the same, and none of them pose credible threats.

By overblowing the threat of the refugees, right-wing politicians have created a self-fulfilling prophecy of alienated individuals unable to integrate with the West due to the very real xenophobia they experience in Western countries. These knee-jerk xenophobic reactions have failed to demonstrate the slightest understanding of the fight against the Islamic State, and have weakened our counterterrorism efforts in the long run. Indeed, Congress’s willingness to halt the resettlement process for Syrian refugees will only serve to undermine America’s efforts by playing into Islamic State propaganda without addressing the actual threats to Western security.

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The Electrify Africa Act is a missed opportunity for both electricity and Africa Mon, 12 Oct 2015 14:16:36 +0000 The vague bill opens the door for massive expansion in fossil fuels when renewables would be more useful.

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On October 8, the Electrify Africa Act, a bill that aims to expand US efforts to expand Africa’s electrical grid, passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This move has been praised by the ONE campaign as a great leap forward in the fight against extreme poverty as the bill aims to provide 50,000,000 people access to electricity by 2020, all the while supposedly incurring a net cost of close to nothing, paying for itself by spurring private investment.

Since recent estimates indicate that 600 million people, or two-thirds of all inhabitants of Sub-Saharan Africa, have no access to electricity, Democrats and Republicans have seen this bill as a win-win situation that will have positive effects on healthcare, counterterrorism efforts and American jobs as US relations are strengthened with countries that could soon afford to purchase American products. However, the bill is only demonstrative of Congress’s lack of a cohesive strategy in the fight against extreme poverty. The bill will fail to help the people most severely marginalized in current systems, damage the long-term prospects of Africa’s economy, and become a lost opportunity for the fight against climate change.

The actual text of the bill, S. 2152, merely legislates the development of Africa’s electrical grid as an executive priority. Although it calls upon the President to deliver regular reports on his progress, the bill has no real measures of accountability, or even clear goals other than the provision of infrastructure in Africa for an additional 20 gigawatts of electricity by 2020. This provision is actually redundant, since President Obama has already developed an initiative to spur billions of dollars in private investment in Africa’s electrical infrastructure through Power Africa, which has already mobilized investments for an additional 4.1 GW of electricity through four million connections. Power Africa aims to provide an additional 30 GW of electricity through 60 million connections in total.

climate change global warming pollution environment

Pollution via Shutterstock

With the lack of any real goals or accountability measures in the Electrify Africa Act other than raw power generation, one might look to Power Africa for guidance on how Congress’s aid to Africa will play out. As of July 2015, current renewable energy investments have made up just 300 MW of the 4,100 MW of electrical infrastructure to be created, and generally, just half of the projects for renewable energy are aimed at delivering electricity to the most impoverished rural lands through off-grid structures.

With the nascent state of Africa’s electrical infrastructure and the lack of competing fossil fuel industries, the continent could have represented a potential opportunity to expand access to electricity without yielding to industries based on nonrenewable resources. Furthermore, with Africa’s vast rural populations, renewable energy industries aren’t just an opportunity—they’re a necessity since they, as noted by the International Energy Agency, can reach people off-grid in a decentralized manner that fossil fuels can’t. Renewable energy solutions can operate on a small scale when people are spread far apart while fossil fuels require immense and centralized refineries, generators and other structures to be effective.

This fact is crucial to any analysis of Africa’s energy problems, since the poverty of rural populations holds enormous significance for geopolitics and governance. My research at the Global Initiative for Civil Society and Conflict has repeatedly indicated that in Nigeria, the failure of the government to sufficiently develop the rural regions of Northern Nigeria has been a source of social discontent, and thus, a recruitment tool for Boko Haram insurgents. Renewable energy could potentially be a tool to reach these populations, and thus stabilize countries against terrorist threats by preventing them from forming in the first place. But so long as fossil fuel development that fails to reach those living in rural regions is prioritized over renewable energy resources that can change lives in a decentralized fashion, that door for international development and statecraft will remain closed.

And yet Congress has chosen to give deference to the fossil fuel energy industry. In response to proponents of renewable energy resources, the ONE campaign — a political activist network aimed at reducing extreme poverty internationally — has politicized the issue and has made dubious claims against renewable energy.

ONE claims that expanding nonrenewable energy access to Africans will hardly affect greenhouse gas emissions. But their justification for that claim is based on how little electricity Africans use because of Africa’s underdeveloped infrastructure; they fail to account for increases in demand that will coincide with the expansion of supply. ONE even goes so far as to claim that “there are currently no consistently reliable” renewable energy solutions, citing the International Energy Agency. There’s no source indicating that the International Energy Agency has taken such a position — in fact, the IEA has said the opposite, as it is strongly supportive of renewable energy, especially for rural populations that can’t be reached through a national grid run by fossil fuels.

There are a host of dangers associated with the failure of Congress to prioritize off-grid and renewable energy solutions for Africa. For one, the permanent storage of fossil fuels means that they can be used as political weapons. Also problematic is the fact that their price fluctuations can have a severe impact on national economies, with a 10% oil price per barrel increase being correlated with a 0.5% loss in GDP in the US and EU. They’re also expensive for governments, as developing countries spend an estimated $630 billion annually on consumption subsidies for fossil fuels when just $57 billion is spent on renewable energy subsidies worldwide annually. And they’re subject to bottlenecks like seaports and pipelines and vulnerable to terrorist attacks because of their centralization.

Instead of demonstrating Congress’s resolve, the Electrify Africa Act has merely demonstrated that Congress neither knows much about nor has a plan for Africa’s energy industries. Their governance has long been the political theater that the presidential horse race is becoming, where all politicians and candidates are paying lip-service to platitudes of justice, opportunity and equality without showing any real statesmanship.

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Republicans are using mental health as an excuse to do nothing about gun violence Tue, 06 Oct 2015 19:29:44 +0000 The pivot to mental health by Trump, Carson, Fiorina and others is simply a way to dodge gun control.

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The shooting on October 1, 2015, in Oregon has been met with a call for reform of the United States’ mental health system by multiple Republican presidential candidates. Donald Trump said that “it sounds like another mental health problem.” Ben Carson said that the issue centered around the “mentality of the people” before blaming the shooting victims for their own deaths. Marco Rubio called the matter a “serious societal issue,” while noting the possibility of mental health issues playing a role in violence. However, television personalities like John Oliver have doubted the Republicans’ sincerity in pursuing mental health reform, especially that regarding gun violence. Indeed, the record and policy proposals of most leading Republicans indicates that their interest in mental health is more of an excuse to not talk about gun control than a genuine effort to develop nuanced systems that reduce the federal budget and protect the safety of the public.

Notwithstanding the serious issues with Donald Trump’s position paper on civilian firearms, Trump ironically appears to have identified the most significant nuances in public policy on mental health and guns. He notes that in spite of the presence of a national background check system, many states fail to put criminal and mental health records into the system. Indeed, according to a Government Accountability Office report, the million mental health records submitted to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) from 2004 to 2011 have reflected largely only the efforts of 12 states. Nearly half of all states have increased the number of mental health records by fewer than just 100 each.

This means that because of state laws hindering the federal cataloging of mental health records, federal regulations on mental health and gun control remain grossly ineffective in a great majority of US states. But Trump’s half-hearted exploration of this matter falls flat on its policy prescription, as it merely calls for the “fix(ing) of the system we have and make it work as intended.” At no point has he ever discussed the ramifications of his “policy proposal.” So long as state HIPAA laws hinder the federal system, a great expansion of federal power over state gun control systems would be needed to enforce our government’s laws. This runs contrarily to Trump’s rhetoric, as he says in broad, generic terms, that we don’t need to expand the system we have.

Furthermore, some states like South Carolina, the state of the terrorist attack on a Charleston church on June 17, have even repealed regulations requiring identification for pistol purchases. There are numerous other loopholes in states like South Carolina that allow buyers to circumvent background checks. This, and other failures of states to provide adequate measures to enforce federal regulations, is at odds with Trump’s supposedly “common sense” proposals, since they ignore the need for the expansion of federal power or federal legislation to enforce Trump’s gun control schemes.

Even given the policy analysis failures of Trump’s positions, other leading Republican contenders for the presidency are far more clearly referring to mental health as an excuse to dodge gun control rather than develop a functional system.

Ben Carson has barely demonstrated any knowledge on the policy issues of national background checks, with what little discussion he devotes to the topic being focused on platitudes that have little relevance to legislative issues of the Congress or the presidency. No discussion is devoted to mental health in his policy position web pages for healthcare and gun control. If anything, his rhetoric hardening his refusal to “weaken the Second Amendment” would make his positions anathema to mental health and firearm reform, given gun rights groups’ opposition to national background checks in spite of widespread public approval.

Much of the same has been seen among the remaining leaders in the race. Jeb Bush’s pitiful “stuff happens” response is little more than him closing his eyes and hoping that it all goes away. Carly Fiorina’s talk on mental health has largely related to elderly diseases, like Alzheimer’s, that do not play as significant of a role in mass shootings. Even in such discussions, she’s demonstrated little awareness of the fact that some federal programs supporting treatment for mental illnesses may pay for themselves. Instead, she’s called for across-the-board cuts to force accountability. Despite her experience in the corporate world, she’s merely paying lip service to the hackneyed clichés on “programs that work”, without demonstrating any awareness on exactly which programs work.

The Republican Party’s established platform may not even permit any significant reform to the mental health system. Their politicians have repeatedly engaged in calamitous grandstanding against programs that support the expansion of Medicaid reimbursements, a key problem, among many others, identified by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in the fight for better treatments.

The Oregon shooting has helped to reignite the discussion on the call for mental health reform on both sides of the aisle. It’s a discussion that is long overdue, but without serious policy proposals from those who helped start the discussion—Republican politicians like Trump, Carson, Fiorina, and Bush—federal reform will go nowhere. Unfortunately, the Republican presidential candidates this year are acting like children in philosophy class—their talk on public policy has been limited to rudimentary discussions and has demonstrated a very limited understanding of the Presidency’s required readings of Government Accountability Office reports, scientific papers, and Supreme Court cases.

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The West is using an accounting trick to ignore Saudi Arabia’s Syrian refugees Tue, 22 Sep 2015 18:23:49 +0000 Here's how you make millions of refugees disappear in one easy step.

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In the face of mounting criticism from human rights leaders like Malala Yousafzai, who have called Europe’s response to the growing number of displaced Syrian refugees “pitiful,” European Union leaders have struggled to develop systems of collective responsibility for accommodating them. True to form for an international tragedy of the commons, finger-pointing has come to characterize tepid responses from Germany’s Angela Merkel, the UK’s David Cameron, as well as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.

However, Europe’s fingers aren’t just pointed at itself. The unease created by facts on this human rights tragedy has allowed specious analysis on Saudi Arabia’s and other Gulf States’ response to the crisis to proliferate throughout the West’s media. Thanks to a technicality in counting refugees, hundreds of outlets from Amnesty International to the Brookings Institution have claimed that Saudi Arabia has taken zero refugees—a ludicrous, but rarely fact-checked statement given the comical lack of a “Great Arabian Wall.”

Over the past several months, we have been constantly fed graphics and analysis like the one below from Luay Al-Khatteeb, a fellow of the Brookings Institution. They have indicated that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have taken zero Syrian refugees. The claim has been cited by nearly every Western publication. A cursory search returns venerable sources including Foreign Policy, the Washington Post and CNN all falling for the myth:

The source for this accounting seems to be the UN High Commission of Refugees  (UNHCR) itself, which notes that over 4,000,000 refugees have been registered by the UNHCR in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. None of these refugees are registered in any of the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia.

However, a look at Saudi Arabia’s UNHCR page has a few curious footnotes that Western publications are conveniently omitting. The UNHCR counts refugees by noting only those “persons recognized as refugees under the 1951 UN Convention/1967 Protocol, the 1969 OAU Convention, in accordance with the UNHCR Statute, persons granted a complementary form of protection and those granted temporary protection.” Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE are not parties to any of the UN protocols on refugees, and so through this technicality, they, along with most of their refugees, are excluded from many refugee counting mechanisms.

In other words, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE aren’t magically able to prevent Syrian refugees from entering their country, nor are they rejecting them once they arrive. The West is simply looking at the paperwork and deciding that these people don’t count as refugees, even though they have sought refuge in and are being accommodated by these countries.

Syria via Shutterestock

Syria via Shutterestock

As if the statement that Saudi Arabia has not taken any refugees were not preposterous enough, with the lack of a “Great Arabian Wall” of sorts, numerous commentators have conveniently overlooked the fact that the noted Gulf States are not included in maps of UNHCR progress reports like this one. One would think that such maps might raise the question, why aren’t any of the Gulf States included in the graphics? And given their exclusion from many UN refugee graphics, one might also ask, is the absence of Syrian refugees in Saudi Arabia really due to an astonishingly secure border? Or just a technicality that pundits have deceitfully misinterpreted?

Somehow, even in today’s “enlightened” age where information on human rights is democratized and widely disseminated, the complete absence of Syrian refugees in Saudi Arabia and its neighbors is more plausible than the idea of human misinterpretation of statistics. It’s an inconvenient truth that needs to be addressed.

With Saudi Arabia’s non-signatory status to the relevant UN protocols, the Syrians residing in Saudi Arabia are classified as “Arab brothers and sisters in distress” instead of refugees covered by UN treaties. According to Nabil Othman, the UNHCR regional representative to the Gulf region, there were 500,000 Syrian refugees in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of this month. Saudi Arabia’s government has itself stated that it has, over the past five years since the start of the conflict, hosted 2.5 million refugees.

Because the noted treaties establish treatment standards for refugees, some might raise concerns regarding the conditions that Saudi Arabia’s refugees may be living in. However, Al-Arabiya, a news outlet based in the UAE, has reported that “Saudi authorities granted Syrians the right of residency and work, and provided them with education and health services for free.” According to the Saudi government, over 100,000 children are currently receiving education in the country’s schools. Saudi Arabia is not alone in attempts to provide education for the refugees, with Lebanon now providing schooling for another 100,000 child refugees.

The silence on this issue has redirected the conversation to an absurd idea instead of progressing towards verification of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Syrian refugees. By focusing on a myth that could easily be debunked with even a cursory look at the UN’s procedures for publishing refugee statistics, the West’s media organizations have been too distracted to verify the Saudi government’s claims.

It’s particularly important to get this data point right because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s one of the first reasons American conservatives are giving for why we should refuse to commit to taking more (or any) refugees. After all, if neighboring countries with a common language can get away with a no-refugees policy, why can’t we? Even if this question’s underlying premise were true, this would be a pathetic excuse for American inaction. But it isn’t, and that makes it even more shameful.

This entire matter has been quite illustrative of the pitiful proliferation of modern-day yellow journalism, where even the most bizarre misconceptions are palatable enough to become part of mainstream political debates. Syria’s and Europe’s human rights travesty needs no exaggeration. Merkel’s, Cameron’s, Eastern Europe’s and the US’s pitiful responses cannot be excused by this lie. It has only served to tarnish the worldly reputation of revered organizations like the Brookings Institution and Amnesty International. It’s time we put at least a modicum of effort into determining what’s actually happening on the ground.

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Carson’s Far Right Christian Attack on the Constitution Mon, 21 Sep 2015 19:09:11 +0000 If being a Muslim disqualifies one from public office, so does Christianity.

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This Sunday, presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson said that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.” When asked whether he believed that Islam is compatible with the Constitution, he said, “No I don’t, I do not.”

There is no ambiguity in Carson’s statements during his Meet the Press interview on September 20. He’s clearly stated his belief that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution.

There seems to be quite a trend of disingenuous religious-political analysis on the Constitution and religious texts, whereby only various denominations of Christianity, and not other religions like Islam, are protected by the Constitution. In past birther conspiracies, politicians have claimed that President Obama is a Muslim, as though the label is necessarily an insult. Rick Santorum himself has said that he does not believe in the separation of the church and the state.

One could easily point to the Constitution, which states quite clearly, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.  Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 elaborates further, explicitly referring to a “wall of separation between church and state”. However, conservatives commonly respond with the idea that it is not a religion. Allen West called it a “theocratic political construct”. Many more note images of violence in the Quran itself.

These conservatives’ points may have some validity in that Islam does indeed set out laws for its believers. Its relationship with governments has been complex, making some aspects of the religion political depending on the nation involved. Furthermore, violence in the Quran has been noted by numerous scholars—the quotes do exist. But this analysis is specious at best, especially when faced with the hypocritical attempts to exempt Christianity from the same criticism.

Deuteronomy 17:12 (New International Version) explicitly calls for the death of anyone who shows contempt for priests. Even though Levictus 25 prohibits the poor treatment of Israelite slaves, it notes that the Israelites’ slaves “are to come from the nations around (them); from them you may buy slaves.”  Even in the New Testament, Corinthians 14 explicitly supports misogyny, saying that it is disgraceful for women to speak in church while making no reference to the role of men in churches. These, along with hundreds of other rules in Christianity, have been enforced by governments to varying degrees throughout history. The religion has played a role in numerous wars, from the commonly pointed out Crusades to the Thirty Years’ War and from the invasions of the Americas to 2003’s Islamophobia-fueled invasion of Iraq.

No sane politician would call Christianity a “theocratic political construct” or a religion that is “incompatible” with the Constitution. All religions, including both Christianity and Islam, are tools that can be used for evil. But at the same time, the passions derived from godly faith have fueled hundreds of years of progress. Numerous Muslim contributors throughout history have included Mohammad Abdus Salam, whose work on electroweak unification that won him the Nobel Prize and Fethullah Gulen, whose message of tolerance has won millions of followers.

Many have raised concerns regarding the lack of coverage of Islamic scholars condemning terrorism. And yet even a cursory attempt at researching their statements brings up condemnations and attempts to start anti-terrorism campaigns from hundreds of scholars here, here, and here.

Attempts to simplify issues of terrorism to Christianity vs. Islam and civility vs. barbarianism paradigms are lazy and intellectually dishonest. They, as I have previously noted in my essays, demonstrate ignorance of the role of regional geopolitics, economic systems, and human rights in foreign policy. The nuanced perspective that conservative politicians have attempted to stifle remains common among the same Muslim civilians that they are attempting to attack. With thousands of face-to-face interviews, Gallup compiled data in 2007 indicating how Muslims criticize the West for its politics and not its religion, how Muslims continue to admire its technology and democracy, how they care for equal rights of women, how they want to keep religious leaders out of crafting legislation, and numerous other details on their views.

More importantly, Islamophobic statements demonizing the entry of Muslims into public service threaten the very foundation of our Constitution.

They run against our values as an inclusive nation where we are free to practice whatever faith grounds our hearts in society. These statements serve only to invalidate others based upon their conception of God, regardless of individual merits and faults. They dehumanize others, reducing them to a single data point, polarizing societies, and even tearing apart families that could have been bound not only by blood, but by a passion for good that has simply taken a different form.

Ben Carson’s proximity to Donald Trump in the polls has made this a national issue, even though it shouldn’t be one. How could we, as Americans, permit Dr. Carson to remain near the top of the polls while he makes such incendiary statements? Are we shallow enough to believe that the only good men are Christian men? Do we fail to see our brothers and sisters as living, breathing, loving, and thinking human beings, all capable of not only fiery animosity but also the warmest love that the heart can conjure? Our species has some of the most well-developed brains in the animal kingdom. It’s time we used our brains’ capabilities for both compassion and intellect.

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