International House of Dan: February 2005

Monday, February 28, 2005

IHOD is fixed

Sorry about the inconvenience, more insight into the world later tonight.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

IHOD is having technical difficulties...

The tech support people at Blogger assure me that they're on it, so hopefully, the Doonesbury post will be gone soon, and the page will look normal again. Sorry for the inconvenience, please scroll down for the International House of Dan.

Note to self...

Never email comics to this thing again...

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Peter Benenson, 1921-2005

The founder of Amnesty International, Peter Benenson, died last night in Oxford at the age of 83. I didn't know much about Mr. Benenson, which is to say I knew who he was, and not much else. I heard the news on the radio this afternoon, and read up on this man who has done a great deal to advance the cause of justice in the world. As he lit a candle wrapped in barbed wire, the symbol of AI, during the organization's 25th anniversary, Mr. Benenson explained:
"The candle burns not for us, but for all those whom we failed to rescue from prison, who were shot on the way to prison, who were tortured, who were kidnapped, who 'disappeared'. That is what the candle is for."
I encourage everyone to contribute to Amnesty International, it's a good organization doing important work. I regret not having known about Peter Benenson sooner, his story inspires me to believe that one person apparently can change the world.


The Belgian Congo

The crises in the Sudan, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire, and Rwanda have made it difficult for our attention to follow one of the worse humanitarian crises in history, the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Until 1960, a sizable portion of East Africa made up the Belgian Congo. Yesterday, 9 United Nations peacekeepers were killed in one of the countries carved out of the Belgian Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The peacekeepers were present as part of the global response to a brutal ethnic conflict that, since exploding in 1999, has claimed the lives of an estimated 3.3 million people. Over 50,000 of the deaths happened in the Ituri region, known as the bloodiest corner of the DRC, and the place where the peacekeepers were killed. This is the worst kind of violence, this is Rwanda, the Balkans, this is like the Holocaust, but with two sides carrying out reciprocal atrocities. This conflict has child soldiers, cannibalism, mass rape, mutilation of corpses, and any sort of sick, twisted, machete-wielding cruelty and violence you can imagine, it has happened in Ituri and the rest of the D.R.C.

The first case that the International Criminal Court decided to investigate, regards the situation in Ituri. I was at the U.N. in New York in September of 2003, when the Office of the Prosecutor announced it's intention to pursue approval for the investigation. The ICC has scheduled a closed conference to discuss the Ituri violence, to be held at The Hague on March 15th, hopefully some progress will come of it.

This post is titled "The Belgian Congo" because of the roots of the conflict. The Belgian colonists in the Congo favored the Hema over the Lendu, and as a result, the Lendu believe that the Hema have an unfair share of the land which both groups need. Violence ensued. If this sounds familiar, it's because it is, only you replace Lendu with Hutu, Hema with Tutsi, and Congo with Rwanda. You don't replace Belgian, though both were Belgian colonies.

I'm not going to chastise the administration of Belgium's former colonies. It's pretty clear that the Belgian government knows it was wrong. I also don't want to delve too deeply into the role of former colonial powers in the current affairs of their former colonies, except to say that there needs to be some involvement in remedying the troubles caused by the colonization. Obviously Belgium has changed drastically as Europe began looking inward, and they have worked hard towards international justice. When conservative U.S. politicians criticize Belgium's universal jurisdiction laws for crimes against humanity, perhaps they should consider that each State must atone for its sins in it's own way. Belgium may have overcompensated in international justice because of the devastating effect it's past policies continue to have in Africa.

Anyway... this post is just my two cents' worth to try to keep Congo alive in people's minds. It's too bad that as a society we seem to be unable to focus on more than one crisis at a time, so that the Tsunami replaces Sudan, and so on and so forth. Mr. Bush used past humanitarian abuses in Iraq as a pretext for war, this much seems clear from his simultaneous reluctance to deploy troops to end ongoing humanitarian abuses in Liberia, or his intractable opposition to the ICC. But if people genuinely care about ending these horrors, then our elected officials will have no choice but to adopt a stronger position against these recurring atrocities. "Live and Let Die" was a great song, but it should not be our national policy towards Africa.

Shawn Cheats at Chess

So I'm watching C-SPAN, checking out the State of the Black Union, and I'd been sort of tuning it out until Tavis Smiley, moderating, just told Faye Wattleton, president of the Center for the Advancement of Women what was up with Karl Rove very eloquently. But that's not what I'm writing about this morning...

Last night I was playing chess against Shawn and he cheated. Several times. Not just against me, either. But it turns out that he was right about what we finally called him on, causing him to lose his game against me, and his bet with Pete. Of course, I would say the bet stands, because in the course of confirming that he was right about that move, I've uncovered several other rules which he broke during the match. It also colors my judgment that he thought he had been cheating when he deliberately did what he did. Guessing correctly about an obscure rule does not make one right, in my mind, but Shawn, to the extent that you were right last night, I apologize. Cheers.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Role of Victims' Families in Criminal Justice

This is another Odyssey-inspired post, about the discussion I was listening to in the car earlier. The subject was the growing role of victims' families in our criminal justice system, tracing historical trends and the issues involved. I, for one, think that they should have none. I'm against victims testifying at sentencing, I'm against the submission of Victim Impact Statements, and I'm certainly against their appearance at parole hearings. Here's why:

I believe that families of victims have a means for redress through the civil system, and that in the case of criminal prosecutions, the entity exacting punishment and the entity wronged, is the state. The murder defendant is charged with violating a statute prohibiting murder, regardless of the identity of the victim, and a prosecution will follow where the evidence supports it regardless of the victim's survivors. I feel that this view is consistent with the notion of justice as being blind, that it has before it only evidence and laws, and that decisions should not be influenced by the likeability of either the victim or the defendant.

In criminal prosecution, the victim's family may testify about factors relevant to the crime, but it should not matter how the crime affected them personally, or are we to say that one who kills someone who was dearly loved should be punished more harshly than the killer of one who was not? Should robbing someone rich merit an acquittal if the loss didn't financially impact the victim? I think not. I think civil suits, brought by the victims and not the state, are the proper venue for venting about the impact of the harm caused by the crime. I think that if the purpose of the crime was actually the effect it had on the victim's family, rather than the crime itself, then there is usually a separate offense which can be charged on those grounds. This second offense would increase a sentence, but it would do so based on separate legal grounds.

Victims' families should be heard, as they have been recently, at the legislative level, so that lawmakers will take their concerns into consideration as they draft the penal codes. If it is appropriate in the eyes of lawmakers to incorporate elements relating to victim impact into the crime itself, then so be it, but unless such additions are made it is inappropriate to consider that impact at trial. Should the defense be allowed to mitigate against suffering victims by pointing out forthcoming life insurance payments, for instance? It would seem only fair that if the well-being of the victim's family is an issue at sentencing, such factors should be considered as well. Should added years based upon a widower's grief be rescinded if the widower is later found to be happily remarried? The suffering of families of victims is inherent in the crime itself, the state is aware of it when it makes things illegal, it has already been considered as a factor in drafting the statute and the corresponding sentence, and to allow it at trial is redundant. An exception might exist where families plea for clemency in a death penalty case, because in that case they are rebutting the legislature's presumption that it would be their wish to see the criminal executed. Then again, I suppose I might just be trying to reconcile conflicting views because of my own ideology.

In all judicial systems that I'm aware of, judges wear some sort of a disguise. In some "primitive" cultures (though how primitive can a culture be that has a judicial system?) they wear masks, in others they wear wigs, in the U.S. they wear black robes. The common thread in these examples is that if only for symbolic purposes, these systems acknowledge a need to clarify that it is a neutral, anonymous entity, the judge, who is passing sentence, and not the actual individual wielding the gavel. This suggests to me a desire to sterilize the system, which seems to be consistent with the ideas of fairness and justice. The elements of the crime, if proven by the evidence, should be determinative of the sentence, not the victim's wife, sobbing on the stand more convincingly than the defendant's wife.

A clarification is appropriate at this time, because it sounds like I would favor mandatory sentencing guidelines, which I do not. The judge or jury may consider factors relevant to the nature of the crime, but not the way they were perceived by the victim or her family. In other words, evidence that murder was carried out in a particularly cruel manner would certainly merit more serious punishment, but that is because of the cruel nature of the murder, because of society's interest in preventing such types of murder in particular, regardless of the victim.

I would deny victims' families access to parole hearings because their purpose there is purely inflammatory. How survivors feel about the criminal has no bearing on such a hearing, the issues before the board pertain to rehabilitation, and if families disagree with the availability of parole at a certain time, then they should get the state to appeal the decision to grant it. This is especially so where they have already been allowed to testify at sentencing about the meaning of their loss. If after hearing their pleas for vengeance, the judge or jury still deemed parole appropriate, then allowing them to make their case against parole before the board at a later date is tantamount to double jeopardy for the defendant.

It is the role of criminal courts to apply penal codes to facts. Their narrow mandate prevents the admissibility of factors that matter to parties, but not to the crime at bar. We are willing to exclude evidence from both sides on procedural, admissibility, and relevance grounds, so why do we allow what is nothing more than prejudicial evidence of grieving we are already aware of? Do we worry that a jury won't know that the widow is unhappy? Prosecutors know the effect families have at sentencing, and they make strategic decisions based on the character and appeal of the victims and their families. This is another argument in favor of allowing clemency testimony, that it is not subject to the calculations of the state's attorney. If we really care about adding years based on family testimony, then I'd better not hear of a DA denying such testimony because it would reflect unfavorably on the case, because the widower might show up high and say the wrong things.

We have provisions in place to prevent undue prejudice against defendants at trial. Why do we encourage it to be carried out at sentencing? Defense attorneys can't question grieving widows effectively, they can't challenge the credibility of weeping orphans effectively, and putting them on the stand to demand revenge is redundant, exploitative, and unfair.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson, 1937-2005

I don't really know what to write about this, other than to say that the man was a huge literary influence for me. I now have no reason to check out Page Two on, where I enjoyed his unique blend of fiction, sports, and political commentary. Anybody who enjoys my writing, in terms of style, subject-matter, etc., would likely enjoy Thompson's "Hey Rube".

On the 15th he wrote what I suppose is his last column, but I am optimistic that something he may have had in the works will turn up. Thompson's death leaves many fans stunned, as did Arthur Miller's on the 10th. They say these things happen in threes, but I hope we can make it out of February without having to endure the loss of another legendary writer, it has been a weird enough month as it is... but as Thompson himself said, "when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."


Sunday, February 20, 2005

Joy to the World...

The Tigers won... and kU lost!! Yesterday was a good day, the sun shone, the birds chirped, and all was well. In other news, North Korea basically told us to (bleep) off, and that they would just go on their merry way with their nukes. This is an unsettling turn of events, to say the least, if nothing else because as the Daily Show pointed out, they are only able to hit "blue states".

Our policy on nuclear weapons is scary, to say the least. We basically ask the world not to arm itself, but to trust us, because we'll only use our growing nukes for good. This is understandably unsettling to foreign leaders, particularly those who for some reason, oh, I don't know, being put on the "Axis of Evil" for example, feel that we are likely to target them. Our hypocrisy is especially troubling when it comes to the Test Ban Treaty, an accord that we use to justify our pleas for non-proliferation, while refusing to sign on ourselves.

I will keep this short, because I have to go move my car, but I would just like to make a point about nuclear weapons. They are scary, scary things, and we should continue to work towards their eradication. Building more nukes is bad, building more low-yield tactical nukes is bad, and trying to get others to stop building nukes will be easier once we stop doing it ourselves.

The increasing bellicosity of Japan is troubling, but it makes sense given their place in the world, and our decreasing attention to their defensive needs. It also helps that those who can speak to the horrors of nuclear warfare are dying off, their message lost on current generations who have only read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in history books. We should see it as a big red flag that some in Japan would like to acquire nukes. We should stop and take stock of our stockpiles, and the message that they send to others. We should stop building nukes, we should do it now, and we should especially do it if we expect others to follow suit.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Class action reform passes in the House

I've had a couple of quick things to write about over the past few days, but I've been unable to go online, so I'll throw out a couple of "retroactive" posts later on. I'd like to point out that Mizzou should've beat Baylor by a lot more than they did, and that I was delighted to see kU get schooled in what turned out to be a very good game.

Quickly, though, I'd like to make a comment on what I heard on C-SPAN this morning as the House debated class action lawsuit legislation. Being a "baby lawyer", I am troubled by the demonization of lawyers generally, particularly coming from elected officials who are often lawyers themselves. But I'd like to point out the inconsistent blame game being played by many conservative legislators with regard to class action lawsuits.

They argue that the hefty awards made in state courts are being gobbled up by lawyers, and not going to the injured plaintiffs, and that because of this, the fee arrangements need to be capped. The problem is that they don't apply a similar logic to the cost of prescription drugs, in fact, they take the opposite approach. Lawyers take a risk when they take a case on a contingency basis, they expend money on trial preparation, court costs, wages, investigation, etc., without knowing if they will ever see a penny of that money back. The contingency fee acts as an incentive for lawyers to take these cases, and assume the financial burdens associated with advancing the rights of injured plaintiffs. Republicans argue that this is wrong.

Conversely, though, they argue that pharmaceutical companies should be able to charge tremendous fees from sick people, because these fees are the incentive they need to assume the financial burden of advancing life-saving research. So it's not okay for greedy lawyers to rob their clients in order to buy themselves cars under the guise of advancing victim rights, but it's okay for greedy pharmaceutical companies to rob us all in order to pay their execs ridiculous salaries and develop more drugs for old impotent men under the guise of advancing life-saving research. It is also telling that the blame for plaintiffs getting pennies was placed squarely on their attorneys, and no mention was made of the greedy defendants using every tool available to reduce, delay, and avoid making payments to those very same plaintiffs.

Life-saving drugs have come about as a result of greed-driven research by large pharmaceuticals, but it also has happened that victims of terrible wrongs have found redress because a greedy lawyer took a chance on their case.

Saturday, February 12, 2005


Oh me, oh my, Mizzou upset Oklahoma in overtime 68-65 at Columbia this afternoon. I, for one, missed the triumphant return of the Tigers, as I left Peg Leg Sullivan's at the half in order to get to a picket at an area nursing home (I'm working for SEIU). I'm starting to think that maybe I'm to blame for this miserable season since normally I watch the whole game. Then again, I haven't watched the last few losses, so perhaps I'm being too hard on myself.

In related news (barely), the Tamil Tigers received praise from the Sri Lankan government for showing restraint following last week's killing of an LTTE leader. The 3 year old truce in place appears to be living another day as a result of this restraint, and I find the parallels between the situation in Sri Lanka and the Israeli-Palestinian cease fire remarkable.

In an interesting segue from my last post, the Tamil Tigers' motto, "Freedom isn't given. It has to be fought for and won." reminds me an awful lot of those "Freedom isn't free" bumper stickers I used to see on pickups in Missouri. It's always interesting to notice how much extremist ideology resembles that of its enemies. The Christian Right in America wants to put Jesus in the White House and subject us all to (their interpretation of) his teachings, but they staunchly favor the secularization of the Middle East. Among them is President Bush, who , surprisingly, is against writing "God is great" on the flag... well, on the Iraqi flag, anyway. African American ministers who rail against legalizing gay marriage by citing "perversion" and God, begin to sound a lot like White Southerners who used to rail against legalizing interracial marriage. Pro-lifers who cite the sanctity of life tend to favor capital punishment (interestingly, the reverse position is often not contradictory... I don't consider a fetus a human being).

In any event, the last time I checked (which I guess was Wednesday), the Tamil Tigers are a terrorist organization in the context of the "war on terror." Of course most of the supporters of the "war on terror" who inadvertently drape a terrorist slogan across the U.S. flag on stickers and t-shirts probably don't know where Sri Lanka is, or what it is, for that matter. After all, nothing goes better with blind fanaticism than staggering ignorance. I should know, I keep saying Mizzou will go all the way.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

"war on terror" defined

I always write "war on terror" in lower case and in quotations because I don't think there is such a thing. The "axis of evil" is not made up of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, and we are not at war with terror, just as the estate tax applies to the transfer of huge estates and not to the act of dying, and so it is not a "death tax". We are supposedly at war with terrorism, which is not a synonym of terror, but rather one cause of terror, among many others with which we are not at war. We are only at war with certain types of terrorist acts, it would seem, since Mr. Bush said in the debates that there have been no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, but we sought the death penalty in the D.C. sniper case under terrorism laws. I also remember something about anthrax being caused by terrorist. Since I have heard no condemnation or seen any action with regard to abortion clinic bombers, or the KKK, or Timothy McVeigh style right-wing nut jobs out West, I have to assume we are also not at war with domestic terrorists, just foreign ones.

We are not, however, at war with all foreign terrorists, though, by law we only care about the ones threatening U.S. citizens or national security. Realistically, the extent of our "war on terror" vis-a-vis ETA was to keep them on our list of "foreign terrorist organizations" and to initially blame them for 3/11 so we wouldn't lose support for Iraq. An earlier list included "other" terrorist organizations, for which no action is required of us. Of Irish terrorist groups that made either list, only the RIRA made "the" list. To the extent that we are at war with terrorist organizations, we are only waging it against certain extremist Islamic fundamentalist groups that are acting against America.

Come to think of it, nobody has actually followed any procedure in order to declare a "war on terror", we have only authorized military action against particular countries. So I guess I write "war on terror" because it's easier than "military action against particular countries which we perceive to have sufficient ties to certain forms of extremist anti-American Islamic fundamentalism". I just have one question: The People Against Gangsterism and Drugs are on the list under "other", will winning the "war on terror" mean we lose the "war on drugs"?

Dan almost goes on NPR

Chicago public radio has a neat show called Odyssey, which we didn't get in Missouri, and today as I was driving around for work I heard a great discussion on how the Cold War affected our culture, and how the "war on terror" affects us today. I decided to call in with my two cents, and it was very strange... I had never called in to a radio station, or at least I'd never gotten through before. The first few times it was busy, but I was at a red light so I persisted, and eventually someone answered and put me on hold for a second. The person who asked my name sounded a lot like hostess Gretchen Helfrich, but it was probably the intern, and after a brief pause I just started telling her my thoughts, because she said nothing, and I assumed that was what you were supposed to do. I wasn't sure if I was on the air, or what was going on (I've heard people be told to turn their radio down while on the air, so I had done it in advance), so I just tried to say what I had called to say, and thought it'd be left at that. It wasn't that simple.

First of all, at some point it hits you that if you go on, your voice will be heard by people across the nation, so right away you tense up a bit. Then you worry that for whatever reason your voice will sound ridiculous on their air, all while trying to reformulate your thoughts so that you'll be understood clearly and the panelists can speak to your issue without Gretchen having to tell you to shut up because you're using up all the time. So your heart picks up a bit, you get a little nervous, and by now the light is green so you also have to drive. You decide it's a good idea to get rid of your gum. You say what you wanted to say, and of course, it comes out differently than you would've liked, so a follow-up is asked, and then another, and after about a minute, you both arrive at something that sounds enough like what you had in mind and is agreeable to the person on the phone. By now, I can hear the show in the background, so it's clear I'm not yet on the air, but then I am told my point is good, and they'll try to squeeze me in. For the next couple of minutes, it's as though I'm on speaker phone with Gretchen and the panelists. I was on "cyborg mode" (using the phone's hands-free thingy), and all I could hear was the show, as it sounds on the air, but coming through my earpiece. I coughed, but I did it quietly, because it felt like it would be broadcast... The next time I'd be spoken to would be to tell me "you're on the air", and then I'd have to deliver my lines on cue, knowing full well that time's running out.

The show ended after a couple of other callers went on, and I didn't know whether to hang up or what, so I stayed on, and the voice came back to say sorry the show ran out. I said "that's ok, great show", and that was that. It was a rush, what can I say...

My point was going to be that perhaps the reason we don't see the same atmosphere today as during the Cold War is the very fact that we experienced the Cold War. You can make a movie like "The Siege" during the "war on terror" precisely because you couldn't have made a movie that criticized McCarthyism during the Red Scare. My point was that we've been through a time when the government could make us spy on eachother, and make us worry that the people next door could be commies, and force us to quietly forsake our freedoms in the name of security, and in hindsight, that wasn't a good time. As a result, as much as some in the Administration might like to, the American people won't buy into the notion that criticism of the PATRIOT ACT, or Guantanamo, or the Iraqi invasion, are synonymous with terrorism. I am not a terrorist sympathizer simply because I speak out against Bush, but I would've been dubbed a communist for speaking out against McCarthy.

I recommend the movie "Guilty by Suspicion", it sheds light on the kind of America we had the last time we were collectively blinded by an "us vs. them" ideology, and it seems to me that because as a nation we already fell for that once, we know that we shouldn't do it again. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." I think that though Bush doesn't seem to be able to say those words, he understands that they limit his ability to sell us on the "war on terror".

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

IHOD has moved!

The International House of Dan has moved... to Chicago. I have taken a temporary gig doing Union representation and moved to a nifty little studio that’s the about the size of my old bedroom, but is in a really neat part of town. So forgive me for having been absent from my little blog, I have been quite busy, and I’m having trouble getting the Internet to cooperate with my computer.

More happy news, as through some unusual coincidence, my landlord’s wife works for the office of “this guy named Bassiouni”... so now I have to turn this very tenuous link with the God of international law into a long-lasting friendship, so that one day, Bassiouni and I will hang out, play chess, talk about international law, and collaborate on important projects, such as journal articles, and letters of recommendation for me. I’m not sure how this will come to pass, but the fact that there is now about one degree of separation between myself and Bassiouni proves that anything is possible.

Check back soon, as frequent posts will resume once my life here is all in place and the wi-fi at Panera keeps working.