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Hype warfare over bisphenol A (BPA)

Posted on May 31st, 2009 in General by Robert Miller

Today’s Washington Post has an interesting article on the question of bisphenol A safety, as this product has been widely distributed in plastics and food can liners since the 1950s. It is now suspected as a causative agent in human diseases including breast cancer, testicular cancer and human development; the product leaches out of the plastic to contaminate food and at higher temperatures, the leaching problem is much worse. Several bills on Capitol Hill are under consideration for banning BPA from all food products, but the food and beverage industry looks like they’re digging in their heals by considering a campaign of denial by initiating a public relations effort, using a pregnant woman talking about the benefits of BPA. As the article points out, this sounds like the same pathway that the Asbestos and tobacco industries took when their products were challenged. Canada has banned BPA in baby bottles and Chicago has banned BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. There are substitutes for BPA, but the FDA still approves BPA based on studies conducted by the chemical industry. The FDA has been roundly criticized by its own scientific advisory board for using data provided by studies supported by industry. In the meantime, here is a warning label that we could justifiably put on most American canned or bottled food products:

Warning: the American Food and Beverage Industry has no commitment to the health of those individuals that are stupid enough to buy and consume our products.

There are numerous sources of BPA-free containers, such as water bottles.


I, the juror

Posted on May 30th, 2009 in Culture by Robert Miller

A few months ago, I received a notice to report for jury duty in the Hennepin County court system, physically located in downtown Minneapolis. I was able to postpone the date of my appearance by a month to come after with the end of the semester, so beginning in the middle of June I will have to be available for jury duty for two consecutive weeks. Oddly enough, though I have friends who have served on  jury duty many times, this will be my first experience as a juror. I have always felt that jury duty is an opportunity for us as citizens to express our views on the legal system and the laws that have been passed, including the criminal codes, that in many cases do not give judges the option of sentencing on the merits of the case, but merely on whether the law was broken. And, what about the laws? Then too, we have a judicial system in which many judges have to run for re-election, like politicians, and this makes them accessible to populist fads, generating wide excursions in our judicial decisions. Furthermore, our criminal justice system has produced a leviathan waiting for us just around the corner in the form of more than 2.3 million prisoners as of June 2008. Many of these prisoners have families with children, such that an entire culture of Americans are growing up in relationship to our prison system. This is new. The threat of this large growth in our prison population places us at risk of creating a new exponential growth curve for our incarceration rates of the future, because the children of the current prison population are themselves at risk of imprisonment.  How will we respond? Will we simply build more prisons? Will we do nothing to prevent these sons and daughters and wives and husbands of prisoners from following in their footsteps?


Bureau of Justice Statistics

The graph on the right shows the steady march towards the state prison population we have today (as of 2005; data does not include Federal prison system). Clearly the major criminals behind bars are there for violent crimes, such as murder, rape, manslaughter, robbery and many others. According to the Bureau of Justice, about 22% of the current prison population consists of people in jail for drug crimes, reflecting our war on drugs, whose most visible success is the increased incarceration rate for “drug crimes.”  A similar number of prisoners have been convicted of property crimes (burglary, bad checks, etc) and a smaller number reflect public order crimes (weapons violations, drunk driving). Vivien Stern, a research fellow at the prison studies center in London, has concluded “the American incarceration rate has made the United States a rogue state, a country that has made a decision not to follow what is a normal Western approach”  (quoted from the NYT article by Adam Liptak). I believe that the most fundamental constant to the growth of our penitentiary system is old fashioned racism.

If I have the opportunity to give my views in some way on our legal system, I intend to express the following:

  1. I will not vote to convict anyone of a drug-related crime, unless committed through violent means
  2. I will not vote for conviction of any marijuana-related arrest, including possession, distribution or production
  3. Minnesota has no death penalty so I will not have an opportunity to express my opposition on that penalty
  4. I will be very reluctant to vote for conviction if mandatory sentencing is forced on the judge, although that would be based on the crime and the nature of the case. I believe that hardened criminals, guilty of violent crimes, need to be separated from society, but I also believe we are not working hard enough to make alternative opportunities available to the young people in these poor neighborhoods and get to them before crime becomes about their only other alternative. We have never seriously approached poverty and slum areas in this way and the end result could be a net savings in cost and a net increase in public safety and cultural productivity (to me, the Van Jones book The Green Collar Economy: How One Soltuion Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems is a fiscally sound, practicable way of making a down payment on saving the planet and elevating the impoverished components of our culture).
  5. I will not vote to imprison someone who falls victim to our lack of a social safety net (bad checks, petty crimes of poverty)
  6. In summary, I believe in an older concept of criminal justice, one that puts violent crimes as the major motivation for maintaining a prison system. But, I also believe that our criminal justice system should be focused on rehabilitation, not propagation of criminals and crime.  I do not believe that drugs or petty property violations should qualify to incarcerate someone. These are social issues, not criminal issues and they should be separated and treated as such.

Refuting Torture Memos

Posted on May 28th, 2009 in Culture,War by Robert Miller

A Horror Story Begins: The Washington Spectator, one of my favorite print sources, has several articles in their June issue on torture. The first is a heart-breaking story about a young man from Germany, Murat Kurnaz, who, as a Muslim traveling in Afghanistan to learn more about Muslim prayer, got caught up in the war. Shortly after the war broke out, Kurnaz was riding on a bus to catch a plane back to Germany, but, apparently because of his western dress, he was arrested by the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis accused him of being an Al Qaeda operative and turned him over to the U.S. authorities, who paid them $3,000 for his capture (you may have heard that the U.S. paid hundreds of millions of dollars as bounty for prisoners, for whom there was no evidence of complicity with Al Qaeda: for some Pakistanis and Afghans, it was an opportunity to sell your nasty neighbors off for some cash). Thus began Kurnaz’s long nightmare of torture, first in the U.S. camp in Kandahar, Afghanistan and later in Guantanamo. He was eventually released five years after his capture, but in the meantime his wife had divorced him and his life was in shambles. Yet in many ways, Kurnaz was one of the lucky ones–he survived the torture methods, while others died and he was eventually released and had enough spirit left in him that he was able to write a book on this experience as a torture victim: Five Years of My Life: An innocent Man in Guatanamo. His story indelibly argues that basic human rights should be granted to all detainees.  In the case of Kurnaz, it would have been relatively easy for a lawyer to present his case and secure his release without torture. It is the torture factor that has made America look so bad in the eyes of those that know about these events.

Torture did not produce the information claimed by Cheney: Right now, the U.S. seems to be in a gut-wrenching period of its history over the issue of torture. The Republicans believe they found a way out by blaming torture on Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while many Democrats, including Pelosi, are pushing for a truth commission to bring the whole story into the light of day. I guess to accept  the Republican attack on Pelosi, you have to believe it was Nancy Pelosi that should have stopped the crazy Bush administration folks who favored torture in a sort of “stop me before I torture again” kind of rationale.  I favor the truth commission AND prosecution where laws have been broken or are suspected of being broken. The truth about torture needs to see the light of day. And if done openly, it will put to rest the idea promoted by Cheney and Fox News, that torture really works.

Evidence refuting Cheney’s claims about the value of torture has recently come from former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who infiltrated Al Qaeda and worked on the first interrogation team that questioned Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah, after he was captured in Pakistan in 2002. He also interrogated an Al Qaeda operative known as Abu Jandal and served as a witness in the only two trials that have been conducted in the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo. Soufan believes that torture has only a negative effect on detainees and he has strong evidence to support his claim. At a May 13 Judiciary subcommittee hearing, where Soufan testified under oath, behind a screen to protect his identity, he delivered devastating information against the use of torture. Soufan was in on the first round of questioning of Zubaydah in which torture was not used, but conventional interrogation methods were employed (he’s old school on torture).  He reported that during the first round of questioning, Zubaydah gave up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Soufan also pointed out that the initial questioning was interrupted by a second team of private contractors, who began using torture techniques and, in respsone, Zubaydah completely shut down and offered no additional information. When Soufan’s team was invited back in, Zubaydah provided the name of Jose Padilla, the so-called “dirty bomber.” The second team returned with their harsh methods and again, Zubayda became close-mouthed. Once Soufan saw the methods that the private contractors were using, he called his supervisors and said that he would either have to make an arrest of the interrogators or leave. Soufan left and FBI director Robert Mueller sent word from Washington that Soufan and his team were off the case. Zubaydah was later waterboarded eighty-three times. But, the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Council created a “torture memo” (one that was released by the Obama administration) based on these interrogations and claimed that the enhanced torture methods used against Zubaydah had produced the intelligence that Soufan claims he obtained using time-honored, non-violent methods. The White House memo said “Interrogations of Zubaydah, again once enhanced techniques were employed, furnished detailed information regarding Al Qaeda’s organizational structure, key operatives, and modus operandi–and identified KSM as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.” Thus, according to Soufan, the intelligence break-throughs that Cheney now claims for torture, were actually secured by Soufan using  conventional interrogation methods. Based on Soufan’s testimony, it is clear that the White House was fabricating its memos to claim results from torture that were in fact obtained with conventional techniques. When asked specifically if the “torture memo” was untrue, Soufan said “Yes, sir.” The hardened battle lines on torture have been declared and the White House memos on “torture victories” are now suspect. Perhaps a truth commission can learn the details of these memos and create a national consensus on how torture not only destroys the lives of those tortured, the majority of whom are probably innocent, but it destroys the fabric of the culture that carries out the acts of torture. It’s a little harder as an American to hold your head high, unless of course you believe in fabricated memos, like those Cheney seems to endorse.

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