The Land Mines Problem
For some of us, the problem with land mines is an old one, and the fact that it continues is and should be a blot on our conscience. The casualties are increasing, for 2016, the last year for which there are statistics, there were 8,605 casualties, a number which includes 2089 deaths. These numbers represent about 25% more than the casualties the year before and are more than double the number for 2014. Much of the damage is done by cluster landmines. As their name indicates, they are one landmine made up of many smaller ones, so when they explode a lot more harm is done. Much of the mayhem created by landmines is in Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine and Yemen although at least 56 other countries including Syria also have landmines. There is, or perhaps I should say there was, a treaty signed by 169 countries which became effective in 1999. Yet several major countries are not signatories: China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea. As many may already guess, the United States is also not a signatory. You can see why I feel there was a treaty because the 1999 one is far from limiting land mines. In fact the US recently reauthorized the restock of cluster munitions. The governments which use land mines, including the US, find them very effective and of course rather inexpensive. Not to use them says the Pentagon would be to put soldiers at risk. Right now the issue is a non-issue since the DMZ in between North and South Korea is heavily landmined, and given the situation makes its own point. One of the many problems involved with landmines is that some 80% of victims are innocent civilians and of these 42% are children.
In view of the current administration’s stand on any number of defense issues, one cannot be realistic and expect that the problem with landmines would be anywhere on their radar. To be noted though there are those for whom the problem is shameful like the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and the NYT editorial from which these figures are drawn called the whole issue indecent. Whether or not landmines and their destruction are on the radar of the administration, they remain indecent and should be on our own radar.
The Cost of Childbirth in the US
When the Duchess of Cambridge last gave birth, though she had access to certain amenities usually not available to the average person, the cost was the equivalent of $18,000. While the costs of childbirths in the US are very hard to determine due to various rates in different states and different hospitals, one study estimates them at about $32,000 for a vaginal delivery and $51,000 for a caesarean section. Although insurance may cover most of the costs for those who are insured, the average out of pocket cost for a delivery is estimated at $3,400. While many deliveries are covered by Medicaid, many are still uninsured. And when things go wrong from pre-eclampsia, to premature births, then the costs are even higher. Childbirth costs in the US are the most expansive of the developed world. In Spain for example, the average birth costs less than $2,000. Add to this the fact that infant mortality is higher in the US, 6.1 for every 1000 births, a rate that is higher than that of Slovakia and Hungary and about three times the rate of Japan and Finland. What compounds these numbers is that the US also has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developed world. Thus the US is not only the most expensive nation in the developed world in which to give birth to a child, it is also the riskiest. The unexpected costs have driven many to bankruptcies. One woman in New Jersey who gave births to twins prematurely and who had insurance went to a network hospital but it turned out the ambulance and some doctors such as anesthesiologists were not. Her bill was $877,000. With the help of a Medicare Cost Advocate—I didn’t even know they existed—whose services I am sure are not free, she was one of the lucky ones, the bill was whittled to $1,300.
Given the structural problems of the US health care system, such realities may not be surprising, and yet they are an acute reminder that we should not ignore them.
On Freedom of Religion
People A military chaplain, the Rev Ronald Apollo, sued the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to be able to practice his religious beliefs and won. BOP wanted all personnel to carry pepper spray, including chaplains, so that if attacked by an inmate they could protect themselves. Apollo challenged the rule and now prison chaplains will no longer have to carry pepper spray. That to some may be just another example of how the Christian right asserts its values on the society, but it is more than that. First of course is the issue that there are many rules in the BOP and elsewhere which may have negative impact which we are not conscious of. Here it was the fact the BOP’s rule was based on a Federal law to keep prisons safe. But the gist of the case is the fact that Apollo is a member of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith which calls on its members to renounce “weapons of human strife’ and that to him pepper spray was such a weapon. He was defended by Liberty Counsel, a non profit which gives free assistance including with litigation, to people whose religious freedom and Christian values are being violated. Their case was based on the fact that Apollo felt his neutrality negated by having to carry a weapon, he could no longer be neutral (chaplains in prisons are often called upon to mediate disputes). It not only jeopardized his impartiality it made it look as if he was on the side of the correctional officers.
The case reported by the Marshall project was a teaching moment for me. We normally equate religious freedom with the Christian right and therefore assume that the outcome will necessarily be one that may go against our own values. Here the Christian right representatives did the right thing, even though as a group they tend to be pro law-enforcement in prisons as in anywhere else, a stance that does at times violate the civil rights of people in detention. Yet, in this instance they defended a principle that while it upheld the conscience of Apollo, also protected inmates. It was a good reminder that as a concept religious freedom has value, and just because the Christian right typically uses it to promote its own beliefs, does not undo that value.
Guns and the Heller Decision
Yes the Constitution has a second amendment which addresses the issue of gun ownership. But not until the Heller decision in 2008 did individual gun ownership come to the fore. This now famous landmark case, whose decision was written by Antonin Scalia, ended up a demarcation for gun rights groups. Until then individual gun ownership not related to service in a militia traditionally connected to lawful purposes such as some form of self-defense had been moot. In fact in 1975 the City Council of the District of Columbia passed the Firearms Control Regulations Act. The Heller decision made it unconstitutional. In 2010 McDonald v the City of Chicago reinforced the notion of the 2nd Amendment protecting individual rights. So the issue of individual gun ownership while based in the 2nd Amendment is far younger than we think. And of course there are those who still disagree with the 5-4 reasoning of the Supreme Court. Today there is what may be a growing number of people who want to repeal the 2nd Amendment. Because I am old enough to remember the defeat of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) giving women rights equal to men, I hold little or no hope for such a measure. But some more schooled in the legal issues of the Heller decision than I am, Scott Lemieux for one, in an L.A. Times op-ed writes “…Heller left a much wider scope for gun control than is commonly recognized. In his majority opinion, the late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that “the right secured by the 2nd Amendment is not unlimited” and that the 2nd Amendment does not prevent the state from banning “dangerous and unusual weapons.”” This means that under Heller, a ban on semiautomatic weapons would be constitutional, Lemieux points out. One can, and I do, conclude that if this is so, then it does seem to leave much room for Congress to act.
Even in today’s climate where many politicians fear the wrath of the NRA, or is it the withdrawals of donations, there is much that can be done to limit the accessibility of guns. In a much discussed recent NYT article, Andrew Ross Sorkin suggested that banks, credit card companies or those which process credit cards payments could regulate whether or not guns could be paid by credit card—bitcoins for example can’t be. At the time of this writing at least one bank has done so. There is also an approach which may be slower to bring about and yet which could have greater long term impact, that is to bring up a case to challenge Heller. Regardless of what else is done, it is an approach I can’t help but support. The point is that we have options, that there are many approaches, many ways to tackle the problems of guns, despite the existing resistance. And just like the young students in Florida following their experience with 17 of their peers being shot, we too must become activists, we too must make sure that the issue does not rest until we succeed in controlling who can buy and use a gun.
Rape in South Sudan
We South Sudan is not a country we often think about. One of the poorest countries in the world, it has been undergoing a vicious civil war for 5 years, a war that is as brutal as any war. As is often the case in these kinds of conflicts, rape is a daily occurrence, mass rape wielded as a weapon to intimidate, conquer, punish, instill fear. Rare is the woman who has not been raped, in a culture where the shame and stigma rape brings is enough for many to be thrown out of their home and ostracized. This is rape at it most violent Women are thrown on the ground, usually rough ground, and violated in the coarsest ugliest way by drunken soldiers from the other side while being told that if they scream they will be killed. Besides the psychological trauma, there are physical pains associated with back injuries and having been seized so violently tissues are torn. Sometimes they get pregnant as a result of the rape. While many do not talk about their experience, in a UN refugee camp, they have begun to talk, at times using the third person to describe what happened. And once in a while there is touching story like the story of Cecilia who told her husband, and his response was that as bad as it was at least she had not been killed and permanently taken from him.
In the middle of the #MeToo movement I think it may be useful for us to think of how sexual mistreatment is practiced in other cultures. We have differing standards as to sexual behavior and are able to stand up and say Time’s Up, but women in many countries, and particularly in war zones such as South Sudan do not have that right—or is it privilege?
Teaching Slave History
Which was the reason the south seceded from the union, a test asked 1000 high schoolers: To preserve states’ rights, to preserve slavery, to protest taxes on imported goods or to avoid rapid industrialization? While nearly half chose to protest taxes, only 8% chose the correct answer, to protect slavery. And only a third identified the 13th amendment as the law that officially ended slavery. The test was given as part of a survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project. Their report entitled Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, concluded that when it comes to teaching slavery the nation needs an intervention. School districts, teachers, textbooks, all need to better address it. Part of their study however found that a key reason was that teachers were uncomfortable teaching the subject, particularly when there was little support from schools and from the textbooks they were using.
In the report’s preface, Hassan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at Ohio State University and chair of the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board, writes about slavery, “It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it.” It is easy to add that indeed these are truths hard to read about and discover. Nevertheless they are part of history, part of American history. While I can understand the discomforts and difficult task of those teaching the history of slavery, I wonder if those discomforts do not reflect those of the society. And if they do, do they not fuel the racial divide?
To Ponder On
“What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”
Henry David Thoreau