bureaucracybusters

Archive for December, 2015|Monthly archive page

HELL IN THE RENTERS’ PARADISE: PART TWO (OF THREE)

In Bureaucracy, History, Law, Law Enforcement, Politics, Social commentary on December 31, 2015 at 12:01 am

The “war on drugs” has some valuable lessons to teach the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection (DBI) which is charged with protecting tenants against predatory landlords.

Consider:

  • At least 400,000 rape kits containing critical DNA evidence that could convict rapists sit untested in labs around the country.
  • But illegal drug kits are automatically rushed to the had of the line.

Why?

It isn’t simply because local/state/Federal lawmen universally believe that illicit drugs pose a deadly threat to the Nation’s security.

It’s because:

  • Federal asset forfeiture laws allow the Justice Department to seize properties used to “facilitate” violations of Federal anti-drug laws.
  • Local and State law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep some of the proceeds once the property has been sold.
  • Thus, financially-strapped police agencies have found that pursuing drug-law crimes is a great way to fill their own coffers.
  • Prosecutors and lawmen view the seizing of drug-related properties as crucial to eliminating the financial clout of drug-dealing operations.

It’s long past time for DBI to apply the same attitude–and methods–toward slumlords.

DBI should become not merely a law-enforcing agency but a revenue-creating one.  And those revenues should come from predatory slumlords who routinely violate the City’s laws protecting tenants.

By doing so, DBI could vastly:

  • Enhance its own prestige and authority;
  • Improve living conditions for thousands of San Francisco renters; and
  • Bring millions of desperately-needed dollars into the City’s cash-strapped coffers

Among those reforms it should immediately enact:

  1. Hit slumlord violators up-front with a fine–payable immediately–for at least $2,000 to $5,000 for each health/safety-code violation.
  2. The slumlord would be told he could reclaim 75-80% of the money onlyif he fully corrected the violation within 30 days.  The remaining portion of the levied fine would go into the City coffers, to be shared among DBI and other City agencies.
  3. This would put the onus on the slumlord, not DBI. Appealing to his greed would ensure his willingness to comply with the ordered actions.  As matters now stand, it is DBI who must repeatedly check with the slumlord to find out if its orders have been complied with.
  4. If the landlord failed to comply with the actions ordered within 30 days, the entire fine would go into the City’s coffers–to be dividedamong DBI and other agencies charged with protecting San Francisco residents.
  5. In addition, he would be hit again with a fine that’s at least twice the amount of the first one.
  6. Inspectors for DBI should be allowed to cite landlords for violations that fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Health.  They can then pass the information on to DPH for its own investigation.
  7. If the DBI Inspector later discovers that the landlord has not corrected the violation within a designated time-period, DBI should be allowed to levy its own fine for his failure to do so.
  8. If DPH objects to this, DBI should propose that DPH’s own Inspectorsbe armed with similar cross-jurisdictional authority.  Each agency would thus have increased motivation for spotting and correcting health/safety violations that threaten the lives of San Francisco residents.
  9. This would instantly turn DBI and DPH into allies, not competitors.  And it would mean that whether a citizen called DBI or DPH, s/he could be assured of getting necessary assistance.  As matters now stand, many residents are confused by the conflicting jurisdictions of both agencies.
  10. DBI should insist that its Inspectors Division be greatly expanded. DBI can attain this by arguing that reducing the number of Inspectors cuts (1) protection for San Francisco renters–and (2) monies that could go to the general City welfare.
  11. The Inspection Division should operate independently of DBI. Currently,  too many high-ranking DBI officials tilt toward landlords because they are landlords themselves.
  12. DBI should create a Special Research Unit that would compile records on the worst slumlord offenders.  Thus, a slumlord with a repeat history of defying DBI NOVs could be treated more harshly than a landlord who was a first-time offender.
  13. Turning DBI into a revenue-producing one would enable the City to raise desperately-needed revenues—in a highly popular way. Fining delinquent slumlords would be as unpopular as raising taxes on tobacco companies. Only slumlords and their hired lackey allies would object.
  14. Slumlords, unlike drug-dealers, can’t move their operations from one street or city to another.  Landlords aren’t going to demolish their buildings and move them somewhere else.

HELL IN THE RENTERS’ PARADISE: PART ONE (OF THREE)

In Bureaucracy, History, Law, Law Enforcement, Politics, Social commentary on December 30, 2015 at 2:32 pm

To hear slumlords tell it, San Francisco is a “renters’ paradise,” where obnoxious, lazy, rent-evading tenants constantly take advantage of hard-working, put-upon landlords.

Don’t believe it.

And in case you’re inclined to anyway, consider the story of Kip and Nicole Macy, two San Francisco slumlords who recently pled guilty to felony charges of residential burglary, stalking and attempted grand theft.

Kip Macy

Nicole Macy

Determined to evict rent control-protected tenants from their apartment building in the South of Market district, they unleashed a reign of terror in 2006:

  • Cut holes in the floor of one tenant’s living room with a power saw–while he was inside his unit.
  • Cut out sections of the floor joists to make the building collapse.
  • Threatened to shoot Ricardo Cartagena, their property manager, after he refused to make the cuts himself.
  • Changed the locks to Cartagena’s apartment, removed all of his belongings and destroyed them.
  • Created fictitious email accounts to appear as a tenant who had filed a civil suit against the Macys–and used these to fire the tenant’s attorney.
  • Cut the tenants’ telephone lines and shut off their electricity, gas and water.
  • Changed the locks on all the apartments without warning.
  • Mailed death threats.
  • Kicked one of their tenants in the ribs.
  • Hired workers to board up a tenant’s windows from the outside while he still lived there.
  • Falsely reported trespassers in a tenant’s apartment, leading police to hold him and a friend at gunpoint.
  • Broke into the units of three tenants and removed all their belongings.
  • Again broke into the units of the same three victims and soaked their beds, clothes and electronics with amonia.

The Macys were arrested in April, 2008, posted a combined total of $500,000 bail and then fled the country after being indicted in early 2009.

In May, 2012, Italian police arrested them and deported them back to America a year later.

Having pled guilty, they were sentenced in September, 2013, to a prison term of four years and four months.

How could such a campaign of terror go on for two years against law-abiding San Francisco tenants?

Simple.

Even in the city misnamed as a “renter’s paradise,” slumlords are treated like gods by the very agencies that are supposed to protect tenants against their abuses.

The power of slumlords calls to mind the scene in 1987’s The Untouchables, where Sean Connery’s veteran cop tells Eliot Ness: “Everybody knows where the liquor is. It’s just a question of: Who wants to cross Capone?”

Many tenants have lived with rotting floors, bedbugs, nonworking toilets, mice/rats, chipping lead-based paint and other outrages for not simply months but years.

Consider the situation at the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection, which is supposed to ensure that apartment buildings are in habitable condition:

  • A landlord is automatically given 30 days to correct a health/safety violation. If he drags his feet on the matter, the tenant must live with that problem until it’s resolved.
  • If the landlord claims for any reason that he can’t fix the problem within one month, DBI doesn’t demand that he prove this.  Instead, it automatically gives him another month.
  • A slumlord has to work at being hit with a fine—by letting a problem go uncorrected for three to six months.
  • And even then, repeat slumlord offenders often avoid the fine by pleading for leniency.
  • That’s because many DBI officials are themselves landlords.

But the situation doesn’t have to remain this way.

DBI could:

  • Vastly enhance its own prestige and authority
  • Improve living conditions  for thousands of San Francisco renters, and
  • Bring millions of desperately-needed dollars into the City’s cash-strapped coffers.

How?

By learning some valuable lessons from the “war on drugs” and applying them to regulating slumlords.

Consider:

  • At least 400,000 rape kits containing critical DNA evidence that could convict rapists sit untested in labs around the country.
  • But illegal drug kits are automatically rushed to the had of the line.

Why?

It isn’t simply because local/state/Federal lawmen universally believe that illicit drugs pose a deadly threat to the Nation’s security.

It’s because:

  • Federal asset forfeiture laws allow the Justice Department to seize properties used to “facilitate” violations of Federal anti-drug laws.
  • Local and State law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep some of the proceeds once the property has been sold.
  • Thus, financially-strapped police agencies have found that pursuing drug-law crimes is a great way to fill their own coffers.
  • Prosecutors and lawmen view the seizing of drug-related properties as crucial to eliminating the financial clout of drug-dealing operations.

It’s long past time for San Francisco agencies to apply the same attitude–and methods–toward slumlords.

In my next column I will lay out how this can be done.

SECRET SERVICE–FULLL SPEED AHEAD TO DISASTER: PART TWO (END)

In Bureaucracy, History, Law Enforcement, Politics on December 29, 2015 at 12:19 am

On the night of September 19, 2014, an Iraq war veteran, Omar Gonzales, jumped the White House fence, ran more than 70 yards across the north lawn, and sprinted just past the north portico White House doors.

Only then was he apprehended by Secret Service agents.

Gonzalez’ short-lived trespass onto White House grounds was one of 143 security breaches–or attempted breaches–at facilities protected by the United States Secret Service (USSS) during during the last 10 years.

Then, less than 24 hours after Gonzalez’s arrest, a second man was apprehended after he drove up to a White House gate and refused to leave.  This triggered a search of his vehicle by bomb technicians in full gear.  Other agents shut down nearby streets.  No bombs were found.

Asked for Obama’s reaction, White House spokesman Frank Benenati gave this boilerplate reply: “The president has full confidence in the Secret Service and is grateful to the men and women who day in and day out protect himself, his family and the White House.”

Yet not all is well in Presidential security.

A newly-released report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee found the Secret Service to be “in crisis.”

Related image

The White House

“Morale is down, attrition is up, misconduct continues and security breaches persist,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, (R-Utah) publicly stated.

“Strong leadership from the top is required to fix the systematic mismanagement within the agency, and to restore it to its former prestige.”

But the blunt truth is that many of the problems now plaguing the USSS were on full display as early as 2009.

That was when well-known investigative reporter Ronald Kessler published his then-latest book, In the President’s Secret Service.

Kessler had previously pubilshed books outlining the inner workings of the White House, the CIA and the FBI.

Kessler praised the courage and integrity of Secret Service agents as a whole.  But he warned that the agency was risking the safety of many of its protectees, including President Obama.

He was particularly critical of SS management for such practices as:

  • Shutting off weapon-scanning magnetometers at rallies for Presidential candidates–and even for Presidents George W. Bush and Obama. 
  • During a speech Bush gave at Tbilisi, Georgia in 2005, an assailant threw a live hand grenade–which failed to explode–at him.  
  • Despite 9/11, Secret Service agents are still being trained to expect an attempt by a lone gunman—rather than a professional squad of terrorist assassins.
  • The Service’s Counter Assault Teams (CATs) have generally been cut back from five or six agents to tworendering them useless if a real attack occurred.
  • Salaries paid to USSS agents have not kept pace with reality. Veteran USSS men and women are now being offered up to four times their salary for moving to the private sector, and many are leaving the agency for that reason.

Secret Service agents protecting President Barack Obama

  • While Congress has greatly expanded the duties of this agency, Secret Service management has not asked for equivalent increases in funding and agents.
  • Many agents are leaving out of frustration that it takes “juice” or connections with top management to advance one’s career.
  • USSS agents are being trained with weapons that are outdated (such as the MP5, developed in the 1960s) compared to those used by other law enforcement agencies and the potential assassins they face (such as the M4–with greater range and armor-piercing capabilities).
  • The Service refuses to ask for help from other agencies to meet its manpower needs. Thus, a visiting head of state at the U.N. General Assembly will usually be assigned only three agents as protection.
  • The agency tells agents to grade themselves on their physical training test forms.  
  • Agents are supposed to be evaluated on their marksmanship skills every three months.  But some agents have gone more than a year without being tested.
  • Some agents are so overweight they can’t meet the rigorous demands of the job. As a result, they pose a danger to the people they’re supposed to be guarding.
  • The Secret Service inflates its own arrest statistics by claiming credit for arrests made by local police.
  • Congressional members who visit the agency’s Rowley Training Center in Laurel, Maryland, are treated to rehearsed scenarios of how the agency would deal with attacks. If agents were allowed to perform these exercises without rehearsals, Congressional members would see they make mistakes like anyone else.

Kessler closes his book with the warning: “Without….changes, an assassination of Barack Obama or a future president is likely.

“If that happens, a new Warren Commission will be appointed to study the tragedy. It will find that the Secret Service was shockingly derelict in its duty to the American people and to its own elite corps of brave and dedicated agents.”

And the effects will be not only momentary but long-term.  As Kessler writes:

“By definition, an assassination threatens democracy.

“If Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated, Andrew Johnson, his successor, would not have been able to undermine Lincoln’s efforts to reunite the nation and give more rights to blacks during the Reconstruction period.

“If John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated, Lyndon Johnson likely never would have become President.  If Robert F. Kennedy had not been killed and had won the presidency, Richard Nixon might never have been elected.”

SECRET SERVICE–FULL SPEED AHEAD TO DISASTER: PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Bureaucracy, History, Law Enforcement, Politics on December 28, 2015 at 2:37 am

The United States Secret Service (USSS) is “in crisis”–a crisis that threatens President Barack Obama and his successors as President of the United States.

That’s the verdict of a review of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Since April, 2012, the agency has faced scandal–and scrutiny by the press and Committee. That was when reports first surfaced of agents buying the favors of prostitutes in Columbia.

Even more embarrassing for the USSS were a series of security breaches that potentially exposed President Barack Obama to danger.

As a result, during the last three years, three directors have headed the Secret Service. Numerous agents–including senior officials–have been disciplined, transferred or fired.

For decades, the Secret Service was seen by the press, public and other law enforcement agencies as an elite agency. And the Presidential Protection Detail (PPD) was seen as the most elite part of the agency.

No longer.

Secret Service agents guarding President Obama

Among the findings of the 438-page report:

  • The agency is understaffed and overworked.
  • Its staffing crisis started in 2011 owing to government-wide budget cuts demanded by Republicans.
  • The Secret Service has fewer employees today than it did in 2014, despite recommendations from an independent panel that staffing be increased.
  • There have been a number of undisclosed security breaches–such as in October, 2014, when an unauthorized woman gained access to a Congressional Hispanic Caucus event that Obama attended.
  • In February, two people gained access to the outer security perimeter of the White House.
  • There have been 143 security breaches–or attempted breaches–during the last 10 years at facilities protected by the agency.

“This report reveals that the Secret Service is in crisis,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, (R-Utah) publicly stated.  “Morale is down, attrition is up, misconduct continues and security breaches persist.

“Strong leadership from the top is required to fix the systematic mismanagement within the agency, and to restore it to its former prestige.”

But the truth is that many of the problems now plaguing the U.S. Secret Service were on display long before the House issued its report.

On September 11, 2001, Secret Service agents literally grabbed Vice President Dick Cheney and hauled him from the White House to a secure facility beneath the Executive Mansion.

As for everyone else who worked in the White House, agents simply threw open the White House doors and ordered: “Run!”

“Women, take off your shoes!” agents shouted–so they could run faster. Frightened Presidential aides were told to remove their White House badges–just in case snipers were lurking nearby.

That was it.

With the World Trade Center and Pentagon in flames, and the White House seemingly next in line as a target, this was the sum total of protection offered White House staffers by the agency considered the elite in Federal law enforcement.

White House staffers fleeing on 9/11

Not knowing what to do, some aides walked home in a daze.

Click here: Amazon.com: Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (9780385525190): Peter Baker: Books

(President George W. Bush was not in the White House at the time.  He was reading The Pet Goat to a group of children at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida.)

Three days later, on September 14, Andy Card, Bush’s chief of staff, addressed White House staffers in Room 450 of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the West Wing.

Card said he understood that “this is not what any of you signed up for when you joined the White House staff.”  And he offered them the chance to resign without anyone–himself or the President–thinking any less of them.

When no one offered to leave, Card let a Secret Service agent offer security advice:

  • Vary your routines to and from work.
  • Watch out for any cars that might be following you.
  • Go to different restaurants for lunch.

At least one member of the audience, Bradford Berenson, an associate White House counsel, knew he wouldn’t be taking that advice.

Like most of the others at the meeting, his name was listed in the local phone book.  A terrorist wanting to kill him need only lurk outside Berenson’s home and open fire when he appeared.

Click here: 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars: Kurt Eichenwald: 9781451669398: Amazon.com: Books

And that was it, as far as the Secret Service was concerned.

No offers of even temporary escorts by Secret Service agents. No offers to install “panic buttons” in their homes in case of emergency.

In essence: “We’re really glad you’ve decided to serve your country.  But don’t expect us to protect you.  You’re on your own.”

Fast forward 13 years later.

On the night of September 19, 2014, an Iraq war veteran, Omar Gonzales, jumped the White House fence, ran more than 70 yards across the north lawn, and sprinted just past the north portico White House doors.

Gonzalez appeared unarmed as he ran across the lawn–possibly one reason why Secret Service agents didn’t shoot him or release their service dogs to detain him. But he had a small folding knife with a three-and-one-half-inch serrated blade when he was apprehended.

According to a criminal complaint, when he was arrested he told Secret Service agents he was “concerned that the atmosphere was collapsing” and needed to contact the President “so he could get word out to the people.”

SOLDIERING IN AFGHANISTAN: THEN AND NOW

In History, Military, Politics, Social commentary on December 25, 2015 at 3:26 pm

In “Excalibur,” director John Boorman’s brilliant 1981 telling of the King Arthur legends, Merlin warns Arthur’s knights–and us: “For it is the doom of men that they forget.”

Not so Steven Pressfield, who repeatedly holds up the past as a mirror to our present.  Case in point: His 2006 novel, The Afghan Campaign.

By 2006, Americans had been fighting in Afghanistan for five years.  And today, almost ten years into the same war, there remains no clear end in sight–to our victory or withdrawal.

Pressfield’s novel, although set 2,000 years into the past, has much to teach us about what are soldiers are facing today in that same alien, unforgiving land.

Matthias, a young Greek seeking  glory and opportunity, joins the army of Alexander the Great. But the Persian Empire has fallen, and the days of conventional, set-piece battles–where you can easily tell friend from foe–are over.

Alexander next plans to conquer India, but first he must pacify its gateway–Afghanistan. Here that the Macedonians meet a new–and deadly–kind of enemy.

“Here the foe does not meet us in pitched battle,” warns Alexander. “Even when we defeat him, he will no accept our dominion. He comes back again and again. He hates us with a passion whose depth is exceeded only by his patience and his capacity for suffering.”

Related image

Alexander the Great

Matthias learns this early.  In his first raid on an Afghan village, he’s ordered to execute a helpless prisoner.  When he hesitates, he’s brutalized until he strikes out with his sword–and botches the job.

But, soon, exposed to an unending series of atrocities–committed by himself and his comrades, as  well as the enemy–he finds himself transformed.

And he hates it.  He agonizes over the gap between the ideals he embraced when he became a soldier–and the brutalities that have drained him of everything but a grim determination to survive at any cost.

Pressfield, a former Marine himself, repeatedly contrasts how civilians see war as a kind of “glorious” child’s-play with how soldiers actually experience it.

Related image

Steven Pressfield

He creates an extraordinary exchange between Costas, an ancient-world version of a CNN war correspondent, and Lucas, a soldier whose morality is outraged at how Costas and his ilk routinely prettify  the indescribable.

And we know the truth of this exchange immediately. For we know there are doubtless brutalities  inflicted by our troops on the enemy–and atrocities inflicted by the enemy upon them–that never make  the headlines, let alone the TV cameras.

We also know that, decades  from now, thousands of our former soldiers will carry horrific memories to their graves. These memories will remain sealed from public view, allowing their fellow but unblooded Americans to sleep peacefully, unaware of  the terrible price that others have paid on their behalf.

Like the Macedonians (who call themselves “Macks”), our own soldiers find themselves serving in an all-but-forgotten land among a populace whose values could not be more alien from our own if they came from Mars.

Instincitvely, they turn to one another–not only for physical security but to preserve their last vestiges of humanity. As the war-weary veteran, Lucas, advises:

“Never tell anyone except your mates. Only you don’t need to tell them. They know. They know you.  Better than a man knows his wife, better than he knows himself. They’re bound to you and you to them, like wolves  in  a  pack. It’s not you and them. You are them. The unit is indivisible. One dies, we all die.”

Put conversely: One lives, we all live.

Pressfield has reached into the past to reveal fundamental truths about the present that most of us could probably not accept if contained in a modern-day memoir.

These truths take on an immediate poignancy owing to our own current war in Afghanistan.  But they will remain just as relevant decades from now, when our now-young soldiers are old and retired.

This book has been described as a sequel to Pressfield’s The Virtues of War: A  Novel  of Alexander the Great, which appeared in 2004. But it isn’t.

Virtues showcased the brilliant and luminous (if increasingly dark and explosive) personality of Alexander the Great, whose Bush-like, good-vs.-evil rhetoric inspired men to hurl themselves into countless battles on his behalf.

But Afghan thrusts us directly into the flesh-and-blood realities created by that rhetoric: The horrors of men traumatized by an often unseen but always menacing enemy, and the horrors they must inflict in return if they are to survive in a hostile and alien world.

THE GRINCH AS SANTA

In Business, History, Politics, Social commentary on December 24, 2015 at 12:10 am

It’s that time of year again–a time of

  • Christmas trees;
  • Nativity scenes;
  • singing carols; and
  • exchanging gifts with family and friends.

Christmas is special, so, each year, the executives at Fox News find a new way to stir up emotions by resurrecting the “war on Christmas” slander.

Stirring up false controversies is a daily assignment for the alleged reporters of this company owned by Right-wing patriarch Rupert Murdoch.

In 2013, it fell to Fox hostess Megyn Kelly to carry the ball. And she did so on December 11 on “The Kelly File,” her popular Fox News program.

Referring to an article by Slate writer Aisha Harris on “Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore,” she said:

“When I saw this headline, I kinda laughed and I said, ‘Oh, this is ridiculous. Yet another person claiming it’s racist to have a white Santa.’

“And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white. But this person is maybe just arguing that we should also have a black Santa. But, you know, Santa is what he is, and just so you know, we’re just debating this because someone wrote about it, kids.”

Of course, Santa Claus is a completely fictional character.  Arguing about his skin color is as pointless as arguing about his weight.

Related image

But Kelly wasn’t content to talk only about Santa.  So she turned next to Jesus, a historical figure about whom we have not a single reference to his appearance, let alone a picture.

“Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man, too,” Kelly said.

“He was a historical figure; that’s a verifiable fact–as is Santa, I want you kids watching to know that–but my point is: How do you revise it, in the middle of the legacy of the story, and change Santa from white to black?”

Santa Claus a verifiable historical figure?  Not even Charlie Brown, in the annually telecast “Peanuts” special, would make that claim.

Two years later, it’s Donald Trump who has claimed center-stage in “defending” Christmas. And the target of his ire?  Starbucks.

In years past, its disposable coffee cups have featured snowflakes, winter scenes, reindeer  and Christmas ornaments.

But this year, Starbucks decided to go with a minimalist, all-red design, its only feature being the company’s green and white logo.

This has angered some religious conservatives, who generally care more about symbols than substance.

It’s the old “war on Christmas” mantra all over again. And Trump–who hopes to win evangelical votes in Iowa and South Carolina–is happy to become its biggest cheerleader.

“I guarantee if I become president, we’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ at every store,” he promised during a campaign rally in October.

Donald Trump September 3 2015.jpg

Donald Trump

Fast forward to November 9, and the Starbucks “controversy.”  Addressing a crowd of several thousands in Springfield, Illinois, Trump said:

“Did you read about Starbucks? No more Merry Christmas on Starbucks.

“I have one of the most successful Starbucks, in Trump Tower. Maybe we should boycott Starbucks? I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t care. That’s the end of that lease, but who cares?

“If I become president, we’re all going to be saying Merry Christmas again, that I can tell you.”

Trump did not explain how he would coerce non-Christian Americans–such as atheists, Jews and Muslims–to observe a Christian holiday.

Those who insist (whether they believe it or not) that Christmas is an endangered species should consider the following:

  • In 2013, the American retail industry generated over three trillion dollars during the Christmas holidays.
  • These holiday sales reflected about 19.2% of the retail industry’s total sales that year.
  • More than 768,000 temporary employees were hired throughout the United States to help stores cope with the holiday rush.
  • American consumers expected to spend about $704 on average on Christmas gifts.
  • There is no reference anywhere in the Bible to the month–let alone the day–of Jesus’ birth.
  • Jesus never commanded his followers to celebrate his birth–but he did call on them to remember his death.
  • Many of the “religious” traditions associated with Christmas stem from the pagan Roman festival, Saturnalia, which celebrated the “birthday” of the sun.
  • This was celebrated from December 17-25.
  • Saturnalia traditions included feasting, gift-giving, lighting candles (to ward off evil spirits) and displaying wreaths (as a sign of coming spring).
  • Early Christians tried mightily to convince their members to stop celebrating the Saturnalia.
  • When these efforts failed, the Roman Catholic Church, in the fourth century, “Christianised” the festival by naming Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25, as Jesus’ birthday.

In George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984, Oceania is always at war with Eurasia or Eastasia.  Its citizens are kept in a constant state of frenzy as they’re directed to search for endless “enemies of the state.”

This, in turn, allows the unseen rulers of Oceania to run their dictatorship without interference.

It’s a lesson well-known to hucksters like Donald Trump and the men who run Fox News.

AFGHANISTAN: TIME TO FIND THE EXIT

In Bureaucracy, History, Military, Politics, Social commentary on December 23, 2015 at 11:39 am

On December 21, a suicide-bomber rammed an explosives-laden motorcycle into a joint NATO-Afghan patrol.  Six American troops and an Afghan were killed.

One of the dead was Joseph Lemm, 45, a detective and 15-year veteran of the New York Police Department.  A technical sergeant in the New York Air National Guard, he had been deployed three times–once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan.

Related image

Joseph Lemm

Lemm left behind a daughter, Brook, 16, a son, Ryan, four, and his wife, Christine.

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo ordered that flags on all state government buildings be flown at half-staff on December 23 in Lemm’s honor.

“Staff Sergeant Joe Lemm served this nation with the selflessness and bravery that embodies the U.S. Armed Forces and the NYPD,” Cuomo said in a statement.

Lemm’s death is a double tragedy–that of a dedicated man who should not have died so needlessly.

In short: It’s long past time for the United States to quit its failed mission to civilize Afghanistan.

The history of American conflict in Afghanistan began on September 11, 2001.

On that date, 19 Islamic highjackers slammed two jetliners into the World Trade Center in New York and one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

A fourth plane, headed for the White House or Capitol Building, failed to reach its target when its passengers rioted–and the highjackers dove it into a Pennsylvania field.

The mastermind of the attacks was Osama bin Laden, a Saudi millionaire then living in Afghanistan, under protection by its ruling thugocracy, the Taliban.

The administration of President George W. Bush demanded his immediate surrender to American justice.

The Taliban refused.

So, on October 7, 2011–less than one month from the 9/11 attacks–American bombers began pounding Taliban positions.

The whole point of the campaign was to pressure the Taliban to surrender Bin Laden.

But the Taliban held firm. Bin Laden holed up in the mountains of Tora Bora, and then ultimately escaped into Pakistan.

After December, 2001, American Intelligence completely lost track of Bin Laden.  CIA officials repeatedly said he was likely living in the “no-man’s-land” between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Thus, there was no longer any point in pressuring the Taliban to surrender Bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden

Still, the United States continued to commit forces to Afghanistan–to turn a primitive, warlord-ruled country into a modern-day democracy.

There was, admittedly, a great deal to detest about the Taliban:

  • When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they turned soccer stadiums into execution plazas for mass beheadings or shootings.
  • Taliban “fighters” have proven their “courage” by throwing acid into the faces of women who dared to attend school.

Taliban atrocities

  • On August 8, 1989, the Taliban attacked Mazar-i-Sharif. Talibanists began shooting people in the street, then moved on to mass rapes of women. Thousands of people were locked in containers and left to suffocate.
  • The Taliban forbade women to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative and wearing the burqa–a traditional dress covering the entire body. Those who disobeyed were publicly beaten.

Yet, as horrific as such atrocities were, these did not obligate the United States to spend eternity trying to bring civilization to this barbaric country.

And, in pursuing that goal, both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly overlooked the following realities:

  • Hamid Karzai, the “president” of Afghanistan (2001-2014) didn’t believe in democracy–despite American claims to support his efforts to bring this to Afghanistan.
  • His authority didn’t extend beyond Kabul, and he was viewed by most Afghans as an illegitimate ruler, imposed by America.
  • The same can be said for his successor, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani.
  • American soldiers in Afghanistan feel surrounded by enemies and hamstrung by unrealistic orders to win “hearts and minds” at the risk of their own lives.
  • The Taliban poses no threat to the security of the United States.
  • Afghan “insurgents” are fighting American forces because (1) they are in a civil war; and (2) they believe their country has once again been occupied by foreigners.
  • Counterinsurgency is being preached as the key to defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan–where it hasn’t worked.
  • Americans entered Afghanistan without an exit strategy.

All these truths applied just as firmly to America’s failed misadventure in Vietnam.

Almost 50 years ago, American “grunts” felt about their so-called South Vietnamese allies as American troops now feel about their Afghan “allies.”

Dr. Dennis Greenbaum, a former army medic, summed up how Americans had really felt about their supposed South Vietnamese allies.

American surgical team in Vietnam

“The highest [priority for medical treatment] was any U.S. person. The second highest was a U.S. dog from the canine corps.  The third was NVA [North Vietnamese Army].  The fourth was VC [Viet Cong].

“And the fifth was ARVIN [Army of the Republic of South Vietnam], because they had no particular value,” said Greenbaum.

When you despise the “ally” you’re spending lives and treasure to defend, it’s time to pack up.

American soldiers long ago recognized that “friendly Afghans” were worthless as allies.  But only recently has the Pentagon publicly admitted that ”friendly Afghans” pose as great a threat to American troops as self-declared Talibanists.

Can anyone recall such “ally-on-American” attacks by British or French soldiers during World War II?  Of course not.

It’s past time for the Obama administration to recognize this–and start shipping those troops home.

LEADERS AND THOSE WHO GET LED

In Bureaucracy, History, Politics, Social commentary, Uncategorized on December 22, 2015 at 12:06 am

Vladimir Putin admires Donald Trump. And Donald Trump admires Vladimir Putin.

To many people, it’s the ultimate odd-couple: The lifelong Communist and former KGB officer (Putin) walking arm-in-arm with the billionaire, publicity-hungry capitalist.

What could be going on here?

First Putin:

“He is a bright personality, a talented person, no doubt about it.  It is not up to us to appraise his positive sides, it is up to the U.S. voters. but, as we can see, he is an absolute leader in the presidential race.

“He is saying that he wants to move to a different level of relations with Russia, to a closer, deeper one. How can we not welcome that?  Of course, we welcome that.”

Now Trump:

“It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”

Related image

Donald Trump

Appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Trump said: “Sure, when people call you ‘brilliant,’ it’s always good.  Especially when the person heads up Russia.”

The host, Joe Scarborough, was upset by Trump’s praise for Putin: “Well, I mean, [he’s] also a person who kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries. obviously that would be a concern, would it not?”

TRUMP: He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader.  Unlike what we have in this country.

SCARBOROUGH:  But again: He kills journalists that don’t agree with him.

TRUMP:  I think our country does plenty of killing, also, Joe, so, you know.  There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on. A lot of stupidity. And that’s the way it is.

SCARBOROUGH: I’m confused.  So I mean, you obviously condemn Vladimir Putin killing journalists and political opponents, right?

TRUMP: “Oh sure, absolutely.

When Trump praised Putin as a leader–“unlike what we have in this country”–he no doubt meant President Barack Obama.

Ironically, it is Obama–not Trump–who has repeatedly been named in Gallup polls as the most admired man in America in each of the last seven years, beginning with 2008, the year he was elected president.

Although Trump didn’t mention former President George W. Bush, his insult applies–unintentionally but accurately–to Obama’s predecessor.

In June 2001, Bush and Vladimir Putin met in Slovenia. During the meeting a truly startling exchange occurred.

Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush

Putin, a former KGB Intelligence officer, had clearly done his homework on Bush.  When he mentioned that one of the sports Bush had played was rugby, Bush was highly impressed.

“I did play rugby,” said Bush.  “Very good briefing.”

Bush knew that Putin had worked for Soviet intelligence.  So he should not have been surprised that the KGB had amassed a lengthy dossier on him.

But more was to come.

BUSH:  Let me say something about what caught my attention, Mr. President, was that your mother gave you a cross which you had blessed in Israel, the Holy Land.

PUTIN:  It’s true.

BUSH:  That amazes me, that here you were a Communist, KGB operative, and yet you were willing to wear a cross.  That speaks volumes to me, Mr. President.  May I call you Vladimir?

Putin instantly sensed that Bush judged others–even world leaders–through the lens of his own fundamentalist Christian theology.

Falling back on his KGB training, Putin seized on this apparent point of commonality to build a bond.  He told Bush that his dacha had once burned to the ground, and the only item that had been saved was that cross.

“Well, that’s the story of the cross as far as I’m concerned,” said Bush, clearly impressed.  “Things are meant to be.”

Afterward, Bush and Putin gave an outdoor news conference.

“Is this a man that Americans can trust?” Associated Press correspondent Ron Fournier asked Bush.

“Yes,” said Bush. “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue.

“I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.  I wouldn’t have invited him to my ranch if I didn’t trust him.”

Of course, no one from the Right–including Trump–is now recalling such embarrasing words.

It’s far more politically profitable to pretend that all of America’s tensions with Russia began with the election of Barack Obama.

And that those tensions will vanish once another Rightist–and non-black–President enters the White House.

DICTATORS AND THEIR ADMIRERS

In Bureaucracy, Business, History, Military, Politics, Social commentary on December 21, 2015 at 12:21 am

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have been getting a lot of publicity lately–for how much they admire each other.

On the surface, this might seem surprising.  Putin spent most of his adult life as a fervent member of the Communist Party, which swore eternal warfare against capitalism.

After joining the KGB in 1975, he served as one of its officers for 16 years, eventually rising to the level of Lieutenant Colonel. In 1991, he retired to enter politics in his native St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad).

Vladimir Putin

This, in turn, brought him to the attention of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who groomed Putin as his successor.  When Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on December 31, 1999, Putin became Acting President.

In 2000, he was elected President in his own right, despite widespread accusations of vote-rigging.  He won re-election in 2004, but could not run for a third term in 2008 because of constitutionally-mandated term limits.

So Putin ran his handpicked successor, Dimitry Medvedev, as president.  When Medvedev won, he appointed Putin as prime minister.  In 2012, Putin again ran for president and won.

Trump, on the other hand, is the personification of capitalistic excess.  He has been an author, investor, real estate mogul and television personality as former host of NBC’s “The Apprentice.”

The Trump Organization sponsors the Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants.

Related image

Donald Trump

He is notorious for stamping “Trump” on everything he acquires, most notably Trump Tower, a 58-story skyscraper at 725 Fifth Avenue in New York City.

On June 16, he declared himself a candidate for the Presidency in the 2016 election. Since July, he has consistently been the front-runner in public opinion polls for the Republican Party nomination.

So it came as a surprise to many in the United States when, on December 17, Putin described Trump as “a bright and talented person without any doubt,” adding that Trump is “an outstanding and talented personality.”

And he called Trump “the absolute leader of the presidential race.”

Trump, in turn, was quick to respond: “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”

Two months earlier, in October, Trump had said of Putin: “I think that I would probably get along with him very well.”

Appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Trump said: “Sure, when people call you ‘brilliant’ it’s always good. Especially when the person heads up Russia.”

The host, Joe Scarborough, was upset by Trump’s praise for Putin: “Well, I mean, it’s also a person who kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries. Obviously that would be a concern, would it not?”

Trump: “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader. Unlike what we have in this country.”

Scarborough: “But again: He kills journalists that don’t agree with him.”

Trump: “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe. You know. there’s a lot of stuff going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on and a lot of stupidity…”

Absolute dictators like Vladimir Putin and would-be dictators like Donald Trump often gravitate toward each other.  At least temporarily.

On January 30, 1933, anti-Communist Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.  For the next six years, the Nazi press hurled insults at the Soviet Union.

Adolf Hitler

And the Soviet press hurled insults at Nazi Germany.

Then, on August 23, 1939, Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, signed the Treaty of Non-aggression between Nazi Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R). Signing for the Soviet Union was its own foreign minister, Vyachelsav Molotov.

The reason: Hitler planned to invade Poland on September 1. He needed to neutralize the military might of the U.S.S.R.  And only Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin could do that.

Democratic nations like France, Great Britain and the United States were stunned.  But there had long been a grudging respect between the two brutal dictators.

On June 30, 1934, Hitler had ordered a bloody purge throughout Germany.  Privately, Stalin offered praise: “Hitler, what a great man! This is the way to deal with your political opponents.”

Joseph Stalin

Hitler was–privately–equally admiring of the series of purges Stalin inflicted on the Soviet Union.  Even after he broke the non-aggression pact by invading the U.S.S.R. on June 22, 1941, he said:

“After the victory over Russia, it would be a good idea to get Stalin to run the country, with German oversight, of course.  He knows better than anyone how to handle the Russians.”

In April, 1945, as he waited for victorious Russian armies to reach his underground bunker, Hitler confided to Joseph Goebbels, his propaganda minister, his major regret:

He should have brutally purged the officer corps of the Wehrmacht, as Stalin had that of the Red Army. Stalin’s purges had cleaned “deadwood” from the Russian ranks, and a purge of the German army would have done the same.

For Adolf Hitler, the lesson was clear: “Afterward, you rue the fact that you’ve been so kind.”

It’s the sort of sentiment that both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump can appreciate.

WHEN COPS ARE LAWBREAKERS: PART TWO (END)

In Bureaucracy, History, Law, Law Enforcement, Politics, Social commentary on December 18, 2015 at 12:26 am

Freddie Gray’s tally of arrests came to at least 18.

But on April 12, he was arrested for what would be the final time.

That arrest would lead to Gray’s death and scandal for the Baltimore Police Department.

On May 1, Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore’s chief deputy prosecutor at the State’s Attorney office, publicly released the findings of her agency in the Gray case:

  • “The knife was not a switchblade and is lawful under Maryland law.” [Police had claimed it was a switchblade.]
  • “Lt. Rice, Officer Miller and Officer Nero failed to establish probable cause for Mr. Gray’s arrest as no crime had been committed by Mr. Gray. Accordingly Lt. Rice Officer MIller and Office Nero illegally arrested Mr. Gray.”
  • “Lt. Rice Officer Miller and Officer Nero loaded Mr. Gray into the wagon and at no point was he secured by a seatbelt while in the wagon contrary to a BPD [Baltimore Police Department] general order.”
  • “…Mr. Gray suffered a severe and critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained inside of the BPD wagon.”
  • “Despite stopping for the purpose of checking on Mr. Gray’s condition, at no point did [Officer Goodson] seek nor did he render any medical assistance for Mr. Gray.”
  • “Mr. Gray…requested help and indicated that he could not breathe. Officer Porter asked Mr. Gray if he needed a medic at which time Mr. Gray indicated at least twice that he was in need of a medic.”

Marilyn Mosby

  • “…Despite Mr. Gray’s appeal for a medic, both officers [William Porter, Caesar Goodson] assessed Mr. Gray’s condition and at no point did either of them….render or request medical assistance.”
  • “Sgt. [Alicia] White….spoke to the back of Mr. Gray’s head. When he did not respond, she did nothing further despite the fact that she was advised that he needed a medic. She made no effort to look or assess or determine his condition.”
  • “Despite Mr. Gray’s seriously deteriorating medical condition, no medical assistance was rendered or summoned for Mr. Gray at that time by any officer.”
  • “By the time Officer Zachary Novak and Sgt. White attempted to remove Mr. Gray from the wagon, Mr. Gray was no longer breathing at all.”
  • “A medic was finally called to the scene where upon arrival, the medic determined Mr. Gray was now in cardiac arrest and was critically and severely injured.”
  • “Mr. Gray was rushed to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma where he underwent surgery. On April 19, 2015, Mr. Gray succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead.”
  • “The manner of death deemed homicide by the Maryland Medical Examiner is believed to be the result of a fatal injury that occurred while Mr. Gray was unrestrained by a seatbelt in custody of the Baltimore Police Department wagon.

After presenting her findings, Mosby then outlined the criminal charges her office was bringing against the officers involved:

  • Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., 45: Second-degree depraved murder, manslaughter, second-degree assault, two counts of vehicular manslaughter charges and misconduct in office.
  • Officer William Porter, 25: Involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault and misconduct in office.
  • Brian Rice, 41: Involuntary manslaughter, two counts of second-degree assault, two counts of misconduct in office and false imprisonment.
  • Officer Edward Nero, 29: Two counts of second-degree assault, two counts of misconduct in office and false imprisonment.
  • Officer Garrett Miller, 26: Two counts of second-degree assault, two counts of misconduct in office and one false imprisonment charge.
  • Alicia White, 30: Involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault and misconduct in office.

* * * * *

On December 16, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams declared a mistrial in the trial of William Porter, the first of the six Baltimore police officers charged in  Gray’s death.

For 16 hours, the jury had deliberated on whether Porter was guilty of involuntary manslaughter. After jurors reported they were deadlocked on all charges,  Judge Williams said an administrative judge would set a new trial date as early as December 17.

The Freddie Gray case has polarized Baltimore–and America.

On the Left–and especially among blacks–are those who believe Gray was an innocent victim of police oppression.

“Even if he was guilty of dealing and using narcotics,” they say, “the anti-drug laws are a stupid waste of police resources.”

On the Right are those who steadfastly defend all police actions, including the most brutal and lawless.

“Even if the cops were guilty of brutality and/or negligence,” they say, “so what?  A career criminal won’t ply his trade anymore.”

Both sides are wrong.

Until the anti-drug laws are repealed, they are legal and will continue to be enforced.  Freddie Gray knew this better than most.

But police who employ illegal methods to enforce the law risk losing not only the cases they want to bring but their own careers as well.  They also invite contempt and hatred for their own police agencies and law enforcement in general.

Such officers who cause death or injury by unjustified brutality and/or negligence must be held accountable.

That has long been considered the difference between the FBI and the KGB. 

There is a difference between supporting the legal actions of police—and living in a police state.  

America’s citizens have the right to expect protection from crime–whether committed by civilian criminals or those wearing police uniforms.

%d bloggers like this: