Daily Archives: January 27, 2013
Question: Why is it that so many Americans are more angry over the prospect of relatively minor adjustments to the gun laws, than they are over the serious erosion of constitutional rights to due process in the courts?
What is important when it comes to rights?
Despite the fact that proposed changes to the gun laws would leave the Second Amendment’s* alleged basic right to gun ownership intact, thousands of Americans rallied in state capitals across the nation last week to demand their “right” to own all manner of automatic weapons and multiple round ammunition clips. The rationale for this ranged from “the Second Amendment comes from God”, a popular claim with protesters in Austin Texas, to the equally absurd notion that the Obama administration is obsessed with controlling all our lives. “It is not about guns, it is about control,” proclaimed the folks rallying in Annapolis, Maryland. All this took place on the nation’s first impromptu “gun appreciation day” (Saturday 19 January 2013) during which five accidental shooting occurred at celebratory gun shows and three others took place elsewhere. Nonetheless, as one protester in Maine put it, the right to “bear arms” is “a constitutional right no one can take away”.
…the federal government has been steadily eroding the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments which … say your life, liberty and property cannot be taken away without your being charged with a crime and tried by a jury of your peers and/or a judge following due process rules.
Actually, the last 12 years have proved this fellow from Maine quite wrong. There has been an erosion of constitutional rights that are much more important than his so-called inalienable right to own weapons with 30-round clips. For instance, the federal government has been steadily eroding the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments which guarantee one’s access to fair procedures in the courts. These are the ones that say your life, liberty and property cannot be taken away without your being charged with a crime and tried by a jury of your peers and/or a judge following due process rules. There are multiple examples of such deterioration:
- The federal government now asserts that it has the authority to hold Americans, as well as others, indefinitely without charge or trial. It does so on the assertion that we are in a perennial state of war. This allows for the perversion of the Fifth Amendment, which allows for the suspension of Habeas Corpus in the special cases of war and rebellion. The government’s claim to this authority has been challenged in court but the US Court of Appeals has sided with the government and the issue will probably end up in the Supreme Court. In the meantime, to fall into this black hole in American jurisprudence all you have to do is be is labelled a “terrorist” by the president. This, of course, can happen based on alleged evidence never made public.
- Another weird but relevant point. If you do happen to meet someone who is a member of a “designated terrorist group”, don’t you dare try to talk them out of being violent. That is illegal as well. Our very own Supreme Court told us so in the 2010 case of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. In what may well call into question the rationality of a majority of the justices (the decision was decided six for the government position and three against), the court declared that trying to persuade members of such an organization to give up violence is the equivalent of rendering “material aid” to the bad guys. Try to save their souls in this fashion and you will end up in some special hell-hole of an American prison where all communications with your lawyer will be taped for the benefit of the prosecution.
- The president can also put anyone, including American citizens, on a list of folks to be murdered at the first suitable opportunity. The government often uses drones to do this. Here is one of the ways this works: some air force officer living in Las Vegas gets up in the morning, has his breakfast, kisses the wife goodbye and tells the kids to behave at school. He gets in his four door sedan and drives to Creech Air Force base in the desert outside of town. He passes through the security checks and finally gets to his “office”. The office is a video studio affair from which he controls a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) full of explosives. The UAV in question is actually sitting at another air base in Afghanistan, Yemen or some such location. Our man’s job is to remotely fly this thing into somebody’s house half-a-world away. Doing so usually kills another man, his wife, his kids and maybe the neighbours too. All this happens without any due process establishing the victims’ guilt or innocence.
- Then there is the case of the Holy Land Foundation in which five American citizens who ran the largest Muslim charity in the nation were convicted of “material support of terrorism” and sentenced to up to 65 years in jail on the basis of an anonymous witness whose credibility could not be challenged. This is a prima facie violation of the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees (or used to guarantee) the accused his or her right to confront the accuser. You would think the Supreme Court would have something to say about this, particularly considering that all the real evidence in the case showed that the Holy Land Foundation was simply supporting institutions such as Palestinian hospitals, and that its directors had repeatedly consulted the State Department to assure the legality of their activities. But no, in a miscarriage of justice not rivalled since Dread Scott, our present court refused to hear the Holy Land Five’s appeal.
Why the apathy?
Alas, with the exception of a handful of citizens, no one has hit the streets in protest over any of these horrid legal precedents. No one has dreamt up a “due process appreciation day” and called for commemorative rallies. How come? The answer has to do with how basic communal impulses play out. These include natural localism and the power of custom and tradition.
Natural localness is my term for the fact that most people live their lives according to the precepts of their immediate local communities. Therefore, local customs and traditions are usually taken quite seriously. In the United States, gun ownership is widespread enough to be an issue for self-conscious subsets of most local populations. In other words, for millions it is an important local custom which helps shape their self-images. Gun ownership has also been tied to a constitutional right allegedly enshrined in the Second Amendment. Support for this claim links these subsets into a powerful “special interest” that translates local custom into a national tradition. So, you can get thousands protesting on the same day in state capitals across the US.
…those who are in need of due process protections are almost always assumed by the public to have acted outside the parameters of acceptable behaviour.
What about due process? Is it not a local practice of major importance representing a national tradition enshrined in law through the constitution? Yes, that is correct, but psychologically, due process rights have completely different personae. Due process laws protect the rights of those accused of wrong doing. They try to assure, among other things, that the accused is assumed innocent until proven guilty. Yet among the public this assumption is almost never held. If you end up in court, the public assumption is that you must have done something wrong. This is particularly true if you can be tagged with a label that suggests danger to or betrayal of community values. The media use such labels all the time, for instance, terms such as terrorist or whistleblower. So, those who are in need of due process protections are almost always assumed by the public to have acted outside the parameters of acceptable behaviour.
The other side of this coin is that ordinary individuals, the mass who make up “the people”, naively feel that due process protections are not important to them. This is because they rarely trespass against the customs and traditions they themselves have, over time, established. In other words, the “people” define what is acceptable. Carrying guns or, in the local lingo, to “go packin”, is sufficiently within the bounds of acceptable behaviour to be “normal” in much of the US. As long as you register all the weapons in your arsenal (even if you have enough of them to wage a small war), you are still a “law abiding” citizen. However, give charity to the Palestinians or try to tell the Kurdish PKK (a group on the State Department’s terrorism list) how to pursue their goals non-violently, and you are a danger to the American way of life and on an obscenely fast track to indefinite detention. And very few law abiding citizens are going to care, because if they notice your fate at all, they will assume you are guilty and getting what you deserve.
“The people” simply do not like those who think outside the box. They never have and probably never will. Non-conformists (in this case those in need of due-process and not those “packin”) make the majority feel uneasy and fearful.
In relatively peaceful times such “others’ can be tolerated if they don’t make too much noise and, with the American Civil Liberties Union watching, they can demand their due process rights when needed. However, since the 11 September 2001 attacks things have changed. We are being told that there are no more peaceful times. Crisis is, supposedly, perpetual and that leads to the erosion of the rights of those assumed guilty of something endangering the majority – even if there is no real evidence or logic to the claim. This is an awful slippery slope.
There is a passage in the 1957 play A Man For All Seasons, by Robert Bolt, that speaks to this present predicament. The play tells the story of Sir Thomas More, the singularly principled chancellor of England under King Henry VIII. The passage we are concerned with is about the importance of making the law available to all, even the Devil.
William Roper (More’s son-in-law): So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
So that is the crux of the matter. As long as the law is denied to some, we are all at risk. The majority does not understand this. They do not understand that for democracy to be worth its salt, it must defend the rights of everyone, and particularly those who disagree with, live differently from, and think differently than the majority. The United States as we know it can easily survive without everyone having access to assault rifles. It cannot survive without everyone having access to due process. Thus, as goes due process rights, so goes our democracy.
*The origin of the Second Amendment lies, at least in good part, with the Founders’ perceived need to give local jurisdictions control of militias in slave holding sections of the young United States. See Thom Hartmann’s piece on this issue.
India has the largest number of smallholder farmers in the world – 600 million by some estimates. From this army of workers one impoverished and desperate man, or indeed woman, with a noose of debt around their neck takes his or her own life on average every 30 minutes. It is a statistic barely comprehensible, representing the tidal wave of suicides that has swept through the farming community in the last 15 years.
Losing the will to live
The agrarian crisis of which farmer suicides are a tragic consequence is a mega calamity, rooted in one fundamental cause, which P. Sainath, the rural editor for The Hindu newspaper, describes as “the drive towards corporate farming”, predicated by the “predatory commercialization of the countryside” that is forcing “the biggest displacement in Indian history”. Shocking and destructive as it is, it should be seen as part of a greater whole of interconnected issues facing India. Sainath makes this clear: “Don’t detach this crisis from the overall political, economic and social direction of the country,” he says.
The number of farmer suicides – the largest in human history – is estimated to have reached more than 300,000 and rising as we speak. Add to this the 400 a day who attempt suicide and fail, the 2,200 that daily quit farming and the one and a half million family members affected by suicides, plus the millions facing the very issues that are driving the tragedy, and the scale of the inferno begins to be clear.
Shocking, as they are, these figures are an indication only; women are one of eight groups who are generally excluded from official data because most do not have title to land. A woman is not classed as a farmer; she is a farmer’s wife, and her suicide is not included in the figures. Also excluded from the statistics, according to the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University (HRGJ), are family members of farmers who have committed suicide – who themselves take over farming land and subsequently commit suicide because of debt”. The Dalit and indigenous Adivasi people are also invisible to a government who ignores them in death as in life.
The major cause of this epidemic is indebtedness to banks and moneylenders. But hiding behind the debt is 20 years of market liberalization at the hands of the government that has withdrawn all agricultural support, failed to invest in irrigation, improve the availability of rural credit or provide farmers with alternative seed purchasing options – other than genetically modified (GM) shopping. The grim picture painted by HRGJ, which uses government statistics, speaks for itself. It states that “241,679 farmers in India committed suicide between 1995 and 2009”, the majority of whom were cash crop farmers – growing cotton being particularly hazardous work. Suicides have been highest in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, all high cotton producing areas.
As a result of economic liberalization, designed and sold by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, India has become integrated into the global market and what Sainath calls “McEconomics – it tastes the same everywhere’. The state has increasingly withdrawn from the public sector and become “more interventionist on behalf of the corporate world and the super elite”. As state support for farmers was withdrawn, India opened up to huge foreign corporations and their equally mega native partners.
The foreign multinationals were at a huge advantage because, as HRGJ makes clear, “the price of their products was set artificially low as a result of agricultural subsidies in their home countries”, affecting the costs to Indian (and African) farmers.
Secondly and equally devastating, “the Indian government’s removal of quotas, duties and tariffs on imports made it cheaper for these entrants to import their products into the country”. While these policies, implemented some 20 years ago, have “helped usher in dramatic economic growth, this growth has been unevenly distributed, largely benefiting the nation’s elite, while the majority continues to endure grinding poverty.”
Sounds familiar? Political loyalty in corporate politics lying firmly with the corporations, the duty of politicians in market fundamentalism being continual accelerated growth and maximum profit, no matter the human or environmental cost.
Genetically modified mayhem
With the invasion of multinational corporations came their agricultural weapon of choice, GM cottonseed. The Monsanto BT seed has flooded the Indian market, to the extent that in some Indian states it is now impossible to buy non-BT seed, despite the unconvincing evidence to its efficacy. With no choice and convinced by blanket advertising and misleading demonstrations made in ideal conditions, 95 per cent of farmers take loans and invest in GM BT seeds which, according to the New York Times, “can cost three to eight times the cost of conventional seeds”. In addition to authorized distributors, a black market has thrived, that as shortages appear, can set “prices as high as 2,000 rupees (38 US dollars) per packet, leading to a profusion of bootlegged seeds illegally marketed as genetically modified products”.
The costs of seed, fertilizers and pesticides, all incidentally supplied by the same company, have increased year on year. One farmer relates in the New York Times how “the old pesticide used to cost us 200 rupees per litre… Now I have to pay between 2,000 to 3,000 rupees. And I need to apply it more and more every year.” With low yields and low market rates, as well as the collapse of government investment, Indian farmers are increasingly dependent on loans, resulting in a debt cycle that is inescapable.
As well as costing the earth the BT cottonseed demands a great deal more water, a fact that is being hidden from Indian farmers unable to read the English instructions and water warnings on seed packaging – an accidental corporate oversight, no doubt. With poor irrigation, most farmers rely on rainfall to feed crops. When the monsoon rains fail, so does the crop, leaving the farmer with a massive debt to service and the prospect of further loans to continue farming the following year. The lifeblood of the Indian farmer is in danger of becoming even more scarce as the government goes ahead with the privatization of water (as we collectively shake our heads in disbelief) and irrigation pathways, sold no doubt to hands Indian corporations. One doubts there are farmer, Dalit or Adivasi cooperatives in the bidding – so much for participatory democracy.
Critics of GM seeds maintain that “the solution to increasing costs and spiralling debt is a shift toward organic and eco-friendly farming methods”. The New York Times reports that “and these are low technology, simple to use, not costly methods – you don’t have the high costs of pesticides or genetically modified seeds”. Monsanto unsurprisingly offer a different answer to this social tragedy: “Buy more BT seed,” they suggest,” with the hope of increasing yields. Unsurprisingly, they dodge any responsibility for farmer suicides, asserting that claims attributing debt to the impact of the thirsty, expensive BT seed are spurious and “misinformed”. That is, corporate responsibility beginning and ending at the door marked profit!
A legacy of debt
A suicidal farmer’s debt does not, alas, die with him: loans merely become the responsibility of the wife (or husband) of the victim, who in many cases repeat the final desperate act, with some families witnessing two or three suicides. Dowries add to the mountain of debt for families in poverty, and widows under the unbearable pressure of huge debt ,and the burden of finding a husband for their daughters may in desperation take their own lives.
The cycle of debt has created a spiral of death and extended multiple suffering; children whose father or mother commits suicide are forced to quit school or university and take up the reins of the farm. Sainath describes one young man, symptomatic of many thousands: “I see a child trying to be a man whose eyes tell you how scared he is, pitchforked into a position he is not ready for”. In the 1960s and 1970s, when agricultural reforms where proposed in India, Sainath relates there was a peasant revolt. But in the 1990s and 2000s “there is mass suicide and despair”, outcomes that do little to obstruct the corporate political plan and the commercialization of everything, everyone and everywhere.
Given the epidemic of suicides, the Indian government is guilty of appalling neglect, moral and legal. It is after all signatory to all the key international human rights conventions and is obliged to respect, protect and observe the human rights of farmers and their families. Instead, and in keeping with corporate politics, a plethora of fundamental human rights are being ignored. According to HRGJ, these include the right to life, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to work, the right to food, the right to water and the right to health. Instead of meeting its responsibilities, the government has followed the bureaucratic line of least resistance and set up a series of committees to examine the crisis. It is the Indian way, according to Sainath: “You keep forming committees until somebody gives you the report you want. There have been 13 reports on farmer suicides, for example.” These are pointless distractions from a government that, while ignoring the human rights of the most vulnerable members of Indian society, subsidizes the wealthy and procrastinates as farmers in deep despair drink pesticide or rat poison to escape the interminable torture of debt.
The government’s actions and inaction have fanned the flames of the crisis, sending a message of indifference loud and clear to farmers and rural communities, and of unity and shared interests to corporations eager to work to “commercialize the countryside”. Farmer suicides are a blood red stain of shame on the democratic pretensions of the Indian government that is duty bound and legally required to act on behalf of the men, women and children being marginalized in rural areas, many of whom have farmed the land for generations, and are now unable to compete against the machinery of economic fundamentalism that is crushing them.