When I traveled to Gaza last week, everywhere I went, a photo haunted me. I saw it in a brochure called "Gaza will not die" that Hamas gives out to visitors at the border crossing. A poster-sized version was posted outside a makeshift memorial at the Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. And now that I am back home, the image comes to me when I look at children playing in the park, when I glance at the school across the street, when I go to sleep at night.
It is a photo of a young Palestinian girl who is literally buried alive in the rubble from a bomb blast, with just her head protruding from the ruins. Her eyes are closed, her mouth partially open, as if she were in a deep sleep. Dried blood covers her lips, her cheeks, her hair. Someone with a glove is reaching down to touch her forehead, showing one final gesture of kindness in the midst of such inhumanity.
What was this little girl's name, I wonder. How old was she? Was she sleeping when the bomb hit her home? Did she die a quick death or a slow, agonizing one? Where are her parents, her siblings? How are they faring?
Of the 1,330 Palestinians killed by the Israeli military during the 22-day invasion of Gaza, 437 were children. Let me repeat that: 437 children -- each as beautiful and precious as our own.
As a Jew, an American and a mother, I felt compelled to witness, firsthand, what my people and my tax dollars had done during this invasion. Visiting Gaza filled me with unbearable sadness. Unlike the primitive weapons of Hamas, the Israelis had so many sophisticated ways to murder, maim and destroy -- unmanned drones, F-16s dropping "smart bombs" that miss, Apache helicopters launching missiles, tanks firing from the ground, ships shelling Gaza from the sea. So many horrific weapons stamped with Made in the USA. While Hamas' attacks on Israeli villages are deplorable, Israel's disproportionate response is unconscionable, with 1,330 Palestinians dead vs. 13 Israelis.
If the invasion was designed to destroy Hamas, it failed miserably. Not only is Hamas still in control, but it retains much popular support. If the invasion was designed as a form of collective punishment, it succeeded, leaving behind a trail of grieving mothers, angry fathers and traumatized children.
To get a sense of the devastation, check out a slide show circulating on the internet called Gaza: Massacre of Children (here). It should be required viewing for all who supported this invasion of Gaza. Babies charred like shish-kebabs. Limbs chopped off. Features melted from white phosphorus. Faces crying out in pain, gripped by fear, overcome by grief.
Anyone who can view the slides and still repeat the mantra that "Israel has the right to self-defense" or "Hamas brought this upon its own people," or worse yet, "the Israeli military didn't go far enough," does a horrible disservice not only to the Palestinian people, but to humanity.
Compassion, the greatest virtue in all major religions, is the basic human emotion prompted by the suffering of others, and it triggers a desire to alleviate that suffering. True compassion is not circumscribed by one's faith or the nationality of those suffering. It crosses borders; it speaks a universal language; it shares a common spirituality. Those who have suffered themselves, such as Holocaust victims, are supposed to have the deepest well of compassion.
The Israeli election was in full swing while was I visiting Gaza. As I looked out on the ruins of schools, playgrounds, homes, mosques and clinics, I recalled the words of Benjamin Netanyahu, "No matter how strong the blows that Hamas received from Israel, it's not enough." As I talked to distraught mothers whose children were on life support in a bombed hospital, I thought of the "moderate" woman in the race, Tzipi Livni, who vowed that she would not negotiate with Hamas, insisted that "terror must be fought with force and lots of force" and warned that "if by ending the operation we have yet to achieve deterrence, we will continue until they get the message."
"The message," I can report, has been received. It is a message that Israel is run by war criminals, that the lives of Palestinians mean nothing to them. Even more chilling is the pro-war message sent by the Israeli people with their votes for Netanyahu, Livni and anti-Arab racist Avigdor Lieberman.
How tragic that nation born out of the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust has become a nation that supports the slaughter of Palestinians.
Here in the U.S., Congress ignored the suffering of the Palestinians and pledged its unwavering support for the Israeli state. All but five members out of 535 voted for a resolution justifying the invasion, falsely holding Hamas solely responsible for breaking the ceasefire and praising Israel for facilitating humanitarian aid to Gaza at a time when food supplies were rotting at the closed borders.
One glimmer of hope we found among people in Gaza was the Obama administration. Many were upset that Obama did not speak out during the invasion and that peace envoy George Mitchell, on his first trip to the Middle East, did not visit Gaza or even Syria. But they felt that Mitchell was a good choice and Obama, if given the space by the American people, could play a positive role.
Who can provide that space for Obama? Who can respond to the call for justice from the Palestinian people? Who can counter AIPAC, the powerful lobby that supports Israeli aggression?
An organized, mobilized, coordinated grassroots movement is the critical counterforce, and within that movement, those who have a particularly powerful voice are American Jews. We have the beginnings of a such a counterforce within the American Jewish community. Across the United States, Jews joined marches, sit-ins, die-ins, even chained themselves to Israeli consulates in protest. Jewish groups like J Street and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom lobby for a diplomatic solution. Tikkun organizes for a Jewish spiritual renewal grounded in social justice. The Middle East Children's Alliance and Madre send humanitarian aid to Palestine. Women in Black hold compelling weekly vigils. American Jews for a Just Peace plants olive trees on the West Bank. Jewish Voice for Peace promotes divestment from corporations that profit from occupation. Jews Against the Occupation calls for an end to U.S. aid to Israel.
We need greater coordination among these groups and within the broader movement. And we need more people and more sustained involvement, especially Jewish Americans. In loving memory of our ancestors and for the future of our -- and Palestinian -- children, more American Jews should speak out and reach out. As Sholom Schwartzbard, a member of Jews Against the Occupation, explained at a New York City protest, "We know from our own history what being sealed behind barbed wire and checkpoints is like, and we know that 'Never Again' means not anyone, not anywhere -- or it means nothing at all."
On March 7, I will return to Gaza with a large international delegation, bringing aid but more importantly, pressuring the Israeli, U.S. and Egyptian governments to open the borders and lift the siege. Many members of the delegation are Jews. We will travel in the spirit of tikkun olam, repairing the world, but with a heavy sense of responsibility, shame and yes, compassion. We will never be able to bring back to life the little girl buried in the rubble. But we can -- and will hold her in our hearts as we bring a message from America and a growing number of American Jews: To Gaza, With Love.
H-2B just a nice present from Bush to help screw over foreign workers Mood:
don't ask Now Playing: How to Rip Off Foreign Workers by using H--2B Topic: FAILURE by the GOVERNMENT
Hey Now Z3 Readers this email alert is to tell us how the Bush Crime Family screwed the worker some more. Its called H-2B
It allows "the worker" (in this case the foreign worker) to legally get screwed over and to allow the abuse by taking advantage of their lack of work law knowledge. But believe me the outfits (companies) that do know about this law (H-2B)
.....ohhh they know all about it.!!!
Thanks Bush... from another working stiff that appreciates your your back room policies to fuck over the working man (not!)
Action Alert - Stop Worker Abuse
In its final days, the Bush administration gave a gift to U.S. corporations by rewriting little-known rules that allow them to "import" foreign workers to fill jobs here.
Bush's changes make it even more attractive for businesses to hire foreign guestworkers — undercutting wages, opportunities and working conditions for all workers. This is especially troubling in today's economy.
These changes shred the few protections for H-2B guestworkers. And they're already taking a toll. Just last week, an appellate court in New Orleans cited the new regulations when ruling that an employer did not have to reimburse guestworkers for thousands of dollars in fees they paid to obtain low-wage, temporary jobs.
Foreign guestworkers don't have the same protections as U.S. workers, so they are vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. In fact, they are routinely cheated out of their wages, and some are treated as modern-day slaves.
This abuse must stop!
We're working through the courts to stop the exploitation of guestworkers. But we need broader reforms that can only come from the federal government.
Suggested message: President Obama, please rewrite the rules for the H-2B guestworker program. This fundamentally flawed program results in the systematic exploitation of workers and gives incentives to U.S. businesses to bring in vulnerable foreign workers, undercutting wages, opportunities and working conditions for all workers.
For my distant friends and relatives, free videoconferencing software is a wonderful gift that allows us to chat face-to-face although we may be thousands of miles apart. A few weeks ago, Jessica Dolcourt reported on the most recent update to free video chat client Skype, which expanded the video window and improved audio reception.
(CBS) This story originally aired on Feb. 12, 2006.
The United States has spent more than a quarter of a trillion dollars during its three years in Iraq, and more than $50 billion of it has gone to private contractors hired to guard bases, drive trucks, feed and shelter the troops and rebuild the country.
It is dangerous work, but much of the $50 billion, which is more than the annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security, has been handed out to companies in Iraq with little or no oversight.
Billions of dollars are unaccounted for, and there are widespread allegations of waste, fraud and war profiteering. As 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft first reported in February, only one case, the subject of a civil lawsuit, has been unsealed. It involves a company called Custer Battles, and provides a window into the chaos of those early days in Iraq.
When U.S. troops entered Baghdad in the spring of 2003, there was no electricity, widespread looting and little evidence of postwar planning. With the American military stretched to the limit, the Pentagon set up the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to govern the country under Ambassador Paul Bremer, who began hiring private companies to secure and rebuild the country.
There were no banks or wire transfers to pay them, no bean counters to keep track of the money. Just vaults and footlockers stuffed with billions of dollars in cash.
"Fresh, new, crisp, unspent, just-printed $100 bills. It was the Wild West," recalls Frank Willis, who was the No. 2 man at the Coalition Provisional Authority’s Ministry of Transportation.
The money was a mixture of Iraqi oil revenues, war booty and U.S. government funds earmarked for the coalition authority. Whenever cash was needed, someone went down to the vault with a wheelbarrow or gunny sacks.
"Those are $100,000 bricks of $100 bills and that’s $2 million there," Willis explains, looking at a photo of brick-shaped stacks of money wrapped in plastic. "This, in fact, is a payment that we made on the 1st of August to a company called Custer Battles."
Willis says the bricks of money were also sometimes referred to as footballs, "… because we passed them around in little pickup games in our office," he says laughing.
Asked if he has any evidence that the accounting system was a little loose, Willis says, "I would describe it as nonexistent."
The $2 million given to Custer Battles was the first installment on a contract to provide security at Baghdad International Airport. The company had been started by Scott Custer, a former Army Ranger and Mike Battles, an unsuccessful congressional candidate from Rhode Island who claimed to be active in the Republican Party and have connections at the White House. They arrived in Baghdad with no money. Yet within a year they landed $100 million in contracts.
"They came in with a 'can do' attitude whether they could or not. They always said yes," Willis says.
Did they have any experience?
"They were not experienced. They did not know what they were doing," Willis says.
Complaints about Custer Battles performance at the airport began almost immediately. Col. Richard Ballard, the top inspector general for the Army in Iraq, was assigned to see if the company was living up to its contract, such as it was.
"And the contract looked to me like something that you and I would write over a bottle of vodka," Ballard says. "Complete with all the spelling and syntax errors and annexes, to be filled in later. They presented it the next day, and they got awarded a — about a $15 million contract." Custer Battles was supposed to provide security for commercial aviation at Baghdad airport, including personnel, machinery and canine teams to screen passengers and cargo. But the airport never re-opened for commercial traffic.
Instead of canceling the contract or requiring Custer Battles to return the money, the Coalition Authority instead assigned them to operate a checkpoint outside the airport.
Asked how they did on that job, Ballard says, "They failed miserably."
Was anybody paying attention to this money and where it was going?
"There was significant concern," Ballard says. "But there just were not the people in theatre to monitor that kind of thing on a day-to-day basis."
The basic answer to the question, Ballard acknowledges, is "no."
As for the bomb sniffing canine teams, Ballard says, "I eventually saw one dog. The dog did not appear to be a certified, trained dog. And the dog was incapable of operating in that environment."
Asked what he meant by "incapable of operating in that environment," Ballard says: "He would be brought to the checkpoint, and he would lie down. And he would refuse to sniff the vehicles."
The handler, Ballard says, "had no certificate and no evidence."
"So neither the dog nor the handler were qualified?" Kroft asked.
"I think it was a guy with his pet, to be honest with you," he replied, laughing.
In a memo obtained by 60 Minutes, the airport's director of security wrote to the Coalition Authority: "Custer Battles has shown themselves to be unresponsive, uncooperative, incompetent, deceitful, manipulative and war profiteers. Other than that they are swell fellows."
"I would agree with most of that," says Frank Willis.
"Even the 'war profiteers?' " Kroft asks.
"I think that what they were doing was of the nature of what I understand war-profiteering to be about — which is to get into a chaotic situation and milk every penny out of it you can, as fast as you can, before the opportunity goes away," Willis says.
The Coalition Authority not only refused to throw Custer Battles off the airport job, it wrote them a glowing review and continued to give them contracts including one to supply logistical support for a massive program to replace Iraq’s currency.
How did Custer Battles perform that contract?
"Absolutely abysmally. I mean, it was beyond a joke," says British Col. Philip Wilkinson.
Wilkinson was a colonel in the British Army and was assigned to the Coalition Authority’s Ministry of Finance and charged with providing security to convoys that traveled all over Iraq, loaded with $3 billion in cash. The trucks were supplied by Custer Battles.
"And you can imagine, open trucks with that sort of money on the back, was just a red hot target for not only terrorists, but criminals," Wilkinson says. "And, therefore, we needed trucks that were going to work. When those trucks were delivered to us, some of them were physically dragged into our compound."
Wilkinson says some of the trucks "were towed into the camp."
And Custer Battle’s response?
"When questioned as to the serviceability of the trucks was, 'We were only told we had to deliver the trucks.' The contract doesn't say they had to work," Wilkinson says. "Which, I mean, when you're given that sort of answer, what can you do?"
How did they get away with it?
"Oh," says Wilkinson laughing, "I really don't know. I mean it was just a joke. The assumption that we had was that they had to have high political top cover to be able to get away with it. Because it was just outrageous: their failure to deliver that which they were contracted to do."
In fact, the company continued to work in Iraq for another year, even after Robert Isakson, one of Custer Battles' major sub-contractors, went to federal authorities with allegations of criminal misconduct. Isakson and another whistleblower claim Custer Battles bilked the government out of $50 million, and they're suing the company on behalf of U.S. taxpayers to recover some of the money.
"Well, they approached me three times to participate in a — defrauding of the United States government," Isakson says. "They wanted to open fraudulent companies overseas and inflate their invoices to the United States government."
Asked if the fraud actually took place, Isakson says, "Two weeks later, apparently, I heard they began exactly the fraud they described to me."
According to a subsequent investigation by the U.S. Air Force, Custer Battles set up sham companies in the Cayman Islands to fabricate phony invoices that it submitted to the Coalition Authority with the intention of fraudulently inflating its profits.
According to a Custer Battles spreadsheet, which was left behind after a meeting with U.S. officials, the company submitted invoices on the currency contract totaling nearly $10 million, when its actual costs were less than $4 million.
Electricity costs of $74,000 were invoiced to the Coalition Authority at $400,000. And those trucks that didn’t work were bought on the local market for $228,000 and billed to the Coalition Authority for $800,000.
Mike Battles and Scott Custer are currently under federal investigation by the Department of Justice and declined to be interviewed for this story. But in videotaped depositions for the whistleblower lawsuit, Custer disavowed any knowledge of the phony invoices.
"Would you agree with me that it is highly improper for a contractor working under a time and materials contract to simply fabricate invoices and then hand them in for payment?" attorney Alan Grayson asked during the deposition.
"Yes, the short answer, I am not a government or legal expert, but I would think it is improper to fabricate anything you would know to be true," Custer replied.
Custer and Battles blame their problems on former employees, competitors and the bureaucratic incompetence of the CPA.
"I know we were supposed to do one thing for a certain amount of money and by the time it was said and done they asked us to do many, many more things for a different, a greater amount of money," Battles said in deposition.
To date, the only action taken against them has been a one-year suspension from receiving government contracts; it has since expired.
"I think what’s happening over there is an orgy of greed here with contractors," says North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan.
He is the chairman of the Democratic Party Policy Committee, and says Custer Battles is small potatoes compared to behemoths like Halliburton and its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), who have collected half of all the money awarded to contractors in Iraq, and, according to Department of Defense auditors, have over-billed taxpayers more than a billion dollars.
Dorgan’s committee has held hearings and heard testimony that Halliburton has overcharged for meals, and fuel and gouged taxpayers on items like hand towels.
"Instead of buying a white towel, which would be $1.60, this company said, 'No, no, no. Put, embroidery our logo on it. Five bucks,' " says Dorgan. "So, what's the difference? Well, the American taxpayer's gonna pay the bill."
Halliburton says the towels were embroidered to keep them from being stolen or lost, and that allegations it over-billed by a billion dollars are exaggerated. But Dorgan says none of this is being seriously investigated.
"Let me tell you that there’s very little oversight by anybody on anything in this Congress. We have a president and a Congress of the same party. They have no interest in doing any aggressive oversight," Dorgan says.
The only one really looking into it is Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, a position created by Congress in 2004 to monitor construction and development projects to rebuild Iraq.
Asked how he would describe the oversight early on with the CPA, Bowen says, "It was relatively non-existent."
In two lengthy reports, Bowen’s staff outlined suspected fraud and incompetence of staggering proportions. Like the $8.8 billion dollars that the coalition seems to have lost track of.
Bowen says that money is "not accounted for" and acknowledges that nobody really knows exactly where it went.
Some of the money Bowen says was spent on projects it was intended for. It’s just that there are no receipts. But some of it, like the funds to buy books and train personnel at a library in Karbala, simply vanished.
Four people have already been arrested on bribery and theft charges and more arrests will follow.
Bowen says he there are nearly 50 investigations going on right now, involving suspected "fraud, kickbacks, bribery, waste."
"Involving American companies?" Kroft asks.
"That's right," Bowen replies.
Shortly after this story aired, a federal jury found Custer Battles guilty of 37 separate fraudulent acts. It demanded the company repay $10 million dollars in damages and penalties to the U.S. government and whistleblowers.
The Air Force debarred the company from receiving government contracts until March 2009. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has kept busy too. He arrested another person for fraud and is now investigating more than 70 cases of abuse in Iraq.
“Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.” -John F. Kennedy
It is not the threat of violence that weighs on the people of Iraq. It is the omnipresent occurrence of violence that has resulted in the desperate nation wide chant, “We are tired. All we want is for normal life to return.”
Recently, an eight-year-old Iraqi girl was shot by US soldiers when their convoy ran into a crowd of Shiite pilgrims traveling to the holy city of Karbala in southern Iraq.
Sunday, a week ago, three explosions echoed across Baghdad, leaving one person dead and wounding another 20.
The very next day, a suicide car bomber struck a US patrol in the northern city of Mosul, killing four American soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter. It was the single deadliest attack on US forces in nine months. Two days later, an off-duty security guard of Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi was wounded along with a pedestrian when a bomb attached to his car detonated. On the same day, back in Mosul, a car bomb targeting a police patrol wounded three Iraqi policemen.
Wednesday, at least 12 people were killed and 40 wounded in bombings across Baghdad targeting Shia pilgrims. The next day, in an attack also targeting pilgrims, eight people were killed and another 56 wounded. Friday, a female suicide bomber killed 40 and wounded 84 others in yet another attack on Shia pilgrims south of Baghdad, who were flocking to a religious festival.
Mile after mile of concrete walls segregate erstwhile mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad. This prodigious Balkanization of the capital city has had the twin effect of attenuating violence and displacing every fourth resident from their homes.
There are times when I feel quite relaxed, going around in the end winter mild temperatures. Unlike during previous trips, when the specter of violence was impossible to ignore, today I am able to choose to not pay attention to imminent threats. Invariably, I’m yanked back to the reality of existence in Baghdad where “normal” comprises fatal currents of danger streaming indiscriminately through the course of each life.
Driving slowly towards the main exit area of a locality where we had been conducting interviews, our interpreter Ali, my colleague and I found the usually clogged roadway completely empty. “What’s going on here,” Ali asked incredulously. On looking out, I found both sides of the street blocked by the police and armed forces. Coincidentally, the car bomb I mentioned earlier had exploded in this very area and the fact was not lost on any of us as we grimly acknowledged the stark reminder that there was no escaping the game of chance in this benighted country.
Hulking Ford pickup trucks full of Iraqi police toting AK-47s and mounted in the back with heavy caliber machine guns prohibited access to the main road. Through the traffic snarl, we cautiously inched our way back to a side street, joining a crawling row of cars, hoping to circumnavigate the cordoned section. Unfortunately for us, our effort failed and we were forced back toward the dreaded area. Since we were unaware of the cause of the crisis, we hoped to somehow exit unscathed as the vehicles were actually moving.
The hope proved quite fanciful as our car approached and moved past the reason for the blockade. Across the median from us was a suspected car bomb in an abandoned jeep in front of an Iraqi police compound. Clad in heavy armor, an ambling green beetle of a bomb expert sifted through the innards of the vehicle that had all its doors open. Iraqi police guarding the road a block away on either side watched with apprehension.
Our procession, with no option but forward, took us within 30 yards of the suspected bomb. The mood inside the car was taut and thick with tension fit to be sliced as gingerly we made our way further from the jeep.
Such abrupt and frequent reminders that anywhere in the city, any car could be a bomber, result in an all pervasive condition of stress, inconceivable for people living in normal places where normal residents like G.W. Bush, who engineer such conditions in far off lands, can glibly inform an overly gullible normal public that … it’s all aimed at achieving peace.
Meanwhile, in this less than normal place where our former resident strove so hard to bring peace, it is impossible to move for ten minutes in any direction without encountering Iraqi police in pickup trucks, their sirens blaring to push traffic to the brink as they plow their way through to some crisis area. Traffic in Baghdad is notoriously frustrating at the best of times without the added delays that these convoys cause.
“Boys with toys,” says Ali, and we both laugh as yet another police convoy with blaring sirens roared past. Inventing humor has been the most effective coping mechanism in Iraq for decades. Rather than letting the countless impediments paralyze them, Iraqis have taught themselves to negotiate the uphill struggle to survive through humor and laughter.
Like every man in Iraq, Ali has done his time in the military. He fought in the Iran/Iraq war during the 1980s and in the subsequent invasion of Kuwait, during which he earned ten Medals of Honor for saving as many Iraqi lives as a medic.
As my colleague Jason and I sat with him to lunch in the gentle warmth of the sun, Ali started to tell us some of his stories.
“I was attached to an artillery battery during the al-Faw campaign against the Iranians. We shot six shells a minute at them, as did the hundreds of other artillery.”
Al-Faw is a small port on the al-Faw Peninsula in Iraq near the Shatt al-Arab River, a few kilometers from the Persian Gulf.
“The Iranians had been occupying it for over a year, but in 1988 we launched a surprise attack and drove them back,” he continued, “Can you imagine hundreds of artillery batteries, all shooting six shells per minute, for hours? Literally every square meter had a crater from one of our shells. The place looked like the moon.”
To my query about the number of Iranians killed, Ali responded after the briefest pause, “Impossible to count. There were bodies everywhere. I could tell you endless stories about the things I’ve seen.”
Like most Iraqis I know, Ali, too, managed to change the topic gracefully. He narrated a “funny” story about the invasion of Kuwait, “We drove into Kuwait like tourists,” he recollected. “We had people asking us what we were doing. They invited us to join them for kebabs and tea. It was very pleasant, actually. It stayed that way for one week, until an armed resistance began shooting at us; then it grew ugly.”
When food arrived, Ali declared war, “Now it’s time for me to invade my shawarma!” We laughed heartily.
He described an occasion when he had been rocketed by a US F-16. “I was manning an artillery gun on a ridge when I saw the jet turning and launching the missile. The next thing I knew, my gun and I were blown into the air and landed upside down.”
“Were you hurt?” I asked.
“No … just shaken up a bit,” he chuckled.
The stories continued as we dove into our lunch and sipped our sodas. For the briefest spell, it almost felt as if we were three friends enjoying a normal late afternoon lunch and each other’s company.
The spell broke when a convoy of several lumbering pickup trucks full of Iraqi police drove past us on the busy street adjoining the pavement restaurant where we sat. The sirens and the gruff voice ordering cars out of their way did not interrupt the conversation and our mood. It merely planted us back to a normal day in Iraq.
Helen Thomas has the reputation among journalists for asking the uncomfortable question – and fortunate for us her target is the President of the United States. She has covered every White House administration since John F. Kennedy, becoming in 1960 the first female member of the White House press corps.
While she wrote for the news service, United Press International, Thomas’ tenure was honored with the first question during White House briefings. In more recent years, her journalism has turned to commentaries in newspapers and books, her most recent being “Watchdogs of Democracy?
The Waning Washington Press Corps and How it has Failed the Public.” Thomas now prepares to cover her 10th administration, and in a recent interview shortly before the inauguration, she reflected on the Bush administration, and her hopes for her newest target – Barack Obama.
Joanne Zuhl: Today you attended the last press briefing of President Bush, and you weren’t called on. If you had been called on, what would you have asked?
Helen Thomas: I was going to ask about Gaza and the very fact that he has played a big role in giving the Israelis F-16s, bombers, Apache gunships, cluster bombs, God knows what else, maybe phosphorous and so-forth, used on a helpless people. He complains about smuggling for the Palestinians — we’re doing wholesale weaponry to the Israelis to kill.
J.Z.: Was that addressed during the conference?
H.T.: No. It was very nostalgic. I think the questions were good about how he felt about things and so forth, so it was very warm and sympathetic, and he had his say, which was very self-serving.
J.Z.: You have been among the throngs of people very critical of the White House Press Corps. You titled your 2007 book “Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How it Has Failed the Public.” Why do you say the press corps failed the public?
H.T.: Because they did. They let this country go to war without asking why.
Read more after the jump
J.Z.: You had asked why and the answer wasn’t really an answer, was it?
H.T.: That’s right. Because any reason they had was unacceptable, whether it’s oil, or Daddy or Israel or whatever — you don’t give people’s lives.
J.Z.: But there was a great deal of coverage over the build up of the war, but it was seen by many in hindsight as toeing the administration’s line. What stories would you have like to have seen covered that perhaps could have altered history in that sense?
H.T.: I would like to have had the truth to see what was worth dying for. You don’t take a country to war unless you have some good reason? Unless your defending — unless it’s the truth. There were so many lies told. There were no weapons of mass destruction, no Iraqis in 9/11, no ties between Iraq and al Qaeda and the terrorist organization, so called. Everything was a falsehood. And everybody got away with it, and scared the hell out of the American people for how many years now? Since 2003. Thousands and thousands and thousands are dead.
J.Z.: Could the media have altered that? Do you think we’d be in a different situation if they media would have reported on that?
H.T.: Absolutely. The media is very powerful if they come out with the truth and let people know. Outrage the people. You have to have a reason to go to war, to kill 10, 000 miles away, who you don’t know, who have done nothing to you.
J.Z.: You covered the Kennedy administration and every administration since then, and we had wars during that period as well. How is this different?
H.T.: I would never justify the Vietnam War. I was against it every inch of the way. And also I think President Kennedy was right to turn around and not invade Cuba during the Bay of Pigs. I also think that he played his cards right, along with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader. Both had known war. Both knew to step back and be statesmen instead and save the world. Each had nuclear arsenals and could have blown us all up.
J.Z.: The coverage then was much more hard core. What the media was covering back then, leading up to the Vietnam War and the Cold War — it was much more of a watchdog role than it is today. Can you compare the situation, the way the media reacted and why is there that difference?
H.T.: 9/11 scared the hell out of everybody. Reporters didn’t want to be called un-American, and unpatriotic and so forth. So you had to go along with what the administration was saying and don’t even question the patriotism. Don’t question if it’s really true. Don’t ask for an exhibition of the arms that they said they had.
J.Z.: You’ve been the target of that. In questioning Bush’s intentions in going to war you’ve been labeled anti-American and bias. You’ve questioned Isreal’s actions against Palestinians and you’ve been called anti-Israel. Recently you questioned the policies in Iraq and you were accused of denigrating the military. Isn’t that always the price of asking the uncomfortable question, or is this something different?
H.T.: Well, I do write an opinion column, so I probably wouldn’t ask it the same way if I was still working for a wire service. But I do have an opinion and I’m allowed to have it.
J.Z.: But do those kinds of labels really have a stifling effect on the media.
H.T.: I think it’s really bad to call somebody a name because you don’t agree with them. But that has become our way of life. If you don’t believe in what you’re saying then you cave to that kind of attack. I’ve been called Hezbollah and everything else. I don’t say it doesn’t effect me but I must say I don’t retreat. Why should I? I have a right to my opinion in this country.
J.Z.: Looking back over the past eight years under the Bush administration, what do you think are the biggest botched stories? What did the media miss and do wrong?
H.T.: I think the media retreated, they should have fought the administration which locked them out of any photographs of coffins and the war itself. They submitted meekly totally, to everything that was really happening abroad. They tried to act like it wasn’t happening at all. People were unaware of what we did in Iraq. We destroyed a country.
J.Z.: Your parents were immigrants from Syria, and you’ve written about your own experience as a youth dealing with prejudice and bigotry. I wonder how that shaped your viewpoint in the aftermath of 9/11 when Arab-Americans were being targeted for investigations, interrogation and arrest?
H.T.: I think that my background, obviously, I’m much more interested than the average person on what goes on in the Middle East, but I can assure you that I was born here, I grew up on the whole idea of what it means to be an American, and I believe in the Bill of Rights, and I believe in fighting against injustice across the board.
J.Z.: I want to look now into some of the news that has happened under the Bush administration, and one of the biggest stories of the past year has been the politicizing of the Justice Department, which resulted ultimately in the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. President-elect Obama has now nominated former deputy attorney general Eric Holder to the position, but he comes with a familiar controversy in that in 1999, Holder is accused of pushing subordinates to drop their opposition to clemency to members of Puerto Rican terrorist organization. What’s your assessment of this appointment?
H.T.: I think he’ll be a good attorney general. I think he has a good sense of honor and law. Obviously everybody is going to be fought. The Republicans are gearing up to make trouble. They don’t have the power, but they can do it. Gonzales was probably just awful. I mean, torture? Secret prisons? And all the justice department people, not all, but many approved of such a horror. They way he hung that albatross around the neck of every American - secret prisons, torture, water boarding.
J.Z.: With Holder’s nomination, and the other appointments that President-elect Obama is making, what does that tell you, with all your years of experience, about what the tone is for this administration and what it is going to be doing?
H.T.: Not gonna be bold. He’s going to walk down the middle line. He’s going to be as careful and cautious as he was in the campaign. He’s going to try to be all things to everyone, and he doesn’t understand, he needs courage… The whole idea is that people want him, but they want him to do the right thing. And he has the possibility, he has so much power in this presidency to do the right thing. He should not compromise and he should not keep his promises to his big donors.
J.Z.: You mentioned earlier about Gaza. Obama has said that there’s only one president at a time…
H.T.: Oh bull. Why didn’t he say that during the campaign? He sure has been silent. You’re never silent when people are being slaughtered.
J.Z.: Looking forward, what’s the first question you’re going to ask President Obama?
H.T.: Well, I think he’ll be asked many questions about the economy, and I would say how soon is he going to stop the killing across the world that we’re involved in? I think that his answer will be very cautious, that we’re trying and so forth. We plan to get out of Iraq in 16 months and I’ll tell him why not now. If you know you’re leaving, then get out.
J.Z.: What do you think are the major stories that the media needs to jump on in the coming years?
H.T.: I think they will jump on the economy, what’s being done. So many people are suffering in this country. But I think we’ll be able to test him in many ways in terms of what he does in foreign policy. If he’s going to run scared, and follow Bush’s model, we’re in trouble.
J.Z.: The relationship between The Bush administration and the press corps has certainly been strained and in many ways been shut down. Is that the way business is going to be done from here on out. Are we every going to see it go back to the Fourth Estate that the media once was?
H.T.: I think so. It’s possible. I think the press is going to very kind to him. So that’s good. But I don’t think they should be easy on him.
J.Z.: Is it good to be kind to the president?
H.T.: No. I mean, you can be civil and you should be polite. You have one chance in the barrel. It’s a privilege to ask the president a question, and he should take the question. And the question should be important to everybody in the world.
J.Z.: You’ve been doing this for nearly 50 years now. Why is it important for you to continue working into what will be your 10th administration?
H.T.: For one thing, it’s important for me to keep learning. There’s nothing that can replace being there and asking the questions I know should be asked.
J.Z.: If you don’t ask those questions, who will?
H.T.: There’s nobody around now. I’m looking. When I was going back and forth with Dana Perino, and she said they killed people, they did this and that, and I said, ‘so do we.’ When it was over, I stood up and I said ‘where is everybody?’ And this was on an open mic. There was silence in the press room. And then when I went back to my office. I got many calls and they said, ‘We’re here. We’re here.’
J.Z.: But you don’t see, then, the people who are ready to step.
H.T.: They perhaps don’t have my causes. And my causes are peace, helping people, help the poor, the sick, the maimed. What other purpose should we have? Why should we help bankers who are multi-millionaires, and not help people who are hungry and need shelter? I don’t understand why this wouldn’t be of interest to every one.
J.Z.: Do you have high hopes for the media or are you concerned for its well being?
H.T.: I have very high hopes for them, but I know that everyone’s under the gun, in the sense that they don’t have a job. Lots of jobs have been lost and newspapers are folding, so I can’t ask others to do what I might not do. The point is that a lot of the publishers are selling their papers because they’re not making a 25 percent profit, and they have never made that kind of money. If you were a publisher, newspapers used to be your contribution to the community. Usually you made your money in other fields. I think we’ve lost it because it got to Wall Street and Wall Street doesn’t know or care anything about our right to know. You can’t have a democracy without an informed people and that’s where it comes from — newspapers. But I don’t think those who buy up newspapers care particularly anymore of keeping the people informed. They care about their pockets.
J.Z.: What do you think then about the internet media where you have a much more free and open source of information.
H.T.: I don’t want everyone with a laptop thinking they’re a journalist, when they don’t have any of our standards or principles, or the sense that you give everyone a chance. And you can ruin lives, ruin reputations. You have a lot of freedom to say anything. At a newspaper at least, you have editors, you have people knowing you have to toe the line, you have to be honorable.
This interview was originally broadcast on “We The People” on KBOO FM, 90.7. To hear the complete interview, go to kboo.fm/WethePeople
MJ article on Obama and Poverty - Sounds like some Hope to this Joe Anybody Mood:
bright Now Playing: Mother Jones Report: "Harlem's Man With the Plan" Topic: HUMANITY
Z3 Readers... let me say I didnt vote for the two party corrupt system. In fact I hate teh system , I hate Obama's view on the middle east and his pro war attitude. BUT... I do like some of his "social" plans and attitudes...here is a good article on Poverty and helping kids. I must say I am proud to have a president concerned about these topics for a change.
Harlem on election night was, predictably, a little nuts. At 11 p.m., when the networks declared that Barack Obama would be the next president, church bells rang and champagne flowed. Old women hollered. Young men wept.
There was, quite literally, dancing in the streets. Among the people parading down 125th Street that night, Obama's victory was seen as a deliverance, not just for the nation but for the neighborhood as well. And Harlem has long needed delivering.
Poverty has always been a fact of life in the United States, but the concentrated urban poverty that Harlem—along with sections of every American city—has experienced in the past half-century is a relatively new phenomenon. In the 1950s and 1960s, middle-class blacks, less constrained by restrictions on where they could live, began to move out of neighborhoods like Harlem in great numbers. At the same time, the postwar decline of the country's manufacturing economy deprived the urban African American families who remained of the jobs that had sustained them.
As a result, the number of poor people living in neighborhoods with at least a 40 percent poverty rate almost tripled during the 1970s in the five largest American cities. These areas became a brand-new kind of urban ghetto, almost all poor and all black.The hope spilling out along 125th Street on the night of November 4 was for change of all kinds, from a more productive economy to a more benign foreign policy.
But it was also a hope that President-elect Obama would be able, finally, to find a lasting solution to the kind of entrenched urban poverty that has engulfed Harlem and neighborhoods like it for decades.During the Democratic primaries, Obama didn't talk about poverty as much as John Edwards did. And in the general election, it was John McCain, not Obama, who took a weeklong "poverty tour" of blighted cities like New Orleans and Youngstown, Ohio.
But Obama's unique background—food stamps as a child, community organizing as a young man—seems to have given him an unusually sophisticated understanding of poverty's causes and potential solutions. His poverty plan includes some basic Democratic solutions, like raising the minimum wage and increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit.
But Obama has also proposed more targeted policies: guaranteed sick days to protect low-wage workers, for whom a bad cold can often lead directly to a pink slip; transportation subsidies to help inner-city workers get to better-paying jobs in the suburbs; child care programs to make it easier for single parents to hold down a job.Beyond those more short-term measures, Obama promises an ambitious suite of programs intended to attack the deeper roots of inner-city poverty. The dismal employment situation in neighborhoods like Harlem doesn't only have to do with the lack of good jobs.
It also has to do with the fact that many poor people lack the skills necessary to get and keep those jobs, everything from basic math and reading ability to more subtle noncognitive skills, like patience and perseverance. Some of those deficits can be filled in through job training programs like Job Corps—but many of them cannot.
In recent years, economists, social scientists, and neurologists have shown that the skills gap between rich kids and poor kids opens up very early, and the later you wait to address those deficits, the harder it becomes to turn things around.
The good news from this research, though, is that certain interventions do work, provided they start early and continue throughout childhood. One of the most rigorously evaluated is the Nurse-Family Partnership, a program, now operating in 350 counties across the nation, that sends registered nurses to conduct regular home visits with low-income women who are having their first child.
The nurses act as mentors and counselors, encouraging the mothers to quit smoking, go back to school, and find constructive ways to deal with the stresses of new parenthood. The results are encouraging, even many years down the road—at age 15, kids whose mothers went through the program are 59 percent less likely to have an arrest record than teens in a control group. Currently, the program serves nearly 16,000 mothers; Obama has pledged to expand it to all low-income first-time mothers.Even more ambitious is Obama's plan to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone, a program that I profile in my book, Whatever It Takes.
The Zone is the brainchild of Geoffrey Canada, an African American man in his mid-50s who grew up in extreme poverty in the South Bronx. Canada escaped the inner city for Bowdoin and Harvard and then returned to New York to try to create better options for kids like the ones he grew up with.
In the mid-'90s, he was running a decent-size nonprofit for teenagers in Harlem, and everyone told him how successful he was. But he could see only the kids he wasn't helping. Poor children in Harlem faced so many disadvantages, he realized, that it didn't make sense to address just one or two and ignore the rest.
A great after-school program wouldn't do much good if the school itself were lousy. And even the best school would have a hard time succeeding without help from the parents.
Canada's solution was to take on all those problems simultaneously. The Harlem Children's Zone takes a holistic approach, following children from cradle to college, mimicking the cocoon of stimulation and support that surrounds middle-class children. The Zone now enrolls more than 8,000 children a year in its various programs, which cover a 97-block section of central Harlem. "We're not interested in saving 100 kids," Canada told me once. "Even 300 kids. Even 1,000 kids to me is not going to do it. We want to be able to talk about how you save kids by the tens of thousands, because that's how we're losing them. We're losing kids by the tens of thousands."
Canada believes that many poor parents aren't doing enough to prepare their kids for school—not because they don't care, but because they simply don't know the importance of early childhood stimulation. So the Zone starts with Baby College, nine weeks of parenting classes that focus on discipline and brain development. It continues with language-intensive prekindergarten, which feeds into a rigorous K-12 charter school with an extended day and an extended year.
That academic "conveyor belt," as Canada calls it, is supplemented by social programs: family counseling, a free health clinic, after-school tutoring, and a drop-in arts center for teenagers.Canada's early childhood programs are in many ways a response to research showing that the vocabularies of poor children usually lag significantly behind those of middle-class children. At the Harlem Gems prekindergarten, I watched as the four-year-olds were bombarded with books, stories, and flash cards—including some in French.
The parents were enlisted, too; one morning, I went with a few families on a field trip to a local supermarket organized by the Harlem Children's Zone. The point wasn't to learn about nutrition, but rather about language—how to fill an everyday shopping trip with the kind of nonstop chatter that has become second nature to most upper-middle-class parents, full of questions about numbers and colors and letters and names.
That chatter, social scientists have shown, has a huge effect on vocabulary and reading ability. And as we walked through the aisles, those conversations were going on everywhere: Is the carrot bumpy or smooth? What color is that apple? How many should we buy?So far, Canada's vision has yielded impressive results. Last year, the first conveyor-belt students reached the third grade and took their first statewide standardized tests.
In reading, they scored above the New York City average, and in math they scored well above the state average.Obama's proposal is to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities across the country.
In his speech announcing the plan, he proposed that each new zone operate as a 50-50 partnership between the federal government and local philanthropists, businesses, and governments, and he estimated that the federal share of the cost would come to "a few billion dollars a year." It's an undertaking that would mark a seismic change in the way that we approach poverty. Over the last few months, as I've talked to a variety of audiences about Canada's program, I've heard one question over and over: Can it really be reproduced?
It's true that it took a leader with Canada's unique qualities and personal history to create the first Harlem Children's Zone, to inspire donors enough to expand it from a modest community organization into a nonprofit powerhouse with a $68 million annual budget. But replicating the Zone, especially with federal backing, will require a different and more attainable set of skills. In fact, as leaders around the country create their own versions of the Zone, they'll likely improve on the model Canada has created—as well as, inevitably, make a few missteps.
The bigger question is whether Obama, once in office, will conclude that the government can't now afford this kind of bold initiative. It may be that the plan will be put on hold for a year or two, until the worst of the downturn passes. But Obama, drawing on the research of his Hyde Park neighbor, the economist James Heckman, has made the point that programs like the Harlem Children's Zone are not giveaways; they're investments that will pay for themselves in reduced spending on welfare, job training, and the criminal justice system.
As Obama put it, "We will find the money to do this because we can't afford not to."Obama concluded his speech with a story. "The idea for the Harlem Children's Zone began with a list," he said. "It was a waiting list that Geoffrey Canada kept of all the children who couldn't get into his program back when it was just a few blocks wide.
It was 500 people long. And one day he looked at that list and thought, Why shouldn't those 500 kids get the same chance in life as the 500 who were already in the program? Why not expand it to include those 500? Why not 5,000?
And that, of course," he continued, "is the final question about poverty in America. It's the hopeful one that Bobby Kennedy was also famous for asking. Why not? It leaves the cynics without an answer, and it calls on the rest of us to get to work."
Paul Tough is an editor for the New York Times Magazine and author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America.
Martin Luther King - Obama - and the year 2009 Mood:
celebratory Now Playing: Day of Service Topic: CIVIL RIGHTS
I love the concept of the Obama family doing the ‘ordinary citizen’ bit by rolling up their sleeves and jumping into their new neighborhood’s many issues in Washington D.C., AND using social media (cool Facebook app here) to show people via USA Service.org and Google map how YOU can volunteer in your OWN local community.
Using the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” Here’s the official MLK Day.gov site complete with radio PSAs featuring Dr. King’s voice, latest news feeds, media and mobilization for what’s shaping up to be the largest effort ever.
Yah, yah, I know, I’m an idealist, yadayada, the kids want to spend their holiday sledding in the snow or whatever, but I say put a viral ‘youth action’ spin on it so kids can make a difference meeting like-minded peer to peer positive influence and you’ve got a teen scene social nudge capable of sparking the ‘hope and change’ fuel everyone seems so longing to ignite!
Personally, I’m hoping this is a sign of an era of hands-on, ‘make no excuses’ accountability, where youth and parents meet on the same page to quit power-whining and DO something if they don’t like what they see…
I was always a fan of Colin Powell’s America’s Promise, and his ability to form alliances across party lines. I’ve been fortunate to hear him speak several times advocating for a universal call to service which always has made SO much common sense to me.
Beyond charisma, poise and intellect, Powell and Obama join Dr. King himself in cycle-breaking efforts to get people off their duffs to mobilize and (dare I say it?) ‘Just do it.’
I’d say it’s only been THIS year that the brand new USA Service.org site and viral video smart mob crew of social media has piqued the nation’s interest beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of ‘Have Fun, Do Good’-ers and the youth empowerment posse! Whether it’s a local eco-clean up or an inner-city painting project, I love the whole notion of keeping it relevant by keeping it close to home.
One of the things that’s always irked me about service project deployment is that many stereotype volunteering as being only about ‘underserved areas’ and ‘risky business’ which often creates a needless chasm of conflict between “exposure vs. need” where kids are concerned.
Often you end up with either “nervous-nellies” patting themselves on the back like they’ve entered some commando-condition fortress, or do-gooders who can’t necessarily relate to the community’s experience as a whole.
I even include myself in that last crew, recalling one of my counter-marketing sessions with 5th graders using cookie cutters to ‘build a healthier Lunchable’ only to find the whole class staring at me blankly during the hands-on phase. (um, oops; they’d never even SEEN cookie cutters before, much less know what to do with them)
So rather than get service helpers who ‘boldly go where no one’s gone before’ only to become conversational fodder, rarely to enter the environs again, kids can do a great job in their OWN communities dispelling myths and legends to boot. (‘yes, Sally Surbanite, there are schools in need locally in non-urban pockets too, and even youth homeless, etc.)
So…check out the Find an Event/USA Service.org maps and resources of what’s going on in YOUR local community. The Obama bunch has made it easy for us with turnkey social media mapping and access to a plethora of projects right in your own zip code.
Btw, this is a nonpartisan, national day of service, folks.
At left is the handy Facebook ‘choose, pledge, act, report’ process to pay it forward via social media.
I also received a solid recap of info from MoveOn.org about the Obama administration’s goal to expand national service orgs like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps and create new ones including:
—a Classroom Corps to help underserved schools;
—a Health Corps to serve in the nation’s clinics and hospitals;
—a Clean Energy Corps to achieve the goal of energy independence; and
—a Veterans Corps to support the Americans who serve in harm’s way.
I’m energized just seeing it put on paper for follow-through!
I love the ‘in your shoes’ format to find the right fit for your own interests and personality. It’s always been a Shaping Youth favorite, prompting kids to lose the lip-service and hop right in to the experiential, character-building, hands-on process of ‘getting it,’ with the freedom to choose what that ‘it’ may be.
After all, we’re not a ‘cookie cutter’ society.
What’s common and form fitting to some may be completely foreign and hard-edged to others. I’ve sure learned that and shaped up my own outreach efforts.
One thing I DO know about cookie cutters now is that anyone can learn to cut out a star for themselves. And they’ll feel good about doing it, too.
See you out there on Monday! What will you be doing? Want to share any of your ideas? Add links to other cool service orgs? Send ‘em along…Photos too if you want?
Here are more related resources/volunteer opportunities:
There are few things that I like better in life than going to the pub with my friends and drinking whiskey whilst putting the world to rights. Indeed, I think the right to go to the pub is one of those things which should be enshrined in every country's constitution.
Last month, the Sri Ram Sena (Army of Lord Ram) group attacked women in Magalore in Southern India who they saw out drinking, and who they deemed to be acting disgracefully. The attack was filmed, was filmed and then broadcast on national television, showing men chasing and beating up panicking women. Some of the women, who tripped and fell, were kicked viciously by the men. Because, you know, beating the living shit out a woman daring to express her individuality by living her life the way she chooses to is a really good way to win people over to your cause.
The group are also planning to protest against Valentines Day this Saturday, believing that a harmless commercial celebration of hearts and flowers will slowly erode away moral dignity and the fabric of society.
Indian women, however, are fighting back. Last Thursday, The Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women was formed on Facebook, which encourages women to to "walk to your nearest pub and buy a drink" this Valentines Day. Their blog is also encouraging people across the globe to send the Sri Ram Sena pairs of knickers. Pink knickers to be exact. The pinker, cheaper and dirtier the better.
Why knickers instead of...say...dog turds? Because in India chaddis is a colloquial term for underwear. And it alludes to a prominent Hindu right-wing group whose khaki-shorts-wearing cadres were often derisively called "chaddi wallahs" (chaddi wearers).
Why should I waste a perfectly good pair of Primark knickers on those close minded twats? you ask? Well, because it draws attention to the fact that in a part of the world where women have enough curbs on their lives as it is, they are choosing to fight back against a set of social constructs trying (once again) to put them in their place.
So, if you happen to be a woman in India on Valentines Day, be sure to buy yourself a pint. Or, indeed whatever tipple takes your fancy (mine's a Jamieson's, straight with ice if you're buying). Or, if you just wish to find out more about the campaign, direct your brower to the Consortium's blog, at thepinkchaddicampaign.blogspot.com