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Op Ed

Ask any Republican: Budget cuts get applause. Discussions of closing tax loopholes and raising revenue … not so much. And so it’s not surprising that Republican lawmakers have reacted to our state’s unprecedented budget shortfall, currently estimated at around $24 billion, by eagerly reassuring voters that their taxes will not go up. As Gov. Rick Perry told Austin’s KVUE-TV in June, the plan is: “Fill that budget gap, if there is one—which we suspect there will be—with appropriate reductions in spending without raising taxes.”

For many Texas lawmakers, it’s a matter of principle that when it comes to government, the smaller the better. So for these committed ideologues, the upcoming session is an opportunity. But if the budget gap is as high as early estimates predict, it’s unlikely that even drastic cuts with a dull machete can actually free up enough money for a constitutionally required balanced budget.

In truth, we cannot cut willy-nilly. The state is under federal court order to improve its children’s Medicaid program; it’s unlikely the Lege could make reductions without being dragged back into federal court. Then there are the state’s institutions for the mentally disabled: After a major abuse scandal, the state reached a deal in 2009 with the U.S. Justice Department. The feds agreed not to sue, so long as the Legislature boosted funding for the facilities and improved conditions. The Legislature can’t reduce funding for public schools, either, without risking a court battle.

If the Legislature cuts other programs, Texans will still end up picking up the tab. For instance, if the number of uninsured Texans goes up, the cost gets passed to hospital emergency rooms and local hospital districts—and eventually leads to higher local property taxes and health care costs. And wholesale cuts to education might save money short-term, but would hamstring the state’s economy down the road by producing a less skilled workforce and reducing property values.

House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, says lawmakers “must make tough choices and put every cost-saving idea on the table.” But if every cost-saving idea is on the table, why are lawmakers ignoring so many other options—like raising revenue through closing tax loopholes, broadening the sales tax to cover services or expanding and taxing gambling? Even Ronald Reagan understood there was a time to raise taxes. Lawmakers must face up to the fact that they are going to have to raise revenue, or we’ll all end up paying the price.

My greatness as a writer is simply a fact.

You don’t agree? Well, then obviously you are churlish or malevolent.

If I were serious about such a claim of superiority, now would be the time to stop reading — on the reasonable assumption that I’m a dull-witted bore with no capacity for critical self-reflection. What applies to individual declarations is also true of nations, yet in the United States such statements about our greatness are common.

Rich Lowry of the National Review closed out 2010 with a particularly bombastic piece reasserting U.S. greatness. Though Lowry is a conservative, his argument is conventional: The United States has brought prosperity to the world, protecting all that is decent against evil. Yes, we’ve had to muscle others out of the way on occasion, but that was necessary to bring order and liberty. Yes, we’ve made some mistakes along the way, but those are all safely in the past and, besides, they have to be understood in context.

His conclusion: “Our greatness is simply a fact. Only the churlish or malevolent can deny it, or even get irked at its assertion.” (“Yes, the Greatest Country Ever,”)

This expression of American exceptionalism is unexceptional in U.S. political history, but it roared back stronger than ever in 2010, especially in the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement. As it becomes harder to ignore the United States’ decline as an economic power — which will limit the capacity for imperial marauding around the world — the inclination of most mainstream politicians to assert our greatness will intensify.

Those of us with radical or progressive politics need to challenge these kinds of slogans when we talk with friends, family, and co-workers. In my 2004 book Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity, I offered common-sense responses in plain language, and as we get ready for a more right-wing Congress and the political discussions that lie ahead, I thought it would be helpful to revisit some of those points.

With the permission of publisher City Lights Books,  I have posted online two chapters from that book — one that deconstructs “the greatest nation” rhetoric  and another that challenges the concept of patriotism.

It is neither churlish nor malevolent to want to honestly assess the accomplishments and failures of one’s country. Rather, it is the obligation of every citizen.


DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.

Texas and the Feds Fight Fake Pot

Synthetic marijuana may be difficult to outlaw.


When I was working on a feature on Barry Cooper, the former narcotics officer turned marijuana advocate, he told me he had come across a substance that, when smoked, produced a high as good as the best pot– only this stuff was legal and wouldn’t show up on a drug test. Cooper, a gifted entrepreneur as well as activist, smoked the substance to avoid failing drug tests and now sells the “herbal incense” on his website, he calls it Lucy Jane.

Barry Cooper wasn’t the only person to discover synthetic pot, which is sold across Texas at head shops under a variety of names, including K2, Spice and Blaze. Now State Senator Florence Shapiro and the federal government are in a race to outlaw the substance, which may prove more difficult than banning the real stuff.

The ingredient in fake pot is usually JWH-018, a synthetic cannabinoid created by Dr. John Huffman at Clemson University. In the 1980s, Huffman began developing drugs that target the endocannabinoid receptors in the brain—the specific receptors that are affected by THC in marijuana and other naturally occurring cannabinoids—in order to develop drugs that might help MS, AIDS and chemotherapy patients. Huffman, whose research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, created dozens of synthetic cannabinoids, many of which could be manufactured by easily available chemical compounds and a basic understanding of chemistry. (Huffman’s compounds, all starting with JWH, are named after the creator’s initials. Another compound bares the initials CP, for Charles Pfizer—the pharmaceutical company was also researching synthetic cannabiniods in the 1970s.) The synthetic compounds have a structure similar to THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana, but, unlike the natural herb, has not been covered by drug laws, so it’s not surprising that a few years ago entrepreneurs started spraying the synthetic compound on potpourri and selling it in Europe under the name Spice.

But the fallout from fake pot is once again showing that you can’t improve on Mother Nature (as if Frankenstein and artificial grape flavoring didn’t provide enough proof.) Marijuana has been smoked for thousands of years, while JWH-018 and it’s relatives have never been tested at all and it’s unclear what dosage you get from a package of fake pot. Huffman himself has told the Phoenix New Times that he is concerned the compound “could hurt people” and says smoking it is “playing Russian Roulette.” What is clear is that anecdotal evidence reveals that Spice and its relatives come with annoying side effects, like a hangover accompanied by headaches and stiff muscles. And since these substances are not regulated for potency, there have been a rash of Spice smokers ending up in emergency rooms suffering from agitation, seizures, vomiting and hallucinations. In other words, we’ve created an ironic situation where a legal alternative being potentially more dangerous than the real thing.

In November, the DEA announced that it planned to use emergency powers to ban five synthetic cannabinoids for a year, including JWH-018, while the agency studies whether to make it permanent. The ban could go into effect any day. But the DEA’s action has not stopped Texas Senator Florence Shapiro from working on a bill that will make the substances illegal in Texas as well. “The DEA action has not changed my plans,” says Senator Shapiro. “They are only outlawing the five most common chemicals. But these rogue chemists can just find new compounds to use.” Shapiro says she is working with a task force to create a bill that will be difficult for Spice manufacturers to get around — one that will ban at least 7 compounds.

But both the state and the federal government is ultimately in the same bind — it must specify exactly what chemicals it is banning—so it’s likely that this is the beginning of a cat-and-mouse game between the agencies and the chemists. Huffman himself created at least 450 synthetic cannabinoids, which leaves 455 that could still be used after the DEA’s ban takes place. And there are more compounds being created all the time. Online companies traffic in dozens of drugs that have yet to be classified, which are sold as “research chemicals,” and there’s even a legal fake cocaine containing the drug MDPV being marketed under the name “Ivory Wave” or “Vanilla Ice” and sold as a bath salt.

Senator Shapiro says her bill, which is yet to be filed, has 6 co-sponsors in the Senate and 8 representatives are interested in filing a similar bill in the house. It’s likely to pass, and you can kiss Lucy Jane goodbye. That is, until a chemist starts spraying some other untested chemical on marjoram and calls it Lily Jane. The reality is, it might take legalizing the real stuff to really keep potentially dangerous copycat drugs off the market.

Robert Jensen wrote a review of a new book on “the commons” that sparked an exchange with the book’s editor, Jay Walljasper. Jensen’s previously unpublished review of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons/How to Save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities, and Everything Else That Belongs to All of Us (The New Press, 288 pages, $18.95) is below, followed by comments.

All That We Share is an exciting and exasperating book. The excitement comes from the many voices arguing to place “the commons” at the center of planning for a viable future. The exasperation comes from the volume’s failure to critique the political and economic systems that we must transcend if there is to be a future for the commons.

In the preface, the book’s editor and primary writer, Jay Walljasper, describes how he came to understand the commons as a “unifying theme” that helped him see the world differently and led him to believe that “as more people become aware of it, the commons will spark countless initiatives that make a difference for the future of our communities and the planet.”

Defining the commons as “what we share” physically and culturally—from the air and water to the internet and open-source software—the contributors recognize that a society that defines success by individuals’ accumulation of stuff will erode our humanity and destroy the planet’s ecosystems. Walljasper calls for a “complete retooling” and “a paradigm shift that revises the core principles that guide our culture top to bottom.” No argument there. Unfortunately the book avoids addressing the specific paradigms we must confront. Is commons-based transformation possible within a capitalist economy based on predatory principles and an industrial production model built on easy access to cheap concentrated energy?

The book appears to offer a kinder-and-gentler capitalism with more regulated markets, but there is no attempt to wrestle with the effects of the corrosive and unsustainable principles—unlimited greed and endless growth—on which capitalism is based. Can we expect those core principles of the system to magically evaporate? Why will the commons become the domain of popular movements rather than corporations? If there is no attention to the inherently predatory nature of capitalism, it’s difficult to imagine how people will win out over profit.

There’s also little in the book about the need to shift from the industrial mode of production, which has generated the material comfort taken for granted by most in the First World. A sustainable commons-based society requires dramatic reductions in consumption, but contributors rarely address the scope of the change necessary (with the exception of Winona LaDuke’s essay on efforts to rebuild indigenous life at the Anishinaabeg White Earth Reservation). Forget about critiquing the lifestyles of the rich and famous—the commons can’t sustain the lifestyles of ordinary folks in a high-energy/high-technology world.

The problem is not that “the commons” isn’t a valuable concept, but that it is not a substitute for analysis of the political and economic systems that degrade the commons. The book is right to call for local experiments in cooperative living (I spend considerable time and energy on such projects; see, but as we pursue those experiments within the existing systems, we have to be honest about the limits of those systems and not fear being labeled radical. Radical analysis is not an intellectual indulgence but a practical necessity.

As a model for “commoners,” Walljasper cites the right-wing forces’ ideological campaign in the late 20th century to shape the market fundamentalism that eventually became state policy. He suggests that today “large numbers of people of diverse ideological stripes” can rally behind the commons, which may be true. But right-wing forces didn’t assemble people of different ideological stripes; they pushed an openly reactionary analysis and had a clear political and economic program. Just as they defended capitalism to the detriment of the commons, a countermovement has to openly critique capitalism to serve the commons. Just as they took the industrial model as a given, a countermovement has to question that model openly.

It may be that the commons has the power to transform people’s consciousness as Walljasper seems to hope, but hanging one’s analysis and political hopes—as the book’s long subtitle suggests—on that concept strikes me as evasion rather than engagement. In the end, we have to come to terms with capitalism and the industrial model that are deeply entrenched in the United States. That can’t be done obliquely but must be confronted head-on.


Response from Jay Walljasper:

As the editor of All That We Share, I appreciate Robert Jensen’s excitement about the commons although I disagree with some of his conclusions.

My aim with this book was to reach as wide an audience as possible. I wanted to push out beyond self-identified leftists to people who are concerned about where they see things headed in our society but who are not ready to sign on to an explicit anti-capitalist/anti-industrial agenda.

It’s my hope the book helps raises people’s consciousness, gets them to look around, ask questions, see the world a little differently, begin to imagine new possibilities, find some hope in collaborative action, arrive at some different conclusions, roll up their sleeves and get to work.  That is the starting point of broader political change.

That’s why I emphasized stories of people embracing shared rather than privatized solutions to problems in places like Dayton, Ohio; Nazareth, Texas; the Indian communities of St. John’s valley, Maine; Hyde Square in inner city Boston; and Oaxaca, Mexico. In a society that is steeped in extreme individualism, this is an important step. It leads the way out of cynicism, apathy and the sense that nothing can change.     

There is no single, unified critique that holds the commons in its hands.  The commons strategy is to let a thousand flowers bloom, some finding fresh opportunities within existing structures that can push in the direction of genuine change, others confronting what’s going wrong.

That’s why I argue that it’s time to reconsider public ownership of companies in one essay in the book while chronicling the success of an immigrant-led co-op growing sustainably-raised chickens in rural Minnesota in another. Both represent a move away from the market absolutism that characterizes modern life.

Robert, I look forward to meeting you some time and exploring our common interest in the commons.    


Response from Robert Jensen:

Jay: I certainly understand your strategy, but I think you are misreading our options and presenting false alternatives. You say you want “to push out beyond self-identified leftists to people who … are not ready to sign on to an explicit anti-capitalist/anti-industrial agenda.” I agree, but that statement implies that any discussion of the pathological nature of capitalism and industrial society will alienate anyone who isn’t already a leftist. In my experience, that isn’t the case. It’s possible to talk openly about the foundational flaws of those systems without sounding like a caricature of left sectarianism who will drive away ordinary people. Why can’t one talk about the commons and those failed systems at the same time? If people are going to adopt an anti-capitalist/anti-industrial worldview—which I think is essential to any political progress— they need to hear the ideas articulated. The commons is both an important concept in itself and a vehicle for deepening our political analysis.

Here’s an example: A few years ago in Austin we held a series of community gatherings we called “Last Sunday,” which drew mostly liberals, not leftists. At one of those gatherings I gave a talk I titled “Anti-capitalism in five minutes or less” that offered a simple critique in plain language. It’s online in various places.

It’s possible to offer this kind of left critique and work in projects that have to adapt to the existing system. I am active with a group in Austin that helps start worker-owned/worker-run cooperatives. Those businesses have to exist in the capitalist economy, but they offer a different experience. Most of us involved have an explicitly anti-capitalist politics, which informs the way we talk about the project.

It’s certainly true that some from the left or the deep ecology movement speak in ways that are annoying and alienating. But that’s not the only way to articulate a radical critique. If we don’t find ways to challenge openly the dogma of capitalism and the industrial model—if we are afraid to talk about what we know and believe—it’s hard to imagine any hope of meaningful change. The ideology of the dominant system is imposed on people constantly, and if it isn’t countered there’s no reason to expect people will shift. I think we need to create experiments for people to experience an alternative and articulate the ideas the guide such experiments. If we “reach as wide an audience as possible” but have no coherent challenge to the dominant culture to offer, what has been accomplished?

I feel stronger about this than ever, mostly because I am more terrified than ever of the consequences of the accelerating decline of these systems. The human assault on the living systems of the planet is intensifying, and as a society we aren’t yet capable of dealing with what that will mean not only for future generations but for us in the coming decades.  


Response from Jay Walljasper:


These are intriguing thoughts, which make me think you ought to write a book on the commons from this perspective. It will obviously be different from All That We Share but the commons, like healthy ecosystems, thrive on diversity.   

Cheers, Jay

The wrangling over what the state of Texas should do with its juvenile offenders continued Thursday in a packed room at the Capitol. The Sunset Advisory Commission, which typically reviews agencies every 12 years, heard testimony from staff of the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission. Last session, the state delayed its scheduled review of the Texas Youth Commission to allow time for the troubled agency to implement expansive reforms mandated after a sex-abuse scandal in 2007.

On Thursday, after hours of dryly debating details about other agencies under review, the mood turned fiery when Sen. John Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, addressed TYC’s leadership: director Cherie Townsend and chairman of the board Scott Fisher.

“Why you continue to resist a model that keeps youth in their communities and costs half the amount of money is beyond me,” he said in reference to the recent practice of keeping low-level youthful offenders, and some with felony charges, in their local probation departments. “You are still mixing violent and non-violent offenders, sex offenders and non-sex offenders, determinate and non-determinate offenders,” Whitmire chided.

In TYC’s defense, the agency has made progress on separating youths with different classifications, keeping many vulnerable or aggressive kids in single rooms, as I witnessed during a visit to the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center. Pre-reform, youth guilty of misdemeanors could be locked up with felons, even murderers and rapists. Now kids guilty of misdemeanors are referred to their county probation departments. Some kids found guilty of felonies are also kept local in different types of settings, including county-run juvenile detention facilities and smaller residential treatment centers. They are kept close to their families and have access to services like substance-abuse treatment and mental-health services.

Another change: While TYC used to house offenders as old as 21, the age limit is now 19. Juvenile justice advocates feared this change would cause more teens to be prosecuted as adults, given that they have less time to stay in the juvenile system. But that hasn’t happened, executive director of the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission Vicki Spriggs testified.

Nobody questions that TYC has overhauled its system and made significant progress. But many wonder if the TYC structure is itself flawed, and given the state’s massive budget shortfall, if the state should restructure its juvenile justice system altogether to save costs and keep more kids close to their communities.

Currently, nearly 1,500 “worst of the worst” juvenile offenders in Texas are placed in institutional-style facilities far from populated centers—and sometimes so far from their families that family members may never be able to visit them, much less participate in their rehabilitation. Though the majority have mental-health issues, mental-health services are scant at most facilities. A dearth of on-site psychiatrists means consultations are often performed via televised communication. Recidivism rates are at 40 percent, despite the high cost of incarceration in these facilities—roughly $127,000 a year per youth, adding up to $250 million annually. (By contrast, it costs about $30,000 a year to incarcerate an adult.)

Rebecca Lightsey, director of the social-justice advocacy group Texas Appleseed, testified during the hearing that her organization would like to see the TYC and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission consolidated, and folks at Advocacy Inc. seconded that. Deborah Fowler, legal director of Texas Appleseed, argues that with both TYC and TJPC’s budgets set for slaughter, it makes sense to merge the two agencies into one. Consolidation would streamline the juvenile justice system in Texas, she says, by cutting out redundancies in administrative costs. Right now, she says, TYC employs too many people in Austin, making it “a very top-heavy agency.”

Plus, many have grown impatient with the pace of reform. Whitmire pointed out that in the past six months, two ombudsman have resigned from TYC. He said both of them told him that serious problems persist in the agency, warning that the Al Price facility in Beaumont, which houses approximately 250 male youth, was out of control.

The agency’s current ombudsman, Debbie Unruh, who was just appointed on Nov. 1, also said at the hearing that she has concerns about TYC. She said today that there are not enough psychologists or educators in the facilites and that the halfway houses are not being utilized as transition points. She also said she supports consolidation of the two agencies.

No matter what, TYC is about to downsize. The agency has been asked to cut $40 million from its budget, which will require closing at least two facilities, officials say. If the TYC keeps its current structure with such a cut in funding, the reforms that have been so painstakingly implemented may come toppling down.  By cramming all of the youth into fewer facilities, TYC may go back to “warehousing” kids. A higher staff-to-student ratio, and fewer programs, could revive some of the problems TYC has spent so many years trying to overcome. Merging the agencies might be the only way of avoiding the troubles of the past.

America’s unemployed and downsized workers are furious that corporate profits, stock prices and CEO pay are up while hiring and wages are stagnant. But wait—U.S. corporations are increasing their payrolls. Just not in America.

In a two-year period, these corporate giants hiked hiring in foreign countries by 729,000 jobs as they cut 500,000 jobs here. Hilton Worldwide, for example, moved a U.S. call center to the Philippines, saying the move meant “maximizing efficiencies.” That’s cold, corporate jargon for “chasing cheap labor.”

Likewise, JPMorgan Chase & Co., which hauled in $25 billion from the Wall Street bailout, is moving its telephone banking business from Troy, Mich., to the Philippines. Dell Inc., the computer peddler, has closed its last PC factory here while creating tens of thousands of jobs in China. And get this: Hewlett-Packard Co. has dumped its human resources staff in 10 states, moving the work to Panama. Hello: Human resources is the division that ostensibly helps resolve worker complaints and boosts employee morale. So the message here is, “Hey, bud, got a problem? Take it to Panama.”

Yet a clueless Harvard business professor recently pooh-poohed concerns about this outflow of American jobs: “When companies succeed abroad,” he asserted, “people at home succeed.” Golly, professor, I can hardly wait for you to enjoy the success of seeing your job offshored to Malaysia.

Bear in mind that replacing American employees with low-wage foreigners does nothing to improve products or make them cheaper. The savings on wage costs are pocketed by corporate executives and Wall Street financiers. It’s a massive redistribution of wealth from the many to the few. And the moneyed elites wonder why workaday Americans are furious?


Find more information on Jim Hightower’s work–and subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown–at

If you believe Gov. Rick Perry and just about every top Republican in this state, climate change is a trifling matter.It’s not caused by the emission of untold billions of tons of greenhouse gas pollution, but by natural fluctuations. Doing anything about it, they tell us, would destroy the American Way of Life and cede control to environmental fanatics eager to return humanity to Cro-Magnon days. In his new book Fed Up!, Professor Perry avers—counter to all available evidence—that the world is actually in a “cooling trend” and that global warming is “all one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight.” If Perry bothered to check with any climate scientist in this state, including the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at his alma mater Texas A&M, he would learn that there is virtual consensus among the experts that human activity is heating the planet. But Perry doesn’t listen to facts on this issue; he tries to drown them out.

Under the guise of asserting “states’ rights,” Perry and Attorney General Gregg Abbott are suing the Environmental Protection Agency in several frivolous lawsuits; two seek to stop the federal agency from regulating greenhouse gases in Texas under the Clean Air Act. Last month, Perry’s yes men at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality announced that they would simply refuse to implement new federal regulations on major industrial sources of carbon dioxide. Every other state has agreed to cooperate.

This issue of the Observer is all about the future of Texas. Let’s add another prediction to the mix: Sometime in the not-so-distant future—when we live on a hotter, crueler and more chaotic planet, and in a state that will suffer major consquences—we will look back and wonder how we let anti-science politicians like Perry play us for fools.

The planet doesn’t give a damn about politics. The laws of physics govern climate change, not the cynical machinations of Perry and Abbott. The fact remains that a warming planet poses grave danger to Texas. Scientists predict severe water shortages, disruptions to agriculture, longer droughts followed by more intense flooding, an increase in “climate refugees” from Mexico and Central America, a rise in ocean levels large enough to swamp much of Galveston Island, and other ravages too numerous to list.

Texas, the seventh-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world, is not just hurting itself. It’s hurting the whole planet. If our leaders here won’t do anything, the EPA has every right and responsibility to come in and do it for us.

Executing Justice

Every few months, it seems, we hear of another death penalty case based on flawed forensic evidence. An alarming number of them have cropped up in Texas, the nation’s most active death penalty state. The latest involves a career criminal named Claude Jones, who was executed in 2000 for murdering a liquor-store owner in East Texas. Jones maintained his innocence until his dying day. The key piece of evidence that convicted Jones was a single strand of hair found at the scene that a prosecution expert testified “matched” Jones. We now know that’s not true. DNA testing conducted at the request of the Observer and the New York-based Innocence Project showed the hair belonged to the victim, Allen Hilzendager. As Dave Mann reports, the DNA results don’t posthumously exonerate Jones, but they do undermine the only forensic evidence that sent him to Texas’ death chamber. Without the hair, there is no evidence of Jones’ guilt. 

The developments in the Jones case are troubling enough, but even more disturbing is the larger pattern. We’re still learning all the details of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, but it’s clear that he was executed in 2004 based on flawed arson evidence. In September, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Texas death row prisoner Hank Skinner, who claims that DNA evidence could exonerate him before he’s executed.

We can’t be sure that Jones, Willingham, Skinner or any other defendant with a disputed case is innocent. But we do know that Texas has meted out the ultimate punishment based on forensic evidence that was incorrect. That can’t continue.

With a moratorium on executions unlikely to gain traction in the Texas Legislature, we have a modest proposal to improve the system: Require the state’s Forensic Science Commission to review every pending execution. The commission is a panel of scientists and attorneys created in 2005 to improve forensic evidence in Texas. The Legislature should mandate a review of forensic evidence in every death case once an execution date has been set. The commission could then make a recommendation to the courts and the governor’s office about the reliability of the forensic evidence. This extra step wouldn’t prolong what is already a lengthy review process. Far more important, it would add a layer of scientific expertise that the system currently lacks.

It’s too late to correct the flaws in the Jones and Willingham cases. But it’s not too late to learn from those tragic mistakes. And learn we must. Death sentences are irreversible. We can’t afford to get a single one wrong.

Read about faulty blood-spatter forensics

“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” Doesn’t Matter In Battle

A British Army veteran explains why the policy makes no sense.

A federal appeals court’s decision to reverse an injunction against the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, means the Pentagon’s ban on openly homosexual service members is again back in full force. This decision seems characteristic of the whole muddled issue.

The fact the policy represented progress for gays in the U.S. military when first implemented is easy to lose sight of, but at the time it prevented witch hunts and overt discrimination. However, things have moved on and it is time the U.S. military caught up with the rest of the world’s militaries.

Gays are not actually banned from being in the military; they just can’t be in the military and admit they are gay. What on earth does that mean as far as the compatibility of being gay with military service? It seems like some sort of existential riddle – you are fine as you are, but you just can’t say what you are.

I find the issue particularly relevant, having served in the British military for nine years. If there is one lesson I have learned, there are many issues far more deserving of attention within the military than a soldier’s sexuality. Most importantly, whether a soldier is good or bad, has absolutely nothing to do with whether they are gay or straight.

The British military allows gays to openly serve.  Indeed, this has not caused the British Army to collapse. I left it with concerns, not one of those remotely connected to the issue of soldier’s sexual orientation, yet at the same time still very proud to have worked in arguably one of the finest and most professional military forces in the world.

Proponents of the ban argue that a straight soldier would be worried about the gay soldier being attracted to them and making a move. If that is the case then why not any concern about the laws of attraction between female and male soldiers who work together? What is the difference with them? Women serve effectively in the military, alongside their male comrades, something I witnessed in a Kosovo tour in the former Yugoslavia in 2002, two Iraq tours in 2004 and 2006 and an Afghanistan tour in 2009.

At this point, the issue of the “front line” tends to be thrown in. This argument suggests the potential problems caused by heterosexual attraction are not so problematic, because they are not on the front line together. Rather, they tend to mix and work together within logistic, administration and medical units, where the situations faced are not as perilous and complicated as the front line. This creed is maintained by the fact most country’s front line infantry and cavalry units are only made up of male soldiers.

However, this argument does not work anymore. The fact is, for years in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, male and female soldiers have been working and fighting on the front line together, in close proximity. Logistical convoys, made up of male and female soldiers from logistical units have to travel through hostile areas, where they are regularly attacked by the enemy. In Afghanistan I would hear of young female logistic soldiers reduced to tears, after attending  briefings for convoys about to go out, in which they were briefed from their officers to expect the worse from the enemy.

Female medics accompany most infantry patrols that go out on the ground, working under fire with their male compatriots.

Female pilots fly Apache attack helicopters and fighter jets, supporting troops in the midst of the most intense sort of front line action. There are many soldiers I know who will forever be  thankful to the female pilots of British Apache helicopters who enabled them to extract from Taliban ambushes, as well as thankful to the female pilots of U.S. F-18 and A-10 fighter jets for the same reason.

In these instances, all manage to leave the issue of sexual attraction aside, staying focused and professional. No one would suggest there might be a problem if a female Apache helicopter pilot responds to troops in battle, as the soldier on the radio speaking to the pilot might get distracted and start hitting on her. Why should this be any different with straight and openly gay soldiers working together?

There is a mixture of people who oppose gays serving openly in the military. Some are simply homophobes, who dress up the real reasons for their objections with the usual talk of “morale and discipline.” At the end of the day, they are entitled to their opinion that being gay is wrong, as bigoted as that may be.

However, they are not entitled to make a logical step between their opinion; and the fact being gay therefore makes you an unprofessional or incompetent soldier. Sorry guys, that does not work. Believe it or not, just as you can have competent gay mechanics, gay chefs, or gay scientists, you can also have competent and very professional gay soldiers. You can even have gay battlefield interpreters who accompany troops on the frontlines.

During my 2004 tour in Al Amarah, Iraq, we had attached a brave and competent young Englishman, whose Arabic was good enough to act as an interpreter. He was involved in more fire fights with the enemy than I was, never giving a hint he should not go out with a patrol or be put in harm’s way. He is now living happily with his male partner back in England. That he has been under fire more times than many of the military old guard who disapprove of gays in the military or support the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy makes me smile at the irony to say the least.

Another sort opposed are those involved or connected with the military, who may be homophobic as well, or even if not, believe that being openly gay is not conducive with an effective military. I think their slanted view is affected by an obsession with the military as a mythically noble enterprise, with a fixation on “maintaining” traditional values such as honor, virtue, integrity and courage. They see the military through rose tinted spectacles, seeing its use in war as an efficient, slick machine, which openly gay soldiers would clash with.

This is a ridiculous and naïve view. Values such as honor, virtue, integrity and especially courage do indeed apply to the military and need to, but proponents of the ban are applying those values in the wrong place. There is no intrinsic honor in war fighting. It is a messy, dirty and tragic business, which my final tour in Afghanistan brought home to me. The ongoing controversy about how the U.S. military covered up the death of Pat Tillman seems particularly relevant to this point.

What honor there might be lies between those who fight together, how they conduct themselves in the heat of the moment, how they treat civilians. Whether they are gay or straight makes not a blind bit of difference.

The sooner this obsession with notions of honor, nobility and courage being attributed to fighting is addressed, the sooner gays in the military will be able to work as effectively as everyone else. Furthermore, the sooner everyone will be better off, with a more realistic and grounded view of what it means to be at war.

Just say “don’t ask, don’t tell” to yourself. Is it me, or does that sound like something that would be understandable only if said on an elementary school playground? Whereas it seems a serious cause for concern, when it is being used as a rule by the world’s largest and most powerful military, while it is conducting war fighting.

I feel for all soldiers who have to deal with the friction and confusion of current military operations. I especially feel for those soldiers who have to deal with the added and unnecessary friction, which is induced by this outdated policy.


DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.

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