Why Wouldn't Iran Want Nukes?

The Iranian nuclear issue has recently intensified, as the U.S. and its Western allies accuse Iran of actively trying to develop nuclear weapons following a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. While the Iranian government denies these claims and argues that they are only trying to develop a civilian nuclear program, the debate raises a valid question: Can Iran really be blamed for trying to expand its nuclear capabilities? Mehdi Hasan describes the situation from an Iranian’s perspective in The Guardian:

On your eastern border, the United States has 100,000 troops serving in Afghanistan. On your western border, the US has been occupying Iraq since 2003 and plans to retain a small force of military contractors and CIA operatives even after its official withdrawal next month. Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation, is to the south-east; Turkey, America’s Nato ally, to the north-west; Turkmenistan, which has acted as a refuelling base for US military transport planes since 2002, to the north-east. To the south, across the Persian Gulf, you see a cluster of US client states: Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet; Qatar, host to a forward headquarters of US Central Command; Saudi Arabia, whose king has exhorted America to “attack Iran” and “cut off the head of the snake”.

Then, of course, less than a thousand miles to the west, there is Israel, your mortal enemy, in possession of over a hundred nuclear warheads and with a history of pre-emptive aggression against its opponents.

The map makes it clear: Iran is, literally, encircled by the United States and its allies.

If that wasn’t worrying enough, your country seems to be under (covert) attack. Several nuclear scientists have been mysteriously assassinated and, late last year, a sophisticated computer virus succeeded in shutting down roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. Only last weekend, the “pioneer” of the Islamic Republic’s missile programme, Major General Hassan Moghaddam, was killed – with 16 others – in a huge explosion at a Revolutionary Guards base 25 miles outside Tehran. You go online to discover western journalists reporting that the Mossad is believed to have been behind the blast.

And then you pause to remind yourself of the fundamental geopolitical lesson that you and your countrymen learned over the last decade: the US and its allies opted for war with non-nuclear Iraq, but diplomacy with nuclear-armed North Korea.

If you were our mullah in Tehran, wouldn’t you want Iran to have the bomb – or at the very minimum, “nuclear latency” (that is, the capability and technology to quickly build a nuclear weapon if threatened with attack)?

The piece also mentions a 2010 University of Maryland survey in which 55 percent of Iranians support the pursuit of nuclear power and 38 percent support the building of a nuclear bomb. Their opinion, however disconcerting, is understandable. The current precarious situation further emphasizes the need for diplomacy instead of fear-mongering and rhetoric that will only heighten Iranians’ sense of alienation and thereby increase their motivation to develop nuclear weapons.

Web Giants Clash With Government Over Proposed Censorship

Politicians have long debated how best to protect freedom of expression while also respecting copyright laws, and the web is buzzing with concerns that new proposals in Congress threaten to disrupt that delicate balance.

The House’s Stop Online Piracy Act, as well as the Senate’s Protect IP Act, are intended to punish websites and companies that host unauthorized copyrighted content. But critics argue that the vague wording would temper freedom of expression by imposing harsh penalties on and possibly shutting down sites that enable users to share information without many restrictions — which would effectively allow wide government censorship of the Internet.

In addition to bipartisan sponsorship, the proposals are supported by the Motion Picture Association of America, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Federation of Musicians, and others seeking to protect copyrighted material like movies, songs, and software. According to the Chamber of Commerce, Hollywood studios, record labels, and publishing houses lose $135 billion annually from piracy and counterfeiting. Most provisions of the acts are aimed at punishing foreign websites from violating U.S. intellectual property laws, but they would also regulate content on domestic sites.

On the other side of the debate are online activists as well as large companies like Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and the Consumer Electronics Association. These groups say the Stop Online Piracy Act, which was introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) last month, gives the government too much power to shut down websites accused of violating copyright laws. If passed, it would drastically change sites like YouTube, on which users regularly sing copyrighted music or post clips of television shows and movies. Opponents’ concerns are summarized in the video below.

PROTECT IP Act Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

The controversy came to a head during a House hearing Wednesday, but a decision has yet to be reached. Meanwhile, Yahoo has canceled its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and other companies have threatened to follow suit. Whatever the outcome, the debate will continue to pit Internet companies and activists against the entertainment industry and politicians.

Scott Walker, Conservative Martyr

With the effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gaining momentum, the GOP politician still stands by his decisions — and is painting himself as the victim of unjustified attacks. The governor gained national attention and popular criticism earlier this year when he waged war on the state’s public-employee unions. In an interview with Michel Martin on NPR’s Tell Me More, he blamed the recall effort on outsiders in organized labor who have long been trying to undermine him:

MICHEL: It’s no secret that there’s national attention being paid to Wisconsin, in part because of these efforts and because of this issue. And I’m interested in what role you think is appropriate for interest groups outside of Wisconsin, both those that support you and those that oppose you.

GOV. WALKER: Well, I mean, the appropriateness is interesting, because obviously, I can say it, but there’s no way to enforce it… It’s going to happen no matter what. We saw, in the Senate race, most Republican senators were outspent at least two-to-one, in some cases three-to-one, by all the parties that came in from both throughout the state and across the country.

I believe if they get — I believe, actually, if they get the signatures, it’ll largely — because these national, big-government unions put the money behind that. I would imagine they’ll spend the tens of millions — and if it was over $40 million for the Senate recalls, that they may be — well be $70 (million) or $80 million there.

MICHEL: Well, there are conservative groups supporting you.

GOV. WALKER: And I think more people look at that and say, that’s absurd. You know, I spent 13 million (dollars) running for governor; you’re going to see multiple times that amount. You’re going to see groups coming in from outside of our state who want to influence this race — I think (it’s) more about power, because let’s remember, the real reason the unions nationally are involved in this isn’t because of pitch in their health care contributions or workers’ rights or anything else; the real reason is because we also, as part of our reforms, gave every worker in our state the right to choose whether or not he or she wants to be a part of the union and no longer have their dues forcibly removed from their payroll. That’s what it’s about.

MICHEL: OK, but so — there are groups supporting you, too, Governor — in fairness, there are outside groups that are also interested in this for their own reasons.

GOV. WALKER: Sure, like every election.


GOV. WALKER: It has, like – but they wouldn’t be here if the national unions were forcing a recall. I mean, I think most of your listeners across America probably are scratching their heads on the recall to begin with, because most states have recalls in, say, misconduct in office, some sort of thing like that that triggers it, not just, I disagree or agree with a piece of legislation.

But this is really about power. The “recall Scott Walker” website was actually started November 2010. So anyone who thinks this wasn’t — you know, that somehow, this is organic movement that just popped up — the reality is, the person who started that recall site started it last year, two months before I took office.

Yes, poor Gov. Walker indeed. All these big unions are picking on him, when all he did was curtail collective-bargaining rights — clearly an issue that doesn’t involve unions. And now Walker, who was elected with the help of million-dollar donations from the likes of Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers, has to defend himself against powerful outside forces meddling in Wisconsin, with only his billionaire backers and conservative PACs to help him. How tragic.

TransCanada Agrees To New Pipeline Route, Complicating Obama's Decision

Only a few days after the Obama administration seemed to dodge a controversial decision on the Keystone XL pipeline project, TransCanada has agreed to work on a new pipeline route. The company’s concession might initially seem like it would alleviate the pressure on the president to reject the proposal; in fact, it will test whether the White House had been using re-routing as an excuse to hold off on a decision until after the 2012 election, and it will reignite a debate the president had hoped to avoid.

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department announced it would delay its decision on whether to approve the $7 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline until 2013, arguing that they needed more time to explore alternate pipeline routes that would have a less environmentally detrimental impact. The White House no doubt had political reasoning in addition to the given environmental explanation: By pushing back a decision until after the 2012 election had passed, Obama could avoid any electoral repercussions from the energy industry or from anti-pipeline activists. Additionally, some had suggested that more delays on an approval process that has already taken more than three years might persuade TransCanada to give up on the project. Now, the new terms of the proposal have brought the issue back to the table, and further postponing a decision is bound to increase criticisms that the president’s main motivation is political strategy rather than a genuine concern about the pipeline’s route.

To some extent, TransCanada’s decision signifies a victory for environmentalists who had raised serious concerns about the potential for leaks and contamination of Nebraska’s Sandhills region and the Ogallala aquifer. The new route would avoid these sensitive areas, a compromise that Nebraska’s Republican Gov. David Heineman had correctly said would drastically increase support for Keystone XL among the state’s residents.

While the decision to pursue an alternate route has appeased some critics of the pipeline, others will not be satisfied until the entire project is scrapped. The risks to specific areas in Nebraska were only part of activists’ concerns. In large protests in recent months, anti-pipeline groups have often asserted their opposition to any pipeline that would transport oil from the Canadian tar sands on the grounds that tar sands oil is almost a quarter more polluting than conventional crude oil — as studies by the European Commission and others have revealed. As a result, many activists want Obama to intervene and definitively reject the pipeline proposal, regardless of any route changes. While it is possible that the government would use the additional time to determine that the environmental impact of tar sands oil would be too significant in any case, Thursday’s announcement makes it seem as though the administration is far more concerned with the route than with the oil’s pollution.

The delay would temper criticisms and scrutiny of the White House that have been exacerbated as the tar sands controversy has intensified. Specifically, the ongoing Keystone XL debate has brought to light a pro-industry bias within the State Department, with the potential to boil over into a larger scandal as complaints from activists and politicians have led to an investigation of the department’s handling of the project. The State Department, which is responsible for approving the proposal since it crosses a border, released a report in August concluding that the pipeline did not pose any significant environmental risks, but subsequent disclosed emails showed that State Department officials were cheering on the pipeline lobbyists instead of conducting an impartial review. By delaying a final decision on the project, the administration potentially sought to minimize the political effects of a State Department scandal.

Conversely, proponents of the pipeline have suggested that the administration’s slow approval process of the project demonstrates that the president is not committed to reducing dependence on Middle Eastern oil or fighting unemployment. The industry argues that the pipeline would increase the North American energy supply and create jobs, although the impact on the jobs market has been disputed.

Given the mounting pressure from both sides of the debate, the Obama administration’s decision to delay the final review seemed like the most politically smart move. But new developments, with TransCanada willing to use an alternate pipeline route, will reignite the controversy Obama had sought to avoid and put the president in a tricky situation before the election next fall.

Most Americans Support Mandatory Health Insurance Mandate

As the Supreme Court has announced it will hear a challenge to Obama’s health care overhaul, it is worth noting that a majority of Americans now support one of the law’s most controversial elements.

A new CNN/ORC International poll found that 52 percent of those surveyed favor requiring all Americans to have health insurance, up from 44 percent in June.

“The health insurance mandate has gained most support since June among older Americans and among lower-income Americans,” says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. “A majority of independents opposed the measure in June, but 52 percent of them now favor it.”

The shift in public opinion signifies that popular criticism of “Obamacare” is declining, despite continued efforts by conservatives — including the lobbyist wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — to overturn the law on grounds of constitutionality.

'Kill Team' Leader Could Be Free Within A Decade

The trial of the leader of the “kill team” — a group of U.S. soldiers that murdered Afghan civilians for sport and mutilated their corpses — has ended, and Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs has been found guilty of murder, assault, and conspiracy in the killings of three Afghan civilians in separate incidents. But Gibbs was given the chance for parole within 10 years, leading many to question whether justice was actually served.

Gibbs was convicted of murder for inciting two soldiers to kill 15-year-old Gul Mudin as he worked in a field. The platoon commander gave a grenade to one of the soldiers, Jeremy Morlock, who threw it at Mudin. A second soldier, Andrew Holmes, then shot the boy. Gibbs played with the corpse of the teenager “as if it was a puppet,” Morlock told the trial.

The staff sergeant was also convicted of shooting dead Marach Agha, a man sleeping by a roadside, and then planting a Kalashnikov next to the corpse to make it look as if he was a fighter. He kept part of the victim’s skull as a trophy.

Gibbs was convicted on a third count of murder for killing a Muslim cleric, Mullah Adahdad, with a grenade and then shooting him.

The nature of the Afghan War makes it understandably complicated to determine who is an innocent civilian and who is an insurgent; nonetheless, the testimonies clearly showed that these victims did not provoke the soldiers and that the attacks were carried out “for sport.” When another soldier threatened to report the crimes, Gibbs and others in the unit allegedly beat him.

The chilling accounts of the crimes were followed by a life sentence — but with the possibility of parole after only less than 10 years. The five military jurors granted Gibbs’ wish to potentially be reunited with his son someday. This, despite several testimonies asserting the extent to which Gibbs is psychologically disturbed.

“He likes to kill things,” said Adam Winfield, another soldier who had already pleaded guilty to his role in the killings. “He is pretty much evil incarnate.”

Under most circumstances, “evil incarnate” would be pretty damning testimony, particularly in a trial that included Gibbs admitting glibly that he took victims’ body parts — fingers, teeth, bits of skull — as trophies. People have been given the death penalty for far less.

If the heinous crimes had been committed against U.S. citizens, no doubt the sentence would be much harsher. Instead, the victims were Afghans. Gibbs was known to refer to Afghan civilians as “savages,” and during the trial he compared taking parts of their corpses to collecting the antlers from a slain deer.

The conviction, however, suggests that the tendency to view Afghans as subhuman is not unique to twisted individuals like Gibbs; it is a common American opinion. The fact that jurors granted the possibility of parole after less than a decade despite multiple murders is a massive insult to the victims’ families and all other Afghans. The weak sentence will certainly not help in trying to improve Afghans’ view of the Americans who have occupied their country for more than a decade.

Gibbs’ trial is a stark reminder of the ability of war to trigger horrific behavior — and of the disrespect Americans have toward civilians living in war zones.

So while Gibbs might be granted parole in less than 10 years and get to see his son, the father of the Afghan boy he helped kill and mutilate will never have such an opportunity.

In Smart Political Move, Obama Administration To Delay Keystone XL Decision

As predicted, the Obama administration will delay its decision on whether to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

During a briefing, the administration justified the delay by saying it is studying alternate routes for the proposed $7 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline. But the underlying motivation is no doubt to put off a decision until after the 2012 election has passed — thereby preventing a major electoral push-back from either the oil industry or frustrated environmentalists.

The delay, particularly under the guise of considering alternate routes that would avoid Nebraska’s Sand Hills region and the Ogallala aquifer, will also serve to temper the escalating pressure and criticisms surrounding the debate: The State Department’s reputation has already been damaged after disclosed emails revealed a pro-industry bias, and the department is currently being investigated to determine whether officials followed proper procedures in determining the project’s costs and benefits.

The announcement also minimizes the likelihood that Obama will ever have to make a conclusive decision on Keystone XL. The permit process has already dragged on for more than three years, and some close to the debate have indicated the possibility that the pipeline companies might scrap the plan altogether if they have to wait much longer. Additionally, several groups that have opposed the current pipeline proposal have said they would support a less environmentally detrimental route; so what appears to be avoiding the issue might actually be a way of solving it.

The administration’s move to delay a Keystone XL decision does not offer an immediate victory to either the industry or anti-pipeline activists, but it does mark a smart political move that will most likely yield positive results for Obama, if no one else.

Industry Reps Compare Anti-Fracking Groups To Insurgents

The contentious debate over hydrofracking has led to harsh words from both sides, and anti-fracking groups often compare the presence of natural gas companies to outside forces occupying their land. New information reveals that the industry representatives also consider the hydrofracking fight similar to a war — in which those opposing them are insurgents.

Hydraulic fracturing releases natural gas by pumping massive quantities of water and chemicals into the ground to crack the shale. Many people have called for stricter regulations or state-by-state bans on hydrofracking because of environmental and safety concerns, but the industry has pushed back.

CNBC, which was given an audio recording from an environmental activist who attended an oil industry conference last week, reports:

It was a gathering of professionals to discuss “media and stakeholder relations” in the hydraulic fracturing industry — companies using the often-controversial oil and gas extraction technique known as “fracking.”

But things took an unexpected twist.

CNBC has obtained audiotapes of the event, on which one presenter can be heard recommending that his colleagues download a copy of the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. That’s because, he said, the opposition facing the industry is an “insurgency.”

Another told attendees that his company has several former military psychological operations, or “psy ops” specialists on staff, applying their skills in Pennsylvania.

The quotes reveal industry representatives’ troubling, combative attitudes toward people who are simply trying to make sure their water supplies and land — in addition to their health — are not irreparably damaged by a largely unregulated drilling method. Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones wrote: “It’s one thing to say that Pennsylvania has become a battleground in the debate over natural gas extraction. But it’s quite another to actually endorse and employ counterinsurgency tactics to fight opponents of hydraulic fracturing, the controversial process used to extract the gas from the ground.”

Although the industry representatives later tried to contextualize their comments to make them seem less sinister, the characterization of anti-fracking activists — average citizens who are skeptical of the controversial natural gas drilling method — as insurgents nonetheless suggests the extent to which companies are looking out for their own interests instead of legitimately listening to and considering other people’s concerns.

Will Voters 'Occupy' The Polls?

Amid a massive popular movement calling for sweeping changes to the status quo, discontented voters have a chance to “Occupy The Polls” today. There are several big elections and ballot measures to watch, which will offer the “Occupy” movement a chance to act on their political frustration, though it is unclear they will seize it. The outcome of these votes will indicate how effectively the protests can translate their anger into electoral action — and offer a preview of the climate for the 2012 races.

While some candidates — including San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos, who is running for mayor — have clearly aligned themselves with the “Occupy” movement, other elections will nonetheless indicate whether the protests have a strong political effect. As John Nichols of The Nation writes:

There are big issues, big races and big tests of the political potency of organized labor, social movements and progressive politics playing out this Tuesday, on the busiest election day of 2011. In some cases, voting offers an opportunity to make an affirmative statement on behalf of a change in priorities. In other cases, there are opportunities to push back against bad politics and bad policies. In still others, there are signals to be sent about the politics of 2012.

Several races in particular are worth watching today:

In Ohio, voters will have an opportunity to choose whether to implement Republican Governor John Kasich’s restrictions on collective bargaining for public employees. The issue has mobilized many throughout the state: Ohioan and columnist Connie Schultz writes that Kasich’s “war on public workers” has made him “the best community organizer in the state… for Democrats.”

In response to strict new voting laws in several states, Maine will have a referendum to overturn a law that bars voter registration on election day. Mississippi voters will also have a chance to speak out against voting restrictions, with a referendum on whether to require voter IDs.

Many consider the New Jersey state Senate races a gauge for Republican darling Governor Chris Christie’s popularity; if the GOP gains control of both houses of the State Legislature, it will signal informal approval of Christie’s agenda — which could strengthen the chances that Christie will secure the GOP vice presidential spot in 2012.

The controversial Arizona immigration law will face indirect voter scrutiny during Tuesday’s effort to recall State Senate President Russell Pearce, who wrote the much-criticized S.B. 1070.

Mississippi voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to define a person as a fertilized egg, which would effectively ban all abortions and would have other drastic ramifications (including the potential to count fertilized eggs in population and voting surveys).

The special election to fill an open Iowa state Senate seat could shift the precarious Democratic control, which might jeopardize the current law allowing same-sex marriage.

And a few high-profile local elections, such as the sheriff races in San Francisco and Philadelphia, could result in progressive victories that would send a strong national message about voter preferences.

These ballot issues and elections offer the first real tests of the “Occupy” movement’s political reach — and the results will no doubt have an impact beyond individual cities and states.

Obama Cautiously Wades Into Pipeline Politics

The debate over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project intensified this weekend, as thousands of people demonstrated outside the White House on Sunday to urge President Obama to halt the planned construction.

The protesters’ message was clear: Many of them had voted for Obama in 2008, but their support for his re-election campaign would hinge on the Keystone XL decision. Meanwhile, other interests are more quietly trying to convince the president to approve the pipeline. The debate has put Obama in a tough bind, with significant political risks involved whichever way he goes — a fact that might cause the president to delay taking a stand for as long as possible.

Pipeline advocates argue that the project, which would stretch 1,700 miles from the Canadian tar sands to Texas oil refineries and cost $7 billion, would decrease dependence on Middle Eastern oil and create jobs — a prospect that has led some labor unions to jump on board. Those opposing the pipeline contend that there is a high risk of leaks and that the tar sands oil releases more carbon into the atmosphere than conventional crude oil. Additionally, concerns about a pro-industry bias in the State Department, which is responsible for approving the project, have increased pressure for Obama to take the matter into his own hands.

In addition to activists, several national politicians have been voicing their opposition to the project. A group of three U.S. senators and 11 members of Congress recently sent a letter to Obama, expressing their “serious concerns” about the State Department’s conflicts of interest. In response to the politicians’ request, the State Department’s inspector general has agreed to do a “special review” of whether the approval process for the project was done properly.

The president had previously avoided directly addressing the issue, but mounting popular pressure has led him to make a few comments without taking a stand either way. Environmental activists met Obama along several campaign stops, which prompted him to stop mid-speech in Colorado and say, “We’re looking at it right now, all right? No decision has been made.” Later, Obama discussed the issue in an interview Tuesday with the Omaha, Neb., station KETV, assuring Americans that the government would not authorize the project if the risks seemed too great and indicating that he would make the final decision instead of relying solely on the State Department:

“We need to make sure that we have energy security and aren’t just relying on Middle East sources. But there’s a way of doing that and still making sure that the health and safety of the American people and folks in Nebraska are protected, and that’s how I’ll be measuring these recommendations when they come to me.”

The response did not rule out any options, but those close to the project generally believe Obama will support the pipeline just as the State Department does; the Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said Monday he is “cautiously optimistic” that Washington will approve the project. Anti-pipeline activists, meanwhile, have interpreted Obama’s vague statements as an opportunity to ramp up pressure against Keystone XL.

So with the political stakes high and a tough election year looming, the president has the challenge of trying to minimize the damage to his campaign. Rather than taking a definitive stand on either side of the debate, Obama might delay the decision until after the presidential election. If the White House requires the pipeline sponsors to reduce the environmental risks before granting approval, as some close to the deliberations have suggested might be the case, the process would take much longer and spare Obama the political ramifications until his electoral fate is decided.

Delaying the project under the guise of environmentalism might be the president’s best option. His criticisms for inaction would pale in comparison to the anger from either the industry or the environmentalists for approving or rejecting the proposal. Additionally, some anti-pipeline activists have indicated that they might accept the project if the pipeline followed a less environmentally harmful route: Nebraska’s Republican Governor David Heineman said most people in his state would support the project if the pipeline route were moved away from a water aquifer. Requiring TransCanada to shift the route would delay construction and temper some opposition — and potentially even lead the oil company to scrap the project out of frustration since the permit process has already taken more than three years.

With an election year approaching, the president has a clear motivation to further delay the decision. The political risks associated with Keystone XL are too high for Obama to take a firm stand, regardless of how many protesters gather outside the White House and call for action.

Michigan Senate Passes Bill To Protect Bullies

Is anti-gay bullying protected under freedom of religion? According to lawmakers in Michigan, it is. The Republican-controlled state Senate passed an “anti-bullying” bill Wednesday that would allow students, teachers, and other school employees to claim they are justified in harassing others because of “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”

The bill, which awaits approval in the GOP-dominated Michigan House of Representatives, is called “Matt’s Safe School Law” in honor of a bullied student who committed suicide, but the exemption in the text of the bill would actually do more to protect bullies than their victims. The ramifications for LGBT students are particularly frightening, since now the cruelty of those who bully them will be excused under the guise of religious beliefs that homosexuality is wrong.

The issue is clearly split along party lines; conservative politicians in Michigan have long opposed anti-bullying legislation that would effectively protect students and not the people who harass them. Amy Sullivan writes in Time‘s Swampland blog:

Michigan is already one of only three states in the country that have not enacted any form of anti-bullying legislation. For more than a decade, Democrats in the state legislature have fought their Republican colleagues and social conservatives such as Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, who referred to anti-bullying measures as “a Trojan horse for the homosexual agenda.” In that time, at least ten Michigan students who were victims of bullying have killed themselves.

This year, Republicans only agreed to consider an anti-bullying measure that did not require school districts to report bullying incidents, did not include any provisions for enforcement or teacher training, and did not hold administrators accountable if they fail to act. And they fought back Democratic attempts to enumerate particular types of students who are prone to being bullied, such as religious and racial minorities, and gay students. But it was the addition of special protections for religiously-motivated bullying that led all 11 Democratic senators to vote against the legislation they had long championed.

The Michigan bill is a stark reminder of what happens when religious ideology spills over into government. If the bill passes the state House, Michigan schoolchildren will face a higher risk of bullying, with impunity for the perpetrators. Schools will undoubtedly become safer for narrow-minded people and much more dangerous for gay or other minority students — yet another example of the GOP’s regressive social policies.

Watch Democratic Leader Sen. Gretchen Whitmer’s impassioned plea for stricter anti-bullying legislation.

In 2012, Generation Gap Will Play Out In Polls

It’s no surprise that age is often correlated with political ideology, but generational differences are bound to play a particularly significant role in next year’s presidential election. A new Pew Research Center study, “The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election,” reveals a clear relationship between age and voter preferences, which could portend a much more challenging re-election fight for Obama.

According to the study, young Millennials tend to hold liberal attitudes, and 56 percent favor a bigger government. They would most likely choose Obama over the GOP candidate, even though only 49 percent approve of the president’s job performance. They still generally prefer Democrats over Republicans, but they lack the enthusiasm for Obama that they had in the 2008 campaign.

This is a sharp contrast to the Silent generation, people who reached adulthood between the late 1940s and early 1960s: Already conservative, they have moved even more toward the GOP out of frustration at the country’s direction.

Meanwhile, Baby Boomers and Generation X voters are less supportive of Obama than they were in 2008, and both lack confidence in their economic futures. Their votes are more difficult to predict, but their political discontent might make them shift more to the right.

The political delineation based on age presents the starkest divisions since 1972, according to Pew.

While the political divides between young and old are deep, there are potential fissures at both ends of the age spectrum. Millennials continue to support Obama at much higher levels than older generations. But Obama’s job ratings have fallen steeply among this group, as well as among older generations, since early 2009. Perhaps more ominously for Obama, Millennials are much less engaged in politics than they were at this stage in the 2008 campaign.

In contrast, Silents — particularly those who affiliate with or lean to the Republican Party — are far more engaged in the presidential campaign than they were at this point in the contest four years ago. While Silents support Romney over Obama by a wide margin, they express highly unfavorable views of both the GOP and the Democratic Party.

Silents prefer the Republican Party on most issues, with Social Security a notable exception. Silents are about evenly divided over whether the Democrats or the Republicans can better handle Social Security. If debate over Social Security and Medicare comes to the forefront, it raises potentially significant cross pressures for Silent generation voters, who rank Social Security among the top issues affecting their 2012 vote.

Most Americans are unhappy with the current political climate, but each age group has reacted to the current situation in different ways. The Pew study offers further proof that the presidential election will be largely determined by which generations turn out to the polls — and, given growing disillusionment and disengagement by younger voters, the results are likely to hurt Democrats.

Obama Discusses Tar Sands Pipeline As Pressure Mounts

President Obama has finally begun to address the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, raising anti-pipeline activists’ hopes that he will halt the construction given environmental concerns.

Pipeline advocates argue that the project, which would stretch from the Canadian tar sands to Texas oil refineries, would create jobs and decrease dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Those opposing the pipeline contend that there is a high risk of leaks and that the tar sands oil releases more carbon than conventional crude oil. Additionally, concerns about a pro-industry bias in the State Department, which is responsible for approving the project, have increased pressure for Obama to take the matter into his own hands.

Obama discussed the issue in an interview Tuesday with the Omaha, Neb., station KETV:

“The State Department’s in charge of analyzing this, because there’s a pipeline coming in from Canada. They’ll be giving me a report over the next several months, and, you know, my general attitude is, what is best for the American people? What’s best for our economy both short term and long term? But also, what’s best for the health of the American people? Because we don’t want for examples aquifers, they’re adversely affected, folks in Nebraska obviously would be directly impacted, and so we want to make sure we’re taking the long view on these issues.

“We need to encourage domestic oil and natural gas production. We need to make sure that we have energy security and aren’t just relying on Middle East sources. But there’s a way of doing that and still making sure that the health and safety of the American people and folks in Nebraska are protected, and that’s how I’ll be measuring these recommendations when they come to me.”

[When asked whether job growth would factor into his decision] “It does, but I think folks in Nebraska like all across the country aren’t going to say to themselves, ‘We’ll take a few thousand jobs if it means that our kids are potentially drinking water that would damage their health or rich land that’s so important to agriculture in Nebraska are being adversely affected,’ because those create jobs, and you know when somebody gets sick that’s a cost that the society has to bear as well. So these are all things that you have to take a look at when you make these decisions.”

These statements signify that the president is weighing both sides of the debate, and that he might succumb to pressure from environmental activists who have met him along the campaign trail and demand he take firm action to halt the project. Many of those activists are planning a mass demonstration outside the White House this weekend. Until Obama makes his final decision, the protests by activists and lobbying by the energy industry will only intensify.

What Led American Soldiers To Mutilate Afghan Civilians?

As the trial begins for the “kill team” — U.S. Army soldiers who allegedly deliberately murdered and mutilated Afghan civilians — Americans should consider what exactly is being done in our name overseas, and what can be done to prevent future abuses.

Five soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade are charged with killing three Afghan civilians for sport and then making them appear to be enemy combatants in 2010. The alleged torture, murder, and mutilation were outlined in a Rolling Stone article by Mark Boal in March, accompanied by graphic photos. The military is holding a court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, who is accused of planning and encouraging the crimes.

Gibbs’ attorney admitted his client cut off the fingers of Afghan civilians’ corpses and used them as trophies; however, he maintains that Gibbs, who faces life in prison, was not involved in the actual killing. This contradicts the testimony of three soldiers who have pleaded guilty to other charges: They argue that the entire plan was Gibbs’ idea, and that he encouraged them to stage the deaths and make the civilians appear to be combatants, while violently suppressing other soldiers’ efforts to report the abuse.

Even if Gibbs is not guilty of murder, the fact that he mutilated the corpses of civilians is disturbing to say the least. Other soldiers have testified that Gibbs hated Afghans and referred to them as “savages.” Such a gruesome act does not seem as inhumane when the perpetrator fails to recognize the victims’ humanity.

Civilian casualties are a tragic occurrence in wars; but the deliberate murder of civilians, combined with torturing and mutilating them for fun, is inexcusable by all accounts.

Although the military is ostensibly seeking justice through Gibbs’ court-martial, there seems to be lack of commitment to looking further into the case and critically examining the conditions that led to the actions of the kill team — as well as investigating how far up the chain of command responsibility goes.

Killing and mutilating civilians is by no means common practice in the U.S. military, but many soldiers grapple with the same conditions that caused the men from the 5th Stryker Brigade to snap. To deem the kill team’s behavior the isolated actions of a few bad soldiers is to almost guarantee future tragedies. John Tirman of the MIT Center for International Studies writes of the kill team’s alleged treatment of Afghans:

It was a troubling episode, hardly typical of the conduct of American military men and women in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet, atrocities large and small recur with disturbing frequency.

The habitual response of the military is to describe such rampages as an “aberration” — bad actors among generally well-behaved soldiers.

An alternative account is that atrocities result from structural reasons: poor training, aggressive commanders, a permissive military.

And there are the conditions of war itself.

The fog of war now involves a blurry distinction between enemy fighters and civilians, and daily operations — house-to-house searches, roadblocks and vulnerable convoys, among others — in which soldiers anxiously encounter civilians.

Which explanation accounts for the “kill team” and the many other incidents of murders in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The answer is likely to involve all three.

Recognizing the kill team episode as part of a larger set of conditions and practices is imperative to prevent future abuses. Studies have shown that the military often does not emphasize the need to treat civilians with dignity and respect. Additionally, the nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — in which a seemingly harmless civilian could be hiding a bomb or worse — complicates the standard rules of war.

The kill team reports highlight the need for greater monitoring and treatment of soldiers’ mental health. Gibbs allegedly committed these acts during his third tour; hence, even if he has always been a disturbed individual, his mental health was undoubtedly affected by years of brutal combat. The Army has been hiring more counselors to meet a growing challenge, but the mental health damage resulting from war is difficult to undo.

The horrific actions of the kill team emphasize the need to fully weigh the effects of war and to make a determined effort to prevent future abuses — for the sake of civilians and soldiers alike.

Halloween Horror Story: The Child Slavery Behind Chocolate

Not everything about Halloween candy is sweet: Most major companies use cocoa beans harvested by thousands of child slaves in West Africa. According to a recent post on GOOD,

These children are performing this work for the benefit of most of the mainstream chocolate providers in the United States. A report from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and other African countries estimated there were 284,000 children working on cocoa farms in hazardous conditions. Many of them have been taken from their families and sold as servants. U.S. chocolate manufacturers have claimed they are not responsible for the conditions on cocoa plantations, since they don't own them. This group includes Hershey, Mars, Nestle, and the U.S. division of Cadbury. Collectively, they are responsible for pretty much every snack-size candy bar available in stores this Halloween.

Some of these companies — including Nestle, Mars, and Kraft — have recently pledged to purchase fair-trade cocoa (although Hershey has been slow to follow). But, as Mother Jones notes, these companies had already made a similar pledge in 2001, without yielding the desired results.

So as children trek from door to door tonight and fill their bags with sweets, it’s worth taking a moment to consider other children who are forced to work on cocoa farms — and to demand that candy companies take decisive action to sever their ties to slavery.

Mississippi's Personhood Amendment Would Do More Than Ban Abortions

On Nov. 8, Mississippi voters will decide on Measure 26, which would amend the state’s constitution to define human eggs at the moment of fertilization as “persons.” Under this definition, a variety of reproductive health options would be labeled murder.

Intended to prevent abortions in a state that has already vastly restricted women’s reproductive rights, the effects of the measure would go far beyond the doors of the state’s lone abortion clinic.

As The New York Times writes:

Besides outlawing all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest or when a woman’s life is in danger, and banning any contraception that may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, including birth control pills, the amendment carries many implications, some quite serious.

It could curtail medical research involving embryos, shutter fertility clinics and put doctors in legal jeopardy for providing needed medical care that might endanger a pregnancy. Pregnant women also could become subject to criminal prosecution. A fertilized egg might be eligible to inherit money or be counted when drawing voting districts by population. Because a multitude of laws use the terms “person” or “people,” there would be no shortage of unintended consequences.

Clearly, this is much more than a typical abortion debate. Perhaps the various politicians and pro-lifers endorsing the measure should take a moment to consider the ramifications before they rush to the polls.

Politicians To Prez: Investigate Tar Sands Pipeline Project

Protesters and politicians alike have ramped up the pressure on President Obama this week to halt the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Anti-pipeline activists met Obama during several recent campaign stops. Protesters even interrupted Obama’s speech at the University of Colorado in Denver on Wednesday, prompting him to say, “All right, thank you, guys. We’re looking at it right now, all right? No decision has been made. And I know your deep concern about it. So we will address it.”

The proposed TransCanada pipeline, which would stretch 1,700 miles from the Canadian tar sands to the Texas Gulf Coast refineries and cost $7 billion, has drawn criticisms from environmentalists who argue that the project has a significant risk of accidents and that the tar sands oil has a larger carbon output than conventional oil. The State Department is responsible for approving the project and has largely favored the pipeline. Many attribute their approval to the department’s close ties to pro-Keystone XL lobbyists.

But it’s not just environmental activists who are concerned with the pipeline: On Wednesday, a group of three U.S. senators and 11 members of Congress sent a letter to the president, notifying him that they had made a request to the State Department’s deputy inspector general for an investigation of the department’s handling of the project assessment.

“Many serious concerns have been raised regarding conflicts of interest in the State Department’s process for conducting its federally-mandated review of this project. Fundamentally, on a decision of such consequence, with a project that could have a fifty-year lifespan and that presents tremendous environmental and safety risks, we believe it is critical that the American people have confidence that all the facts have been presented in an objective and unbiased manner, and that the State Department and all private parties have fully complied with the letter and spirit of all federal laws and regulations.”

This echoes concerns from other politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Meanwhile, environmental groups and the energy industry have released competing advertisements in an attempt to sway the public and the president.

Obama has the power to intervene and stop the project, but it is unclear at this point whether the persistent pleas of activists and politicians will be enough to persuade him.