Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Don't buy what the ACLU's selling? Then how about a Marine?

On September 11 of last year, I wrote a post here about where American freedom stood at that moment. The post included the story of Omar Khadr, a teenage detainee at Guantanamo Bay:
An hour or two later they came back, checked the tautness of his chains and pushed him over on his stomach. Transfixed in his bonds, Omar toppled like a figurine. Again they left. Many hours had passed since Omar had been taken from his cell. He urinated on himself and on the floor. The MPs returned, mocked him for a while and then poured pine-oil solvent all over his body. Without altering his chains, they began dragging him by his feet through the mixture of urine and pine oil. Because his body had been so tightened, the new motion racked it. The MPs swung him around and around, the piss and solvent washing up into his face. The idea was to use him as a human mop. When the MPs felt they'd successfully pretended to soak up the liquid with his body, they uncuffed him and carried him back to his cell. He was not allowed a change of clothes for two days.

Yesterday NPR featured a story on Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, the Marine attorney who defended Khadr, who is retiring next year. (Found via Daily Kos, "One fewer good man".)

By all accounts, Vokey is a Marine's Marine.
"Colby Vokey?" muses retired Col. Jane Siegel "Integrity almost seems like a word too small to describe him."

Says Lt. Col. Matthew Cord, "He's just one of the best."

But Vokey is retiring because he is, in his words, "fed up." And his revelations about Guantanamo are startling, albeit nothing new to a lot of us.
The U.S. has imprisoned hundreds of "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo Bay in a military legal system that Vokey denounces as "horrific." Vokey saw the system first-hand when he agreed two years ago to defend a teenager there who had been charged with murdering a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan. Vokey said he knew the case would be difficult, but he discovered that the legal system at Guantanamo is a "sham."

Vokey said the military staff constantly harassed him and interfered with his defense work by making it difficult even to meet with his client or show his client the government's evidence against him. The teenager confessed to killing the soldier, but he told Vokey he confessed after being shackled for hours in excruciating positions and bombarded by screeching music and flashing lights.

FBI agents have reported seeing detainees treated in similar ways and investigators at human rights groups have reported evidence suggesting that detainees are routinely abused.

Vokey calls the system "disgraceful."

"Anytime you want to subvert the rule of law to the power of a government, you've got a very bad thing brewing," Vokey told NPR. "As an officer in the Marine Corps I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And now we are perpetrating something that if any other country in the world was doing, we would likely step in and stop it."

After speaking out, Vokey was fired as the chief of defense counsels for the western United States.
But when former Marine Corps lawyers heard about Vokey's firing, they were incensed. Siegel said Vokey's firing sent a chilling message that some officials don't want military lawyers to defend the Constitution too vigorously.

"I believe that Colby Vokey was pulled out of his position because he's doing too good a job," Siegel said. "I think that the people in Washington, D.C., don't like that."

After Siegel and other well-known lawyers wrote a blistering letter of protest about Vokey's firing and lobbied top commanders at Marine headquarters, officials backed down and reinstated him. But critics say the Corps is just doing damage control because officials know that Vokey is planning to leave on his own.

Mind you, Vokey is the attorney who vigorously defended eight Marines accused of killing unarmed civilians in Haditha, Iraq. He is not one of the usual suspects. He's a Marine, and he considers what he has seen to be "disgraceful."

How many voices will it take until enough Americans know that our freedoms and principles are in serious danger?

Update- Thursday, 2:30pm EDT: I intended to include a link to the NPR story but forgot. Here it is.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Go, Caitlyn and Justin!

I'm not sure whether this is really, really disturbing, or incredibly inspiring. What does one say about the fact that a couple of Georgia high-school kids have a better grasp of the meaning of the First Amendment than their own principal? (Let's not even get started on the guy's understanding of literature.)

Senior Justin Jones wrote a piece, echoing Jonathan Swift's famed 18th-century satire "A Modest Proposal" in the September issue of Smoke Signals, East Coweta High's student newspaper. In Justin's essay, which he dubbed, "Another Modest Proposal," he suggested that perhaps students with low IQs should be euthanized. A column in the same issue, written by managing editor Caitlyn VanOrder, critiqued the East Coweta Princess beauty pageant.

Principal Derek Pitts objected to the essays and confiscated 500 copies of the student newspaper.

Apparently, Principal Pitts doesn't quite understand that the rights of free speech don't only apply to messages that are "positive" and "uplifting." Certainly, as we know, if that were the case, our forefathers wouldn't have needed to include a First Amendment. We'd also all be a lot more poorly informed, as anyone knows who's ever spent even five minutes watching Bill O'Reilly, for instance. OK, bad example. He's neither positive, nor uplifting.

Principal Pitts has now spurred a free-speech crusade. According to the AJR editorial, Caitlyn resigned her editing position in protest. Now she has created a Facebook site about the saga and is organizing a First Amendment rally.
As the Atlanta Journal Constitution editorial says
While the U.S. Supreme Court granted school administrators the right to censor some student publications, it stipulated that officials show reasonable educational justification. The justification at East Coweta seems neither reasonable nor educational.

Now if we could just get Caitlyn and Justin to perhaps explain the constitutional due process rights of habeas corpus to our esteemed grownups in Congress.

Lauri in York

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Capital punishment under the microscope

The fallout from the American Bar Association's report on Pennsylvania's death penalty continues. In the week following the report's release, six editorial boards from throughout Pennsylvania weighed in to call for at least a review and reform with some calling for a suspension of executions. From Towanda to Philadelphia to Beaver County, it is recognized that there are significant problems with capital punishment in the Commonwealth.

Yesterday former state Senator Edward Helfrick called for hearings on the ABA report at the General Assembly via an op-ed in The Patriot News:
I know my former colleagues in Harrisburg -- including those who support capital punishment -- don't want a system that sends innocent people to death row. And I know that they don't want a system where a poor defendant is forced to pay with his or her life because a public defender or court-appointed attorney is overworked and without funding to conduct a decent investigation. I know they don't want a system that traumatizes victims' families for years (or even) decades because of reversals and errors.

The American Bar Association has opened the door for my former colleagues to give capital punishment in Pennsylvania closer look. I hope they take advantage of this opportunity.

On Monday, The Philadelphia Daily News featured an op-ed by public policy consultant Deborah Leavy, calling Pennsylvania's system of capital punishment "broken":
Most Pennsylvanians would be surprised to learn that the percentage of African-Americans on death row is second only to Louisiana. That's right, we beat Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and 45 other states for this badge of shame. Philadelphia is the worst offender, with "a significantly higher" proportion of African-Americans sentenced to death compared to whites who committed similar crimes, according to a study by a Pennsylvania Supreme Court committee. The study found that in a third of cases against African-Americans, race meant the difference between life and death.

The ABA reported other problems: inadequate time to appeal, no statewide system for ensuring that attorneys are competent to represent capital defendants, and more.

Clearly the capital punishment system in Pennsylvania is broken. The ABA report made a number of recommendations, which the governor and legislature should work to enact promptly.

In the meantime, no one sentenced under such flawed procedures should be put to death.

Finally, on Monday, WHYY in Philadelphia hosted an hour-long discussion (Real Audio file) on the ABA report with Professor Anne Bowen Poulin of Villanova University School of Law, who chaired the ABA team and is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, and Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg. Listen to this audio and you'll get to hear Eisenberg make the incredible claim that African-Americans may actually be under-represented on death row and that defense attorneys in capital cases have 3 or 4 expert witnesses while the poor DAs only have one.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Monday, October 22, 2007

"Blinding the country to solutions"

This blogging thing is really easy when others say things considerably more eloquently than I can.

Today's NY Times editorial:
Think of America's greatest historical shames. Most have involved the singling out of groups of people for abuse. Name a distinguishing feature — skin color, religion, nationality, language — and it's likely that people here have suffered unjustly for it, either through the freelance hatred of citizens or as a matter of official government policy.

We are heading down this road again. The country needs to have a working immigration policy, one that corresponds to economic realities and is based on good sense and fairness. But it doesn't. It has federal inertia and a rising immigrant tide, and a national mood of frustration and anxiety that is slipping, as it has so many times before, into hatred and fear. Hostility for illegal immigrants falls disproportionately on an entire population of people, documented or not, who speak Spanish and are working-class or poor. By blinding the country to solutions, it has harmed us all.

Meanwhile, NPR this morning had an excellent piece on the plight of farmers and the lack of labor.

Andy in Harrisburg


Friday, October 19, 2007

When is a donation to NPR a donation to the Catholic Church?

Well, apparently when you live in Pittsburgh. The local NPR affiliate here created a firestorm last week when it pulled underwriting announcements by Planned Parenthood from the air and returned the organization’s $5,300 underwriting gift. Why would any struggling public radio station turn down a $5,300 gift over totally uncontroversial underwriting announcements? Because Pittsburgh’s NPR affiliate, WDUQ, is owned by Duquesne University, a Catholic university. According to WDUQ spokeswoman Bridget Fare, the gift was returned because "Planned Parenthood is not aligned with the university's Catholic mission and identity.”

Many local NPR supporters were outraged by the censorship of the underwriting announcements and the decision is starting to cost WDUQ. "Duquesne University's WDUQ pulled Planned Parenthood underwriting because of their message of abstinence, prevention and teen self-esteem," said Margot Callahan of Mount Washington. "So, I pulled my dollar-a-day pledge during their fund drive." State Representative Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill) also weighed in, saying "I call on Duquesne University to respect the editorial independence of WDUQ. Any other decision would harm the station and the community."

It makes you wonder if WDUQ will start turning down individual donations from Jews, Baptists, Presbyterians, Wiccans, atheists and so on. Wouldn’t it be funny if people started calling in to the pledge drive and telling WDUQ how much money they would have given if only they were good Catholics whose donations the sanctimonious University leadership could accept?

Interestingly enough, WDUQ accepts corporate underwriting money from Reproductive Health Specialists, a clinic which performs in vitro fertilization; a procedure the Catholic Church condemns as a "gravely evil act." Perhaps Duquesne’s censorship of Planned Parenthood is more about being offended that women have the right to choose than it is about ensuring that donors adhere to the university’s Catholic mission and identity.

By the way, here are the offending ads that Duquesne University made WDUQ pull from the air:

Support for DUQ comes from Planned Parenthood, offering healthcare services to men, including screenings for cancer and STDs. Planned Parenthood: Their mission is prevention.

Support for DUQ comes from Planned Parenthood, providing comprehensive sexuality education, including lessons on abstinence. Planned Parenthood: Their mission is prevention.

Support for DUQ comes from Planned Parenthood, whose community educators empower teens to make good choices by teaching self-esteem. Planned Parenthood: Their mission is prevention.

Support for DUQ comes from Planned Parenthood, offering cancer screenings for women and men. Planned Parenthood: Their mission is prevention.

Pamela in Pittsburgh

And Now, A Bit Of Good News...

According to our friends at National Center for Science Education, it looks like Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has backed off a controversial earmark that critics called a thinly disguised attempt to funnel $100,000 of your tax dollars towards teaching creationism in public school science class.

More than 30 educational, scientific and religious groups had joined forces to oppose the earmark, according to a press release released yesterday by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In a joint letter sent to every U.S. senator, the organizations reminded them of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

Yesterday, in response to the pressure, Vitter requested that the earmark be removed. On the floor of the Senate, the Louisiana Republican insisted that the money was not designed to promote creationism and blamed the controversy on groups promoting "hysterics."

By the way, you all remember Sen. Vitter, don't you? Sure you do. He's the Republican family-values guy. Thank goodness we have politicians like him looking out for our children's education. Like many creationist advocates, the honorable senator probably wants to protect children from "Darwinism" because he believes it leads to moral relativism, which leads to an anything-goes lifestyle, like "very sinful behavior" like adultery and consorting with call girls and... Oh never mind.

By the way, Vitter's public admission of his "very sinful behavior" came a few hours after Hustler Magazine called his congressional office to confront him with the news that they had found his phone number appeared in the D.C.
madame's billing records.

Lauri in York

Friday, October 12, 2007

Invasion PA: Metcalfe revs the disinformation machine

Yesterday the people of Hazleton got a wake-up call about the benefits of their immigrant population, and it was Lou Barletta whose disinformation was exposed. Today, it's state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (Cranberry) who's been exposed trying to manipulate the public.

Metcalfe's report (available online for lovers of disaster fiction) compiles 120 apocryphal tales of Pennsylvanians "whose lives have been unnecessarily lost or irreparably damaged due to the federal government's outright refusal to honor the constitutional obligation of securing America's borders against foreign invaders."

What the report really consists of is Daryl Metcalfe's personal thoughts and feelings on stories he read in the newspaper. "Innocent until proven guilty" goes right out the window as he treats arrests and convictions the same. That's a safe practice in a state notorious for racial profiling, right?

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, even John "foreign criminals" Morganelli, Northampton County district attorney and one of PA's most vocal immigration opponents, is giving Metcalfe's scary story a bad review:

"The report was, in my view, poorly constructed ... it was a compilation of opinions and inferences drawn from arrests that really did not support the conclusion that an 'invasion' is occurring in Pennsylvania. It also seemed to treat 'arrests' and 'convictions' as the same without noting the important distinction that an 'arrest' is only an allegation.

"Although I have noted arrests in public statements, it is important to note that an arrest is NOT (emphasis original) a conviction, and everyone arrested is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

Dimitri Vassilaros at the Trib offered Metcalfe the chance to defend his work, to which Metcalfe responded that he had no interest in fact-checking or follow through. "You have your spin on this story.... Obviously, you are trying to pick apart every word being used. I don't agree with you. I am done with ... your nitpicking."

A note to the people of Pennsylvania: YOU ARE BEING MANIPULATED.

No one's saying that 'illegal immigration' is just okey-dokey, but how can we come to a reasonable solution when our leaders are aligning themselves with racists and white supremacists and pumping out disinformation?

Thomas Jefferson believed that the most essential ingredient in a free country was a well-informed citizenry.
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be... if we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed."
Herman Goering, Nazi leader, shared a similar belief, albeit expressed differently:
"Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

Chris in Philly

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In Hazleton, you get what you give

"From city to city, an incredible hysterical panic spread...As the unimaginable becomes real, the impossible becomes true..."

I'm sure certain fear-mongering politicians behind the cynical-minded "Invasion PA," (Doctor, will you tell these fools I'm not crazy!) will be shocked to learn that maybe, just maybe, immigrants aren't responsible for the destruction of all that is good and holy in Small-Town America.

In a delectable bit of irony, a just-released study (PDF)- partly funded by Lou Barletta's own City of Hazleton - reveals that the mayor's highly publicized actions targeting illegal immigration may be more to blame for the town's financial woes than the immigrants themselves.

An Associated Press story, "Report Criticizes Hazleton Immigrant Crackdown," said a $50,000 study takes Barletta to task for his stance, saying it threatens to drive away business and damage prospects for economic revitalization.

Thursday's article said
The report, by polling firm Zogby International, challenges the mayor's claim that illegal immigrants are responsible for overburdened police, schools and hospitals. It concludes that Hazleton should embrace immigration as a "solution to an aging and declining population."

Zogby was hired by a civic group, the Greater Hazleton Area Civic Partnership, to identify economic and demographic trends. The city contributed $1,000 to the study.

Last year, Barletta pushed through a law that targeted landlords who rented to illegal immigrants and businesses that employed them. Hispanic groups and the Pennsylvania ACLU challenged the law, which was recently struck down by a federal judge as unconstitutional. Barletta and the city are appealing the decision.

The AP article said
John Zogby urged the partnership of sponsoring civic organizations to "challenge the mayor on every front."

In a report on his study, Zogby wrote that while Hazleton has a rich ethnic tradition, "now fear reigns supreme, and the biggest fear is that this great tradition can be hijacked, especially by national demagogues trying to accent the worst."

Witold Walczak, who argued the case for the ACLU, was quoted in the article as saying
the report "documents how these misguided laws and the mayor's demagoguery retard economic growth, produce an environment that is toxic for foreigners and ultimately cloud Hazleton's otherwise promising future."

Barletta complained of the study
It's not what we were looking for.

Lauri in York

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Warrantless surveillance action now

I've had a plate full of the death penalty and LGBT non-discrimination the last few days, so what has been happening in Washington has totally passed me by. But the fit is hitting the shan in D.C. over the renewal of the Police America Act. Two bills have been introduced, the FISA Modernization Act and the RESTORE Act. The former fixes the problems with the bill Congress passed in August. The latter rolls over for the Bush Administration and allows the executive branch to conduct surveillance without a warrant.

Take action.

Andy in Harrisburg


Reax to ABA report on PA's death penalty

The reactions have come in to the American Bar Association's new report on Pennsylvania's death penalty. They include the hopeful, the cautious, the cynical, and the prosecutors.

The hopeful
Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny), the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 850, which would create a study commission on the death penalty with a two-year suspension of executions:
"This bar association report should be a major impetus to push my bill along," said the Highland Park Democrat. "When a major pronouncement from such a prestigious group of national and Pennsylvania trial lawyers comes along, it should help garner support for the bill."

And Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery), who spearheaded the creation of the Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions:
State Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, said the ABA report adds momentum to work under way by an advisory committee on wrongful convictions that is expected to issue recommendations next year.

"They've brought together in one document issues that have been discussed in Pennsylvania for quite awhile, which I think is helpful and important," said Greenleaf, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The cautious
Governor Edward Rendell:
"The governor will review the suggestions and take them under consideration," said Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo.

The cynical
PA death row exoneree Nick Yarris:
Nicholas Yarris, a Philadelphian who was exonerated and released from Pennsylvania's death row in 2004, greeted the ABA report with a shrug. It won't change much, he predicted.

"We've had more exonerations in Pennsylvania than people we've executed," he said. "The biggest disappointment to me since my release is that nothing has changed. You'd think an innocent man is released from death row and there would be outrage."

Philadelphia Daily News columnist John Baer:
So poor people don't get the best lawyers and black people get screwed. When I suggest such is the case throughout the history of American jurisprudence, and ask why nothing's ever done about it, he says, "Well, that's a good question . . . at least we're drawing attention to it."

So I draw it to your attention. And I expect corrective change just as soon as we get better crime prevention, health-care reform, legislative reform, ethics reform . . .

The prosecutors
Bruce Castor, President of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association:
Bruce Castor, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said statewide minimum standards are a good idea, but the current system is not fatally flawed. His group is writing an objection to the ABA report.

"We haven't had anyone executed in Pennsylvania against their will in 45 years," said Castor, the Montgomery County district attorney. "So the people who are suffering because of inadequacies in the death penalty system are the survivors of homicide victims who never see justice carried out."

And Philadelphia ADA Ron Eisenberg:
"The ABA is against the death penalty, and they ought to be honest about that," he said. "I don't think there's anything new in it for people who are against the death penalty, but they have a big public-relations budget, and they've obviously spent a lot of money to get their message out. . . . This is part of a national campaign."

Mind you, the ABA assessment team included a current Deputy DA from Montgomery County, two former Assistant U.S. Attorneys, and a former President of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. (Don Pardo voice) Welcome to another edition of Prosecutors Eating their Own!

The full ABA report is available here.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Pa's death penalty: Fatally flawed

The American Bar Association today confirmed what many of us already knew. Pennsylvania's death penalty has significant flaws. These flaws create a scenario in which an innocent person is at risk of execution.
The 324-page report urged the state to preserve biological evidence for post-trial DNA tests, videotape homicide investigations and implement modern witness-lineup techniques - three procedures the ABA said would add accuracy, integrity and efficiency to a process long maligned both by proponents and opponents of the death penalty.

The ABA study, crafted by five veteran Philadelphia-area lawyers, including a judge and a prosecutor, also criticized the state for failing to provide adequate lawyers and investigators for poor defendants at trial.

The study also said that the state has failed to address long-alleged racial and geographic disparities between defendants sentenced for similar crimes. In 2003, a committee appointed by the state Supreme Court to study racial and gender bias found "strong indications" that Pennsylvania does not "operate in an even-handed manner."

ABA president William H. Neukom said it is "critical to correct" the problems because "it is important to have a fair and accurate process, not just for the accused but also for the victims and for the public."
"It is important to understand that the shortcomings we identified operate with a cumulative effect," (Villanova law professor Anne Bowen) Poulin said. "Fixing one or some of the problems will not make the system right, and it is absolutely vital to do the additional study of the system that our report calls for, so that reforms can be implemented that will provide us with real justice."

Ah, conveniently, there is already a bill proposed that would create said study. Senate Bill 850 would empanel a commission to examine problems with capital punishment and suspend executions for two years while the study takes place.

The ABA has provided the state government with a great opportunity. They don't have to believe the ACLU or the abolitionists or the church groups. The ABA, and the PA Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias before them, is sending the warning signals. Let's hope our state leaders are awake at the wheel. (I may have just mixed my metaphors there, but you get the point.)

Andy in Harrisburg

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Friday, October 05, 2007

Aaaaaah! Noooooooo! It's back!!!

Presidential election years certainly seem to bring out the attacks on our children's education. (See 2004 and, umm, Dover?) There's just something about the campaign season that seems to really embolden fundamentalist leaders to try to tear down the wall of separation. It's hard to pinpoint why exactly. Maybe a certain pandering by candidates to the religious right?

Now, with 2008 just around the corner, it looks like it's shaping up to be a busy year for civil liberties watchdogs. Over at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Rob Boston has an excellent article Public Schools Under Fire in the latest edition of Church & State.

Among the litany of attacks: Dubious Bible study classes; pressing students into evangelical duty; and, inevitably, the latest evolution of intelligent design. This time the creationist battle is brewing in Texas. Next year, the state will be revamping its science curriculum standards. And as Boston writes, "Advocates of sound science education are also watching Texas warily."

Boston explains:

"Gov. Perry has appointed Don McLeroy, a dentist from Bryan, as head of the State Board of Education. McLeroy, who was first elected to the board in 1998, has regularly voted to water down instruction about evolution.

"The Texas Freedom Network noted that McLeroy promoted ID during a 2005 speech delivered to his fundamentalist church. According to a report on the blog of The Texas Observer, McLeroy told the congregation that intelligent design is a "big tent" that represents religious conservatives' best shot at undermining evolution.
"Why is Intelligent Design the big tent?" asked McLeroy. "Because we're all lined up against the fact that naturalism, that nature is all there is. Whether you're a progressive creationist, recent creationist, young Earth, old Earth, it's all in the tent of Intelligent Design."

In something of a tactical switch, McLeroy recently stated that he opposes mandating the teaching of intelligent design in science class. Rather, he said, he would like to see the weaknesses of evolution taught more thoroughly. Sound familiar to anyone?

As a Texas Observer blog poster responded: "Get ready to redo the Scopes Trial, folks."

Lauri in York

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Big Brother is watching: Not just for fiction anymore

Doing a fly-by at national, the ACLU is reminding us that we are inching ever closer to a surveillance society. National has launched this new campaign with a stark warning:
The reality is we are fast approaching a genuine surveillance society in the United States - a dark future where our every move, our every transaction, our every communication is recorded, compiled, and stored away, ready to be examined and used against us by the authorities whenever they want. The ACLU has created this Surveillance Clock to symbolize just how close we are to a "midnight" of a genuine surveillance society. But it's not too late - there is still time to save our privacy.

National's website has a lot of great info on this topic. And performance artists Steve Connell and Sekou (tha misfit) are back with "Monster Among Us."

Andy in Harrisburg

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