Pass the Violence Against Women Act

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on 2/13/13.

The 1994 Violence Against Women Act has done tremendous good in stepping up prosecution of domestic violence, aiding victims and increasing awareness of a too-often silent threat to our society. But the act was allowed to lapse in 2011 amid partisan bickering. On Tuesday, the Senate sent a strong signal by voting to reauthorize the law by an overwhelming 78-22 vote, but its survival in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is, sadly, far from certain.

VAWA, as the law is called, aids in the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women and allows for civil redress in cases that prosecutors choose to leave unprosecuted. The act also established the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice. The reauthorization approved by the Senate would provide $659 million over the next five years for VAWA programs.

This legislation has been important for women since the time of its enactment. After a large push in the late 1980s and early 1990s from advocates concerned with domestic and sexual violence, VAWA has been instrumental in helping to make crimes against women a priority for prosecutors. Over the years, VAWA has expanded its focus from solely domestic violence to also include dating violence and stalking. The bill includes funding for services to protect adult and teen victims, to support training on these issues, and to ensure official responses to violence across the country.

Additionally, VAWA has been vitally important to Native American women — one in three of them is a sexual violence survivor, and the murder rate for Native American women is a stunning 10 times higher than the national average.

But it is a provision dealing with the prosecution of abuse on Indian reservations that has proved one of the biggest obstacles to reauthorization. The Senate bill says that non-Native Americans accused of abusing Native American women on reservations can be tried in tribal courts; under current law, such cases are rarely prosecuted at all. But some Republicans have complained that those courts offer insufficient protections for the defendants’ constitutional rights. If that is the true complaint, the answer is to provide more resources for those courts, not to allow non-Native Americans to abuse Native American women with impunity.

The other objections to the bill are similarly hollow. Some Republicans are opposed to a provision that allows immigrant victims of abuse to gain permanent residency, on the assumption that some could manipulate the law to find a way to stay in this country. But the opposite risk — that an immigrant woman would stay in an abusive relationship to avoid the chance that she could be deported — is much greater. Some also oppose the bill’s nondiscrimination clause for gay, lesbian and transgender victims of abuse, but why should they be any less worthy of protection?

The bipartisan support for reauthorization in the Senate should give the bill momentum in the House, but we have been down this road before. In April, the Senate voted to reauthorize VAWA, and the House subsequently passed its own version that omitted provisions to protect gays and lesbians, Native Americans on reservations and immigrants. The White House threatened to veto the House bill, and both the House and Senate decided to restart when the 113th Congress convened.

The lead sponsor of the 2011 House legislation is no longer in office, and now Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, is working on a new version of the bill. There are some signs that Republicans are at least concerned with the politics of opposing this legislation. All 22 no votes in the Senate were cast by Republican men, which surely doesn’t help a party that was damaged last year by two Senate candidates’ retrograde views about rape and pregnancy — and which lost the women’s vote to President Barack Obama by 11 points in November. Indeed, a bloc of House Republicans has urged their leaders to bring the legislation to a vote.

But this should not be a partisan issue. As Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski said in arguing for the bill on the Senate floor, the Violence Against Women Act works. It protects the least powerful in society from crimes that, as Ms. Mikulski points out, often involve not just physical harm but also “deep emotional pain and fear.” The House needs to overcome its divisions and send this bill to the president to sign into law.

On the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank

There is a fundamental Catch-22 with the security rationale of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank. When Palestinians respond in violence to their oppressed situation, be it through acts of terrorism or riots, Israel justifies the occupation as a national security need. The Palestinian people need to be governed by martial law, in order to protect the Israeli population from security threats.

But then when Palestinians renounce violence and switch their resistance tactics to more nonviolent demonstrations and protests, Israel justifies the occupation as a successful national security tool. The Palestinian people need to be governed by martial law, as evidenced by how improved the security of the Israeli population has been over the past half decade. We can’t stop now, or else they’ll just return to their violent ways.

Thus there is no end in sight. And in the meantime, Israel continues to expand settlements which make the prospects of a two state solution much more difficult to achieve. An occupation is supposed to be a temporary situation. It is a distinctive characteristic that separates occupation from annexation and colonialism. But the Israeli occupation has existed for over 45 years.

Beyond the problematic state of the occupation in a legal context, it is immoral and undemocratic to maintain the situation that exists today in the West Bank. You have Israeli settlers living in the same region as Palestinians, and if an Israeli commits a crime, they are subjected to Israel’s civil courts, like any other Israeli citizen living anywhere in Israel. But if a Palestinian commits the exact same crime, in the same exact spot, they are subjected to an entirely different set of laws and legal proceedings, and they’re sent to a military court.

First of all, there is no due process for the military courts. Second of all, the military courts have astonishingly high conviction rates. (99.74%) And thirdly, Palestinians don’t have a right to vote for the Israeli government, even though the government is the body that makes the decisions and appoints the individuals that control their lives.

So why doesn’t Israel just annex the West Bank, instead of occupying it? If Israel wants to continue to expand settlements and build up the West Bank, why don’t they just de-facto annex the territory, like they did with the Golan Heights?

There’s a simple and oft-cited calculation for this issue. It goes like this:
There are three variables. 1. Israel as a democratic state. 2. Israel where the majority of citizens are Jewish. And 3. Israel controlling all of the land.

^In any final scenario, Israel will ultimately have only two of these three variables.

To annex the West Bank would mean Israel would need to grant all the Palestinians living there citizenship, and give them the same rights as any other Israeli. Which they don’t want to do because they want to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel. Because of demographic realities, including the Palestinians in the citizenry would effectively end the Jewish majority. And to grant Palestinians citizenship but deny them equal rights would make Israel a patently undemocratic state. And so their solution for now is to continue to build up the West Bank with Jewish settlements, say they’re waiting for a “peace partner” (even though the current President of Israel has categorically said they already have one) and justify the occupation with “security concerns.” I’ll say it again. These Palestinians have been living under occupation for 45 years.

I care about the state of Israel. A lot. I spend an inordinate amount of my time reading and thinking about these issues. And I want the citizens of Israel to be safe and secure. Yet it really disturbs me when people, especially Jewish people, roll their eyes at the notion of “human rights”. Or even “democracy” and “dignity.” I really want to know, would all of the individuals who say the occupation is a necessary evil for security purposes, be able to look into a Palestinian’s eyes, as I did last week, and say to them, “I’m sorry but my need for safety is more important than your basic human rights.”

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photo credit: Rachel Cohen

Final thought: in terms of history, and especially history of countries engaged in conflict–one thing I learn over and over in my history classes is, there is really no such thing as a status quo. 

Re: The “History” of Marriage

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that he supports same-sex marriages, quite a few reactions have flooded the opinion pages, cable networks and blog sites. Of course, people are entitled to their differing views on the subject; and President Obama’s announcement certainly can be seen as a divisive one. It angers not only many conservatives, but also groups that are considered at the base of the Democratic Party, specifically African-Americans and Latinos. However, at a time when Gallup polls report that 50% of all Americans support same-sex marriage, this public affirmation from the President of the United States marks an important moment in history.

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photo credit: msnbc.com

And yet, I almost refrain from using the word “history”, a term that opponents of same-sex marriage have so regularly abused and exploited. The word itself faces the threat of being rendered meaningless.

Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney declared in 2003, “I agree with 3,000 years of recorded history. I disagree with the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman.” Recently Romney spoke at Liberty University, where he reaffirmed his position of nine years ago. He spoke of the “enduring institution of marriage,” one that defines itself as “a relationship between one man and one woman.”

He has other conservative supporters, of course. In January, Newt Gingrich boldly associated gay marriage with Paganism. Gingrich said, “It’s pretty simple: marriage is between a man and a woman. This is a historic doctrine driven deep into the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament…the effort to create alternatives to marriage between a man and a woman are perfectly natural pagan behaviors, but they are a fundamental violation of our civilization.”

Conservative blogger, Erick Erickson writes, “In the past few decades, many people have decided that several thousand years of human history can be ignored in favor of unproven claims of happiness, fairness, progress, and an expanded notion of equality.”

It is imperative to do some fact checking of these ‘historical’ claims.

When Newt Gingrich invokes marriages from the Old and New Testament, is he counting the one where Jacob had two wives? Or where King David had eight wives? Or where King Solomon had 700 wives?

When Mitt Romney speaks about the “enduring institution” of marriage, does he mean the marriages of ancient Egypt where royal siblings would legally marry one another in order to keep their royal bloodlines pure? Or the marriages of the ancient Romans where daughters were human forms of currency, used to help form strategic alliances and strengthen the military position of the family?

Marriage is an evolving institution. It is both deceptive and manipulative to speak of the history of marriage as a stable, un-changing tradition. To be against gay-marriage is one thing; to depict marriage as a fixed institution is another.

Wedding vows, as we know them today certainly have not been around for “thousands” of years. The vows with the well known “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer” come from a man named Thomas Cranmer in 1549.

Society did not really even make the switch to marrying for love, a period known in sociology as “affective individualism”, until the Victorian Era. Prince Albert and Queen Victoria became the revered icons for a loving marriage. People began to grow distasteful of arranged marriages for economic purposes, and began to seek new meaning, namely love, in the institution of marriage.

When Erick Erickson argues that we’re ignoring “thousands of years of human history” I think the real question is which history is he referring to? Which marriage structure is he claiming we should fight to preserve? Arranged-marriages between a man and a woman? Polygamic marriages?

And if Erickson does mean marriages for love between a man and a woman—well, that is one of the most recent historical phenomena of them all.

North Carolina’s Amendment One

Tomorrow, a shameful amendment will be voted on by the state of North Carolina–and will likely pass according to all the latest polls. This amendment effectively alters the state’s constitution and will not only make it illegal for same-sex couples to be recognized in the state of North Carolina, but due to the wording of the legislation, will also ban any other type of “domestic legal partnerships” such civil unions and domestic partnerships.

This is the official language on the ballot:
Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”

I have friends at UNC who have been doing some amazing work to protest this amendment. But the fact is, that while universities like UNC and Duke tend to be socially liberal, the majority of the state is full of voters with religious and conservative beliefs that make them support laws like this.

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Josh Orol, a sophomore at UNC protesting the amendment on campus

Proponents of the amendment point to states like New York and Connecticut, where same-sex marriage is legal and argue that if those couples then moved to North Carolina expecting certain legal rights, complicated issues would arise. By banning same-sex couples, they no longer have to deal with such hypothetical issues. As Representative Paul Starn said, “They’re going to bring with them their same-sex marriages. They’re going to want to get divorced” and have custody issues decided, he said. “We’re not equipped to handle that.”

Supporters also say that because this issue is so sensitive, it should be decided by the voters themselves, not by a handful of legislators.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of N.C. Values Coalition, argues that a popular vote on the amendment is the “right thing to do” and it is more democratic when it allows everybody to vote. Fitzgerald adds, “The people of North Carolina want to determine for themselves how they want to define marriage. They don’t want activist judges doing it for them.”

In fact, this is entirely misguided and incorrect.  It is no wonder the NAACP is so involved in this issue and opposed to this amendment. You don’t leave minority rights up to majority vote. Schools were not de-segregated because of a popular vote. Constitutionally enshrined protections are supposed to be immune to this type of thing. These people will receive different benefits and privileges because others voted that to be OK. Think about the implications and the precedents this sets for our country.


Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have come out against the amendment.
Obama’s statement said, “While the president does not weigh in on every single ballot measure in every state, the record is clear that the President has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same sex couples.”
Clinton argued, “The real effect of the law will be to hurt families and drive away jobs.”

People are insisting that this ban will hurt businesses. Many people will no longer be able to receive the work benefits from the state that they once were able to, so it might dissuade people from working there. They also believe it will hurt all sorts of families, including heterosexual couples, by threatening insurance and benefits for unmarried couples and their children.

A high number of voters are expected to vote tomorrow because this issue invokes faith and religion, two historically major motivations in voter turnout. There have been 30 marriage amendments already in place in the United States, and only one, in Arizona has been defeated. However, that was in 2006, and then in 2008 it was reworded and passed.

This is increasing evidence of a growing polarization and ideological divide in our country as more and more nationally report support for same-sex marriage. In 2001, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a margin of 57 percent to 35 percent. Today, 47 percent are in favor and 43 percent opposed, according to a new Pew Research poll.

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Social media activism from a friend’s facebook at UNC

The best thing at this point we can hope for is for enough people to become educated on this issue, and then work together to strongly oppose it. We should not allow for such important issues like human rights and freedoms to be left up to a popular vote.

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photo credit: blog.pflag.org

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photo credit: pamshouseblend.firedoglake.com/

Military Controversies Must be Reported On

Here is an article I had published this week, 4/30/12, in our weekly political publication, the JHU Politik. 
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On April 18, the Los Angeles Times did the right thing when it released several photographs of U.S soldiers posing inappropriately with the remains of Taliban suicide bombers in the Zabol province of Afghanistan. The photos, taken in February of 2010, were purportedly of members from the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta criticized the newspaper’s decision, arguing that it put innocent U.S. solders at risk and was a matter that should have been handled internally.

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Photo Credit: LA Times

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Photo Credit: LA Times

It is true that this is a particularly delicate time for U.S-Afghan relations. In January, a video went viral on the Internet showing four U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans. The following month, several copies of the Koran were accidentally burned at a U.S base, which resulted in riots and deaths for both Afghan citizens and U.S troops. Then in March, a U.S Army sergeant massacred two Afghan villages, killing 17 people in a nighttime raid.

It would have been tempting for the LA Times to not publish these photos.  They might have argued that  from a national security standpoint, the timing was not right for such public knowledge. However, the newspaper took the brave route, and did its job.

In response to criticism, the LA Times released a statement that said, “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

The Army launched a criminal investigation after the LA Times showed them official copies of the photos, which were given to the paper by a soldier from the involved division. The Army strongly condemned the actions in the photographs.

“It is a violation of Army standards to pose with corpses for photographs outside of officially sanctioned purposes,” said George Wright, an Army spokesman. “Such actions fall short of what we expect of our uniformed service members in deployed areas.”

The role of the press, is not in the job of doing PR. While of course editors will always have to make hard choices about what does and does not go to print, they do have an obligation to the American people to inform them of the truth, even if it is ugly or shameful.

Some alleged that the Times could have written about the event without publishing the photos. But  it is much harder for the government to dismiss such military abuses as abstractions when citizens are exposed to actual images of the crime.  The reactions to images of the My Lai massacre and the human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib prove as much.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “we’re disappointed” that the pictures were published. But criticism should be kept to the culprits of the abuse, not the journalists who shed light on it. The Obama Administration’s “disappointment” for the choices of the free press is troubling. The American people are paying for these wars and have the right to review evidence of abuse. They have a right to see these photographs, even if they are, as we’re told, exceptions to normal conduct.

It’s unclear how these photographs will impact US-Afghan relations or change future military training.  But what we do know is this: the American people should work to resist the increasing militarization of our American government, and continue to firmly advocate for our democratic free press.