Tuesday, January 13, 2009

TVA Disaster Spreads Far and Wide By Erin Brockovich and Robin Greenwald

TVA Disaster Spreads Far and Wide

By Erin Brockovich and Robin Greenwald

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As a result of a 1.1 billion gallon spill of contaminated fly ash, there has been discussion, press reportage and blogging about the environmental disaster in eastern Tennessee Most of us have seen the pictures -- a 300+ acre area strewn with black and brown muck as far as the eye can see. Houses lifted off their foundations and thrown across the road, yards filled so high with ash that people can't leave their homes without stepping in it, roadways littered with the ash from trucks going to and from the site, and an eerie still where active life once existed. While this story continues to unfold -- as more samples are taken that delineate the true toxicity of this mess, as TVA makes plans to contain and abate the disaster -- there is a story that has not been told. It is a story that must be told. And that story is the lives of innocent bystanders that have been turned upside down by this avoidable disaster.

I learned of this disaster on the news just as we all did. Usually I receive an email from someone in the community where there has been an environmental problem. At first, it was all quiet. About 10 days after the tragedy I got the first email, then another one and another one and another one, and they kept coming. I also started receiving anonymous tips. It occurred to me that maybe more was going on than what I could gather from the news. With an invitation from the community, I decided to make the trip.

Let's be honest. Usually when I am called into an environmental disaster, I anticipate that industry isn't going to step up to the plate and do what's right by the people. Lawsuits almost always ensue; it would be foolish for me to walk into a situation like this without an attorney. Besides, I consult with two law firms in the United States: Girardi & Keese in Los Angeles and Weitz & Luxenberg in New York. I traveled to the area with an attorney, Robin Greenwald from Weitz and Luxenberg, along with some experts. In many instances such as this disaster, government agencies are absent due to lack of funds and can only rely on the information that industry gives them; and industry generally operates under concealment.

When I first arrived on the site, I was pretty quiet. It took a while to absorb what I was looking at. I knew there was a lake but an entire area was gone. I kept wondering "Where did the water go?" I couldn't decide if it looked more like a tornado had gone through, a mudslide, landslide, maybe a volcano erupted or a tidal wave. It is now a "moonscape." The landscape has completely changed. It is almost unidentifiable.

Watching TV never gives you an idea of the extent of damage. It's only when you stand there that you can actually feel the magnitude.

It struck me that I had an unusual taste on my lips and in my mouth. I asked others if they noticed that, and they did. Some experienced scratchy throats, respiratory problems, itchy and burning eyes and tasted what one expert believed to be sulfuric acid. If we were experiencing this much discomfort after a few minutes, what on earth are the people who live here feeling?

The other thing that stood out in my mind was how fortunate it was that this event took place when it did.

What would it have been like had this occurred in the summer during the middle of the day? Hundreds of people boat on this lake. Children swim and play in these waters. I was struck by the number of deaths that might have occurred but didn't.

This corner of Roane County Tennessee is off the beaten path. It is remote, distant from any main street and city noise. It is easy to see the beauty of rolling mountains, lakes, rivers, comfortable family homes. It is serene, a piece of heaven on earth. This was a safe place to raise kids, to teach them to fish and swim, to enjoy family and have barbecues or sit quietly to watch the sunset on warm summer nights. I could see why people live there. Over the past couple of weeks we have had the opportunity to speak with people about life both before December 22. Life in the Kingston/Harriman area was idyllic. It was a place people chose as their home. It was a place that, even if jobs took people away in their youth, they awaited the day they could return and did so as soon as possible. It is a beautiful place, with water bodies everywhere. There are green meadows laced among the waters. These shared memories come to life in the "before" photographs that residents showed us. The pictures show children diving from docks into the lake, people canoeing along the rivers, families tubing in the hot summer sun and children and their dogs walking along the shore. A favorite scene of many residents is the sunset over the water, with the soft nighttime colors glistening on the lake. It went from pristine to profaned overnight.

The "after" picture is nothing but a sludge-filled lake, dead fish and miles and miles of contamination flowing out of control. And what cannot be captured by photographs is the human toll of this disaster. The child who wakes up nightly with nightmares; the woman whose cough is so severe she can hardly speak and has been diagnosed with acute asthma from the ash spill; the tri-athlete who can no longer train in his environs; the families scared to death to go outside for fear they breathe in the toxic ash in the air; people realizing that TVA's recommendation to boil their water before drinking it in the wake of the disaster was a false comfort and bottled water, at their own expense, is the only solution for drinking; and the couple who lives downwind of the disaster who, following walking their dog on a hilltop on a windy night, suffered severe nose bleeds. This is a very frightening time for the people of this community. This community is incredibly brave, but it is also rightfully fearful -- they love their community, their homes, their environment and they don't want to leave, but they also don't want to stay at the risk of their health. They want answers and they can't get them. Many people have the same tale: they call the TVA hotline for answers and help but no one answers or returns their calls. Why does this happen? What did they do to deserve such treatment? I can only imagine the sadness of the families. The whole area looks like a wound on the land. To heal it, it's going to take more than a band-aid and a squirt of Bactine.

The next day of my visit we did a fly over of the site, which showed the big picture. Extending for at least 5 to 6 miles downstream, we could see a plume of this toxic ash floating down the river, resting on the banks. We saw the remaining refrigerator and patch of roof where the now demolished house once stood. We saw a child's trampoline, once in someone's backyard, now buried in TVA's toxic sludge. We saw miles of ash, still traveling down river, contaminating riverbanks along the way. In truth, there are no words to describe the scenes of devastation from this disaster. The pictures are powerful, but they simply cannot capture the panorama of devastation. This was a sludge tsunami -- but one caused by corporate neglect, not natural occurrences. And what it left behind from this tsunami are mounds of toxic rubble where a lake once existed, where rivers flow and where children used to play.

We all wonder what will happen to the ecosystem: the fish and wildlife. The human life. How far reaching is this event? What does the future hold for the public health and safety? Overnight a whole community's lifestyle is gone.

It is bad enough that TVA mismanaged this 50+ year old waste pile of coal ash. But to put salt in the wounds of its neighbors by failing to provide critically important answers and aid is incomprehensible. TVA should have mobilized hundreds of medical experts to go to peoples' homes and answer their questions. They need to be honest and transparent about their knowledge of the make-up of the sludge, what they plan to do with it and how they intend to return life to what it used to be, if that is even possible. TVA should have a hotline that is manned sufficiently so that no one is ever put on hold or, worse yet, not answered at all. The residents of this community deserve to be treated with honesty and respect, and that is not happening. Even local elected officials are letting residents down, spending their time telling residents not to work with attorneys instead of camping outside TVA's doors demanding honest and fast answers to critically important health questions. As you know, we work on the legal side. While we cannot fully appreciate the pain and fear of those who are living the fall out of this disaster on a daily basis, we saw and heard enough to understand that our presence and our voice is critically important to ensure that this community is treated fairly and provided the truth about the present situation and their future. We will continue to aid this community as it struggles through the haze that TVA has created and continues to fuel.

So many questions come to mind but there aren't any answers. My motto has become "Prevention rather than Rescue."

Hindsight always shows how these tragedies could have been prevented. If history teaches us anything, it shows us that yesterday is our "crystal ball." In the now famous case, Pacific Gas and Electric knew that their contamination was affecting innocent people yet did nothing but try to convince people that the poison was good for them.

If TVA knew of leaks years before this disaster and sat and waited, is "oops" we're sorry" going to be enough?

The infrastructure handling coal fly ash in the U.S. is old and needs to be replaced. Can we worry about the cost of replacing the old with the new when health and safety and the environment depends on it? We can see that contamination moves through air, land and water. Can we sit back and wait for communities to get sick when we can prevent it now?

Science usually lags behind the law. But in this case, law lags behind science because coal fly ash handling is not regulated as it should be. And we have a pretty good grasp on the fact that Coal Fly Ash is not healthy.

A poison is a poison. It certainly can't be good for you. Does anyone believe that the arsenic in the fly ash along with other heavy metals won't leech into the groundwater? 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic compounds unleashed into the garden. We don't need a crystal ball to see the rough road ahead.

We All Live in Clint Eastwood's America

We All Live in Clint Eastwood's America

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For a man of few words, with a persona known for shooting first and asking questions later, Clint Eastwood is a powerful vox populi.

Eastwood, who made his name playing the man with no name, has proven to be a keen analyst of the mood of the American public.

More than 30 years ago, in the early 1970s, Eastwood saw that Americans had grown disaffected with and disconnected from the nation's laws and institutions. Government was talked about as the problem, not the solution. The violence and crime in the streets and the civic government's seeming inability to address big problems and make things work alienated both right and left. President Richard M. Nixon was heralding his law and order efforts but in foreign policy and domestic affairs, from Vietnam to what became Watergate, the system seemed bankrupt.

In response to the public distress, like an overarching national id, police Lt. Harry Callahan appeared with the release of Dirty Harry in 1971. As played by Eastwood, Callahan is one cop who will do what it takes to catch the bad guy -- even if it means breaking the law. Another film had already used the baiting line, Make my day, when a cop dares a thug to make a move -- but Eastwood turned the sentiment into a national catchphrase. Callahan is a tough guy who can achieve justice and get things done because he lives by the true law -- a code of honor.

With Gran Torino, Eastwood is now following a different code -- 180 degrees different. But it is winning the same public success -- the movie opened wide to No. 1 this weekend.

In this movie Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a tough, relentless ex-Marine who, when faced with grave injustice, looks to the rule of law to save the day.

Once again, Eastwood has crystallized the nation's mood.

The American public seems to have little taste for frontier justice right now -- and little interest in people taking the law into their own hands. This is the sort of thing that led to a quagmire in Iraq and financial meltdown on Wall Street. It led to the White House approving rendition and torture -- now called "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- and warrantless wiretaps. It led to banks lending recklessly and fiscal leveraging cantilevered out over the abyss. It led to an executive branch that insists it holds all government power and a vice presidential office that is somehow apart from any government regulations. The rule of law has been sadly absent as Washington stomped on allies abroad and sloughed off regulation at home.

But the country clearly seems fed up with this. For most of last year, polls showed that 79 percent of the nation just wanted the Bush administration gone. Consider, a constitutional law professor was elected president.

Confronting an economic crisis that bears all too many similarities to the Great Depression, the nation is now looking to both the government and the rule of law to help them over some very rough ground. The problem, it turns out, was not too much government but not enough.

This is a paradigm shift for America. And, since a movie generally takes about nine months to make -- even at the most accelerated production schedule -- Eastwood clearly read this stunning change even as public opinion was forming.

The Bush administration, as events rolled out over the last eight years, has regularly said, "Who could have seen this coming?" Well, for one, Clint Eastwood did.

Carbon monoxide deaths on the rise as economy sours

Carbon monoxide deaths on the rise as economy sours

By Ed Hightower

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With each passing week, the global economic slump brings news of further deterioration in the conditions of the working class. From foreclosures and layoffs to declining pensions, workers face increasing difficulty, even as the ruling elite prepares more handouts for large corporations and the wealthy.

One stark indicator of just how much the working class is pushed to the limit was indicated in a January 6 report from MSNBC.com. The report shows that increasing numbers of American families, facing utility shutoffs and winter storms, are heating their homes by dangerous means with deadly results.

The cutoff of electric and/or gas service subjects affected households, particularly in the cold winter months, to the danger of house fires. But these families are also threatened with illness and potential death by a silent killer—poisonous carbon monoxide gas.

Carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in US, with more than 20,000 people hospitalized and nearly 500 killed each year. The Centers for Disease Control reports that cases of carbon monoxide poisoning have been on the rise in recent years, climbing 36 percent between 2001 and 2006. This year’s steep spike in utility shutoffs threatens to increase these tragic figures.

Mark Wolfe, the director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (NEADA), stated that in recent years 2 to 3 percent of residential energy consumers have their power disconnected. This year, it is between 7 and 8 percent. Underscoring the rapid downward spiral of the economy, he added, “Families that were middle class last week are not middle class anymore.”

More-economically depressed areas exhibit a higher frequency of utility shutoffs and associated misery. In October, the Detroit area saw a 20 percent increase in shutoffs compared to the same month in 2007. At least 14,000 energy customers in the Detroit Metro area have had their power shut off this season.

With their main source of heat abruptly disconnected, families struggle to keep warm by employing various other sources of heat, such as kerosene heaters, gas generators and improperly maintained wood stoves and fireplaces. Such heat sources carry a heavy risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, which occurs when this byproduct of combustion accumulates in an enclosed space.

Carbon monoxide (CO) more readily binds to the hemoglobin molecules in red blood cells than does oxygen (O2). As the odorless, invisible gas accumulates, it progressively blocks oxygen from being taken up and circulated throughout the body. Early symptoms include headache, dizziness and nausea. Carbon monoxide can quickly lead to unconsciousness, organ failure and death. It typically kills 110 Americans per day in December, 96 in January, and 76 in February.

By all indications, carbon monoxide deaths will increase this winter. A recent survey by NEADA of more than 1,200 low-income families found that almost 50 percent could not pay their entire energy bill and nearly 40 percent had already received a notice of disconnection.

A survey by the American Red Cross and the National Fire Prevention Association found that almost 80 percent of respondents worried that they would not be able to afford their heating bills this winter.

Local headlines reflect these findings. In Minneapolis, two men and a 13-year-old boy died from carbon monoxide poisoning in October when they used a gas-powered generator in their basement after their power was shut off. A mother and two teens in Paramount, California, suffered carbon monoxide poisoning in November when they heated their home with a charcoal grill.

In spite of its own reporting, the MSNBC.com article concludes that the increase in carbon monoxide poisoning is largely a question of awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide. If people only knew that certain measures to keep warm were dangerous, the problem would resolve itself. This only begs the question, as to why people resort to such desperate measures to stay warm in the first place.

The lack of public awareness about the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning is, in fact, a barometer of the primitive level of public safety, in which there is no federally sponsored program to either alert the population to the risks, or provide carbon monoxide alarms to households. As it is, cash-strapped local fire departments and other agencies are some of the only resources for informing the public.

It is, of course, a question of economic priorities. If working people could afford to heat their homes in a safe manner, they surely would. The fact that in the twenty-first century, people face death from hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning due to their inability to pay their utility bills serves as one more indictment of the profit system, and of the utility companies in particular.

Obama signals continuity with US torture regime

Obama signals continuity with US torture regime

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The election of Democrat Barack Obama as president of the United States was driven in large measure by the disgust of broad sections of the American people with the criminal policies carried out in the name of the Bush administration’s “global war on terrorism.” These policies found their most odious expression in the torture and detention without charges of thousands of individuals at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and CIA “black sites” scattered around the world.

One of the pledges that Obama made repeatedly on the campaign trail, something that was supposed to symbolize a break with the past, was that he would close the Guantanamo prison within the first 100 days of his presidency.

Yet, with barely a week to go before he is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, Obama has even backed off of that pledge, while giving broad indications that his overall national security policy will have far more to do with continuity than with the much promised “change” of his election campaign.

Obama hedged on his Guantanamo pledge in a televised interview Sunday on the ABC News show “This Week.” The interview coincided with the seventh anniversary of the opening of the US penal facility, when the first contingent of prisoners—tortured, drugged, manacled and dressed in orange jump suits—was flown from Afghanistan to Cuba.

On Tuesday, the International Herald Tribune reported that Obama transition officials had said Monday that Obama would issue an executive order on his first full day in office ordering the closing of the camp, but indicated it would take many months, “perhaps as long as a year,” to actually remove the remaining detainees and shut the prison.

At the outset of the ABC News interview Obama was asked about the ongoing massacre of the Palestinian population in Gaza. The program’s host, George Stephanopoulos, played a clip of the then-Democratic presidential candidate’s statement in Israel during the election campaign, in which he told an Israeli audience, “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.” The statement has been cited repeatedly by Israeli officials as a justification of the one-sided slaughter that has killed or wounded some 5,000 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians.

Asked if he would repeat the same statement today, given the subsequent carnage, Obama answered in the affirmative. “I think that's a basic principle of any country—is that they've got to protect their citizens.” He likewise signaled that his Mideast policy would be in continuity with that of the Clinton and Bush administrations, which has played a major role in creating the current catastrophe.

On the question of Iran, he insisted that his administration would pursue a policy of “engagement,” but then went on to repeat unsubstantiated claims that the Iranian regime is “exporting terrorism through Hamas, through Hezbollah” and “pursuing a nuclear weapon” —a charge that the most recent US National Intelligence Estimate rejected. The implication was that an Obama administration would go through the diplomatic motions in order to better prepare a new US war of aggression.

Much of the interview centered on a statement made earlier by outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney, a principal architect of the US policies of torture, extraordinary rendition and aggressive war. Cheney cautioned Obama not to “implement your campaign rhetoric,” but rather to “find out precisely what it is we did and how we did it,” which he said would be vital to “keeping the nation safe and secure.”

Asked for his reaction, Obama responded, “I think it’s pretty good advice.”

He went on to distance himself from Cheney, insisting that waterboarding constituted torture. However, Cheney’s own admission that he helped implement the use of waterboarding, making the former vice-president by definition a torturer, did not diminish Obama’s tone of deference and cordiality towards Cheney and his advice.

Obama went on to affirm his belief that interrogation techniques must abide by the “rule of law, our Constitution and international standards.” However, when asked whether this meant an end to the CIA’s “special program” in which “enhanced interrogation techniques”, i.e., torture, have been utilized, Obama quickly retreated. He said, “I’m not going to lay out a particular program because, again, I thought that Dick Cheney’s advice was good, which is let’s make sure we know everything that’s being done.”

On the proposal to close down Guantanamo, Obama insisted, “It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize.” The problem, he asserted, was that the hundreds who remain imprisoned there include some who “may be very dangerous who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication. And some of the evidence against them may be tainted even though it’s true.”

The solution to this problem, he indicated, involves “creating a process.” He added, “Our legal teams are working in consultation with our national security apparatus as we speak to help design exactly what we need to do.”

According to most accounts, what the president-elect is talking about is creating some kind of new “national security court” in which “tainted evidence—including confessions extracted through torture—may be used either to try and convict defendants or to continue detaining them without trial, and in which evidence and proceedings can be kept secret.

Such remedies are being advocated as an alternative to swiftly closing down a facility that is seen all over the world as the hallmark of state criminality and either releasing or bringing to trial before a normal court of law those held there. What Obama is suggesting would enshrine in US law the torture regime developed under the Bush administration and create a pseudo-legal framework for further expanding the police-state apparatus of the US government.

Stephanopoulos then asked Obama to reply to the most popular question posted on the president-elect’s web site, change.gov, inquiring whether he would appoint a special prosecutor to “investigate the greatest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping.”

Obama made it clear that he has no intention of holding accountable those responsible for the political and international crimes carried out over the past eight years.

While affirming the general principle that no one is “above the law,” Obama stressed, “I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” He likewise voiced his concern that any serious investigation would ignite a furor within the US intelligence apparatus, insisting that he did not want the “extraordinarily talented people” at the CIA to “feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering.”

As recently as last April, during the election campaign, Obama declared that he would ask his attorney general to “immediately review” evidence of crimes by the Bush administration. Yet, in his interview Sunday, he said that his nominee for the post, Eric Holder, would be “making some calls,” but reiterated, “my general belief is that when it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed looking at what we got wrong in the past.”

Even in response to whether a toothless coverup like the 9/11 Commission might be mounted by the new administration, Obama responded, “My orientation’s going to be to move forward.”

Given this commitment to granting what amounts to immunity to top officials in the Bush administration, including Bush and Cheney, as well as the intelligence apparatus, Obama’s formal renunciation of torture is as hollow and cynical as Bush’s own repeated assertion that, “The United States does not torture.” It did, it does, and it undoubtedly will continue to do so under an Obama administration.

Under the Geneva Conventions, those responsible for torture, including top political officials, must be prosecuted. Obama’s commitment to what amounts to an amnesty on this question makes him complicit.

All the rhetoric about “moving forward” cannot hide the fact that the incoming administration is determined to cover up these crimes because they were supported not merely by the Bush administration and the Republicans, but by the Democrats as well. Any genuine probe of the torture and detention policies of the last several years would inevitably implicate Democratic congressional leaders who were briefed and signed off on these criminal practices.

Obama’s “moderation” and “non-partisan” approach have won praise from the political right and the establishment media.

The latest issue of Newsweek magazine carries a cover story headlined: “What Would Dick Do? Why Obama May Soon Find Virtue in Cheney’s Vision of Power.”

“Obama, who has been receiving intelligence briefings for weeks, is unlikely to wildly overcorrect for the Bush administration’s abuses,” the Newsweek story states.

The president-elect’s performance on “This Week” elicited a column dripping with cynical satisfaction by William Kristol in the New York Times. Kristol, among the most prominent ideologues of the neo-conservative right, titled his piece “Continuity We Can Believe In.”

Kristol began by noting Obama’s announcement that he had narrowed his search for a White House dog to two “no-drama” breeds, adding, “And he seems to be going for the no-dramatic-change-in-the-White-House alternative as well.”

The tongue-in-cheek presentation barely concealed an unflattering analogy. Obama, marketed to the American electorate as the “candidate of change,” is emerging ever more openly as the lap dog of the same ruling elites that pursued their interests through the Bush administration before him.

Inevitably, to serve these economic, social and political interests, an Obama administration will incorporate much of the same criminal methods that were employed by its predecessor. It is for this reason that even the largely symbolic task of shutting down the US prison at Guantanamo has suddenly become very complicated.

Expert calling it a U.S. depression

Expert calling it a U.S. depression

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The U.S. economy is in a depression, a University of Maryland economics professor contends.

Professor Peter Morici, a former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission, said the American economy is in a worse condition than a recession, Kiplinger reported in its January issue.

Among other factors, Morici noted 2.6 million payroll jobs have been lost since December 2007, the dollar is falling value and the nation has a big trade deficit with China.

"The economy contracted at about a 5 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter. This looks worse than a recession to me," he said.

Morici said President-elect Barack Obama has clear economic challenges before him when he takes office this month.

"The economy will not recover without fundamental changes in banking and trade policy. A large stimulus package, though necessary, will only give the economy a temporary lift," he said. "The economy is in a depression, not a recession."

Among the other issues facing the former Illinois senator is energy production, he said.

"Politically correct promises to create millions of new jobs producing alternative fuels makes effective presidential campaign slogans, but realistic policies for governing require aggressive development of more conventional oil and gas, as well as non-conventional energy sources." he said.

U.S. Spending on Nuclear Weapons Exceeds $52 Billion

U.S. Spending on Nuclear Weapons Exceeds $52 Billion

By Federation of American Scientists

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Most U.S. Government spending on nuclear weapons-related programs is unclassified. But it is functionally secret since such spending is widely dispersed across many programs in several agencies and it is not formally tracked or reported.

A new study prepared for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace estimated that the cost of U.S. nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs exceeded $52 billion last year.

“That’s a floor, not a ceiling,” said Stephen I. Schwartz, who led the study with Deepti Choubey. The estimate does not include the costs of classified nuclear weapons programs or nuclear-related intelligence programs, among other limiting factors.

The $52 billion figure far exceeds the total annual budget for international diplomacy and foreign assistance ($39.5 billion) and comprises roughly 10% of all national defense spending.

Because nuclear weapons costs are not officially tracked, it has been difficult or impossible to perform “cost-benefit” analyses of nuclear policies or to debate priorities among competing nuclear weapons programs. Yet such priorities naturally emerge, undebated.

Thus, the majority of nuclear weapons spending (55.5%) is allocated towards upgrading, operating and sustaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal. A much smaller fraction (10%) is devoted to controlling the spread of nuclear weapons and technology, the study found.

“The disparity suggests that preserving and enhancing nuclear forces is far more important than preventing nuclear proliferation,” said Mr. Schwartz.

The authors urge that a formal accounting of nuclear weapons spending be conducted by the government and reported to Congress and the public in order to provide greater clarity. And they recommend that an increased fraction of nuclear security spending be directed towards preventing nuclear proliferation.

The full report and the underlying data are available from the Carnegie Endowment. See “Nuclear Security Spending: Assessing Costs, Examining Priorities,” by Stephen I. Schwartz with Deepti Choubey, January 2009.

Secret Documents Show US Aware of Army Killings in 1990s

Secret Documents Show US Aware of Army Killings in 1990s

By Constanza Vieira

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Declassified U.S. documents show that the CIA and former U.S. ambassadors were fully aware, as far back as 1990, that the military in Colombia -- the third largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel and Egypt -- were committing extrajudicial killings as part of "death squad tactics."

They also knew that senior Colombian officers encouraged a "body count" mentality to demonstrate progress in the fight against left-wing guerrillas. In an undetermined number of cases, the bodies presented as casualties in the counterinsurgency war were actually civilians who had nothing to do with the country’s decades-old armed conflict.

Since at least 1990, U.S. diplomats were reporting a connection between the Colombian security forces and far-right drug-running paramilitary groups, according to the Washington-based National Security Archive (NSA).

In the meantime, the U.S. State Department continued to regularly certify Colombia’s human rights record and to heavily finance its "war on drugs."

The declassified documents were published Jan. 7 by the NSA, a non-governmental research and archival institution located at the George Washington University that collects, archives and publishes declassified U.S. government documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

NSA’s Colombia Project identifies and secures the release of documents from secret government archives on U.S. policy in Colombia regarding issues like security assistance, human rights, impunity and counternarcotics programmes.

"These records shed light on a policy -- recently examined in a still-undisclosed Colombian Army report -- that influenced the behaviour of Colombian military officers for years, leading to extrajudicial executions and collaboration with paramilitary drug traffickers," says the NSA report released last week.

The secret army report mentioned by the NSA led in late 2008 to the dismissal of 30 army officers and the resignation of Gen. Mario Montoya, the Colombian army chief who long "promoted the idea of using body counts to measure progress against the guerrillas," writes the author of the NSA report, Michael Evans.

In one of the declassified documents obtained by the NSA, then U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette complained in 1994 about the "body count mentalities" among Colombian army officers seeking to climb through the ranks.

"Field officers who cannot show track records of aggressive anti-guerrilla activity (wherein the majority of the military’s human rights abuses occur) disadvantage themselves at promotion time," said Frechette.

Evans, director of the NSA Colombia Project, states in his report that "the documents raise important questions about the historical and legal responsibilities the Army has to come clean about what appears to be a longstanding, institutional incentive to commit murder."

"But the manner in which the investigation was conducted -- in absolute secrecy and with little or no legal consequences for those implicated -- raises a number of important questions," says Evans, who asks "when, if ever, will the Colombian Army divulge the contents of its internal report?"

The question of extrajudicial killings by the army made the international headlines and drew the attention of the United Nations after a scandal broke out in the Colombian media in September 2008 over the bodies of young men reported by the armed forces as dead guerrillas or paramilitaries.

It turned out that the men had gone missing from their homes in slum neighbourhoods on the southside of Bogotá and that their corpses had turned up two or three days later in morgues hundreds of kilometres away.

Since then, scores of cases of "body count" killings by the army, also known as "false positives," have emerged.

Although the government expressed shock and indignation, evidence soon began to emerge of a pattern that dated back years.

As defence minister under current President Álvaro Uribe, Camilo Ospina, who is now Colombia’s ambassador to the Organisation of American States (OAS), signed a 15-page secret ministerial directive in 2005 that provided for rewards for the capture or killing of leaders of illegal armed groups, for military information and war materiel, and for successful counterdrug actions.

According to the W Radio station, which reported on the secret directive in late October, it could have encouraged extrajudicial killings under a new system, which may include "a mafia of bounty-hunters allied with members of the military."

But in the view of Iván Cepeda, spokesman for the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), "this is not about an infiltration of organised crime in the armed forces, nor about people who have broken the law. As the NSA report shows, this is an institutional practice that has been followed for decades."

The Defence Ministry directive encouraged the phenomenon by creating a system of incentives that rewards "results" in the form of battlefield casualties, "discounting accepted methods and controls and the observance of human rights and international humanitarian law," he said.

Cepeda also maintained that the activities of far-right death squads and the army’s "body count" killings were connected, and that the military used the paramilitaries to show results.

"The paramilitaries delivered to the army the bodies of people who were supposed members of the guerrillas but who were actually people selectively killed by those (paramilitary) groups," he told IPS.

When the killings became more and more widespread, the armed forces themselves asked the paramilitaries to hide the remains, to keep the country’s homicide rate from soaring any further, paramilitaries who took part in a demobilisation process negotiated with the right-wing Uribe administration have confessed.

The declassified documents demonstrate "that the U.S. military as well as U.S. diplomats and governments have taken a complacent stance towards this kind of practice," said Cepeda.

The declassified records are in line with the results of "Colombia nunca más" (Colombia never again), a monumental effort to document human rights abuses carried out by 17 organisations since 1995.

"’Colombia nunca más’ has created a databank on 45,000 (human rights) violations, including around 25,000 extrajudicial executions and 10,000 forced disappearances, committed between 1966 and 1998," said Cepeda. Colombia’s two insurgent groups emerged in 1964 and the paramilitaries in 1982, although the latter launched a lethal offensive beginning in 1997.

Cepeda told IPS that in the next few months, MOVICE would begin to organise the families of victims of extrajudicial killings, which would culminate in a national meeting to discuss "what routes of documenting the truth and obtaining justice can be followed in an organised manner by the families of the victims of this practice."

The earliest of the declassified documents obtained by the NSA is a 1990 cable signed by then U.S. Ambassador Thomas McNamara, addressed to the State Department and copied to the Defence Department, the U.S. army Southern Command, and the U.S. embassies in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

The cable, whose subject line reads "human rights in Colombia -- widespread allegations of abuses by the army," cites reports that an army major "personally directed the torture of 11 detainees and their subsequent execution…carried out by cutting of the limbs and heads of the still living victims with a chain saw."

Referring to the connection between army officers and the paramilitaries, the ambassador stated that many "officers continue to discount virtually all allegations of military abuses as part of a leftist inspired plot to discredit the military as an institution."

In addition, the cable mentions "strong evidence linking members of the army and police to a number of disappearances and murders which took place earlier this year in Trujillo, Valle de Cauca department."

McNamara also mentioned "an apparent June 7 incident of extra-judicial executions."

"The military reported to the press that, on that date, it killed 9 guerrillas in combat in El Ramal, Santander department. The investigation by Instruccion Criminal and the Procuraduria (legal authorities) strongly suggests, however, that the nine were executed by the army and then dressed in military fatigues. A military judge who arrived on the scene apparently realised that there were no bullet holes in the military uniforms to match the wounds in the victims’ bodies, and ordered the uniforms burned," said the ambassador.

As sources told the ambassador, "all of the victims were part of the same family, and one of them, said by the army to have been a guerrilla, was 87 years old."

More Americans getting multiple chronic illnesses

More Americans getting multiple chronic illnesses

By Will Dunham

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More Americans are burdened by chronic illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure, often having more than three at a time, and this has helped fuel a big rise in out-of-pocket medical expenses, a study released on Tuesday showed.

With prescription drugs playing a key role, average annual out-of-pocket medical costs -- those not covered by health insurance -- rose from $427 per American in 1996 to $741 in 2005, researchers wrote in the journal Health Affairs.

Adjusting for inflation, that translated to 39 percent more in out-of-pocket spending per person over that time, according to Kathryn Paez of Maryland-based health research organization Social & Scientific Systems Inc. and colleagues.

The figures were much higher among the elderly. For example, a person insured through the Medicare program for those 65 and older who had three or more chronic conditions paid an average of $2,588 of out-of-pocket medical expenses.

A separate report published in the journal on Tuesday showed U.S. health care spending rose to $2.2 trillion in 2007, or $7,421 per person.

Based on government survey data, 44 percent of Americans in 2005 had at least one chronic medical condition, which could include diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, cancer, arthritis, heart failure and others. That compares to 41 percent in 1996.

The study did not look directly at the causes of the increases, but there appear to be several factors.

The rise in Americans with multiple chronic illnesses comes as obesity and sedentary lifestyles have grown more common. Obesity contributes to many chronic ailments including diabetes. U.S. health officials say the rate of new cases of diabetes soared by about 90 percent in the past decade.


But the percentage of Americans with three or more chronic illnesses rose even more sharply.

It jumped from 13 percent in 1996 to 22 percent in 2005 for ages 45 to 64, to 45 percent for ages 65 to 79, and rose from 38 percent to 54 percent for those 80 and older. Among all ages, it went from 7 percent in 1996 to 13 percent in 2005.

"The burden of chronic conditions is becoming heavier. People who already have chronic conditions no longer just have one. Now they might have three," Paez said in a telephone interview.

Chronic disease accounts for three-fourths of the more than $2 trillion spent on health care yearly in the United States.

The chronic disease increase was seen not just among the very oldest age groups but also in middle age and early old age -- regardless of sex, race, ethnicity and income level.

President-elect Barack Obama takes office on January 20 with plans to try to tackle the rising costs of the U.S. health care system, the world's most expensive. This study suggests that growing amounts of chronic illness may complicate his efforts.

The increase in out-of-pocket medical expenses reflects not only more chronic illness, but likely other factors as well, including worrisome levels of people with no medical insurance as well as reduced coverage from some employers, Paez said.

The higher costs may make it harder for some people to pay for needed medications -- and they may not stay on them or skip doses, worsening their medical problems, Paez added.

The findings were based on nationally representative surveys of about 32,000 people in 2005 and 22,000 people in 1996.

Another Bush Legacy: 84 Percent More Unemployed

Another Bush Legacy: 84 Percent More Unemployed

By Isaiah J. Poole

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Let history be clear on one point when it comes to Bush's mismanagement of the economy: Since January 2001, the month George W. Bush took office, the number of unemployed people has increased more than 84 percent.

That statistic is based on seasonally-adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics [1] released today. While most of today's economic focus is on the direct impact of the economic downturn on employment[2], it is equally important to keep the long view in mind, for in the long view is the evidence that conservative economic approaches to creating jobs have utterly failed and their proponents are thoroughly discredited.

When President Bush took office, the unemployment rate was 4.2 percent and the ranks of the unemployed stood at just over 6 million. As it turns out, the nation would never again see unemployment that low during the entire Bush term. Today, the unemployment rate is 7.2 percent and there are 11.1 million people unemployed.

Also noteworthy is the employment-to-population ratio. When Bush took office, that ratio was 64.4 percent. It would never see that level again. It went down through his presidency to today's 61 percent. That's through all of the business and high-income tax cuts that Bush and conservatives said would create jobs.

Economic Policy Institute economist Heidi Shierholz today noted that "the end of 2008 saw the fastest rate of job loss since the first quarter 1975.” And EPI president Lawrence Mishel says in our podcast [3] (left) that the first-year rise in unemployment in this recession, which officially began in December 2007, exceeds all but one of the recessions of the last 38 years and more than unemployment rose in total in the 1990s and early 2000s recessions. Unless there is a dramatic policy intervention, Mishel warns, we will see unemployment exceeding 10 percent by the end of 2009 or early 2010. For African Americans, the unemployment rate could top 18 percent. Already, Mishel points out, underemployment—those who are working part-time when they want to work full-time—is running about 13.5 percent.

Since Bush took office, there has been what columnist Marie Cocco describes [4] as "an extravagant orgy of tax-cutting": $1.35 trillion over 10 years in 2001, $350 billion in 2003, $146 billion in 2004 and $142 billion in 2006. And yet, despite the utter failure of supply-side economics to yield the level of job growth that would have blunted this recession, the right won't let the tax-cut mantra go. Today, Lawrence Kudlow complains [5] that President-elect Barack Obama's stimulus plan is "not reducing marginal tax rates on large and small businesses or individuals." Michael Reagan grouses [6] that this is a time when it is "essential for out-of-control government spending to be halted and drastically cut back" and chides Obama, along with right-wing members of Congress, for rejecting "the tried-and-true approaches to economic stability."

Tried and true? More like tried and calamitous. The results are as plain as the state unemployment offices that can't handle the flow of new claims [7]. Yet, the conservative counterargument continues to be reflexive opposition to government and uncritical worship of corporate tax cuts. What's clear is that the people who comprise the 84 percent increase in the number of unemployed under Bush's watch need a new direction.

History Cannot Save Bush

Bush is a nice guy but he flubbed 9/11 twice


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As he leaves office, President Bush is passing on to his successor two wars and a growing economic debacle. What a way to go!

Because of Bush's policies, the U.S. also is complicit in the Israeli attack on the Palestinians on the Gaza Strip by providing a "made-in-America" high-tech arsenal for the assault and blocking a ceasefire for nearly two weeks, a move intended to help the Israelis consolidate their hold.

Not to worry, Bush says he isn't concerned about how history will view his militant eight years in the White House, telling ABC News that he "won't be around to read it."

Well, they say that journalism is the first draft of history. So I am going to predict that those future historians will not deal kindly with the Bush presidency.

It's true -- as Bush and company point at their proudest achievement-- there have been no new terrorist attacks on the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001.

But they fail to acknowledge administration mistakes before and after that fateful day, starting with the fact that White House and security officials ignored significant early warnings of an imminent strike against the U.S.

The second half of the double 9/11 mistake was the trampling of our constitutional system and American values by the administration's infamous torture policies, illegal interrogation practices, including water boarding (simulated drowning), secret prisons abroad and U.S. run jails at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. Post- 9/11 Bush strategy also nurtured a climate of fear that enabled the self-styled "decider" to lead the country into a senseless war against Iraq, a calamity still underway as he leaves office almost six years after the invasion.

Add the administration's pathetic response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and you have basis to dub Bush's eight White House years as the "Bush error."

He was to be the great "unifier" but instead he became a great polarizer.

While he remained stubbornly steadfast to his core social convictions, he did a 180-degree turn when it came to the role of government in the economy when he bailed out the collapsed giants of Wall Street.

He told CNN: "I've abandoned free market principles to save the free market systems." So much for all the anti-government rant of Republican conservatives.

After the 9/11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney and then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice drummed up the fiction that Iraq was linked to the al Qaida attacks and sold that fable to a naive Congress and jittery American people. During the first crisis meeting after the 9/11 attack, neo-con advisor Paul Wolfowitz, said: "Let's bomb Iraq."

There were no Iraqis involved in the attack and no evidence that Saddam Hussein had any role in planning or executing it.

Other falsehoods that these officials peddled included the tale that Iraq's Saddam Hussein had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Cheney told his Sunday television audiences, "We know where they are."

Official inspectors found none. The non-existent weapons were used to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Bush is not about to admit that his costly inhumane attack on Iraq was a mistake. How could he tell grieving families of more than 4,000 American service members that their loved ones had died because of his error?

In addition to the flawed decision to attack Iraq, Bush and Co. used the aftermath of 9/11 to take wholesale swipes at our civil liberties, including warrantless wiretapping.

So those future historians will have a clear view of the 43rd president as they look back on the early years of the 21st century.

A list of Bush's accomplishments also should include his efforts to pay more money and political support into helping victims of AIDS and malaria in Africa. And he is proud of his controversial program "No Child Left Behind" to upgrade public school students by imposing national standards on an education system that had none.

Those future historians should also take note that Bush was hailed for his "likeability" when he came into office and was dubbed the guy you would like to share a beer with.

However, a CNN poll last year suggested that Bush had become the most unpopular president in modern American history. That CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey indicated that 71 percent of the American public disapproved of how Bush was handling his job as president.

Bush must have a sense of relief in giving up the presidential burdens.

He is confident that those future historians will vindicate him and his presidency.

But no one is expecting him to wind up on Mount Rushmore.

Now I Understand Why They Hate Us

Now I Understand Why They Hate Us

By David Hilfiker

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Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, many American voices raised the question, "Why do they hate us?" The "they," in this case, was Muslim fundamentalists, but the same question could have been asked of South American peasants, of the people of Iraq or Iran, of the poor of India or Indonesia, or, indeed, of the poor anywhere.

In fact, "they" don't only hate us; the feelings of people around the world toward the United States are a complex mixture of positive and negative. On the one hand, for instance, much of the rest of the world is excited by the election of Barack Obama. Almost six years ago, visiting Iraq just before the American invasion, I listened to Iraqis who professed their admiration for much of America and how American democracy has been a "beacon" to the rest of the world. On the other hand, those same Iraqis felt betrayed by the United States that would attack a country that did not threaten it. And by 2008, multiple polls of people around the world revealed a deep anger toward our country: Clear majorities believe us to be the "greatest danger to world peace." My own coming to understand why they hate us has been a painful process, but one I consider important to share with any American who still does not understand.

My Own Conditioning: The City Upon a Hill

I grew up in the 1950s. Americans were still celebrating our critical role in defeating Germany and Japan and, we thought, protecting the world from fascism. Our economy was as big as the combined economies of the rest of the world put together, and we had used some of that economic power through the Marshall Plan to successfully rebuild the economies of war-shattered Europe. We were the rising empire, and we saw ourselves as the world's savior. It seemed to us (middle-class whites) a time of prosperity and suburbanization, an era of magnanimity and cooperation, a period of confidence that our national path would be continuously upward. I remember predictions that our increasing economic productivity would enable us to halve the work week within a generation while still raising our standard of living.

As a society, however, we generally chose not to see the more ominous realities. Few of us reflected upon the wanton destruction of innocent life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The CIA-instigated overthrow of democratically elected leaders in Iran, Guatemala and elsewhere and, a little later, the assassination attempts on Fidel Castro were only outlandish rumors (that only "the paranoid" believed). The white majority could still ignore segregation. I did not find out about the bizarre, anti-communist antics of Sen. Joe McCarthy until I was in college, a decade later.

Little of our dark side entered my consciousness in the 1950s and early 1960s. Rather, I grew up with the unarticulated sense that our nation was nearing the perfect society; we were "almost there," not so distant from the Kingdom of God. In Puritan Christian terminology, we were the "city upon a hill," "the light of the world" that should not be hidden. God had blessed us; we saw ourselves as exceptional people and exceptionally righteous. In 1963, I hitchhiked from London through Europe to Finland to visit my future wife, and I do not remember feeling surprised that the American flag on my luggage made it easier to get rides. Of course foreigners loved Americans; who wouldn't?

Paradoxically, even the moral and political disaster of the Vietnam War reinforced my sense that America would continue to move toward its ideal. I came of age during the war and joined in active opposition to it, ultimately refusing induction into the Army. While still in college, I became a speaker for the War Resisters League, touring campuses and lecturing against the war. I learned about some of the disturbing realities of American imperialism in Southeast Asia, of course, but -- again without articulating it to myself -- I judged it a momentary anomaly of, rather than a continuation of, our history.

Not until much later did I make the connections between the killing of 2 million to 3 million Vietnamese (the vast majority innocent civilians) with the genocide of Native Americans or the enslavement of African Americans or the deaths of the half-million Filipino civilians who died following our 1898 attempt to control their country. Rather, I interpreted the strength of our anti-war protests to block the re-election of President Johnson and ultimately force withdrawal from Vietnam as manifestation of the power and hope of American democracy. Despite the fact that a few years later during my second trip to Europe I was better off hitchhiking without the American flag, the Vietnam War and our resistance to it strengthened my faith in our country, its democracy and its inherent goodness.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, I was immersed in medical school and doctoring in a small town in northern Minnesota. The war in Vietnam was over, I was not paying much attention to foreign affairs, and I was completely unaware of American interventions in Central and South America (such as the CIA participation in the overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government in Chile). From my point of view, American society seemed to work pretty well. We were still the city upon a hill.

Inner-City Injustice

In 1983, I moved to Washington, D.C., to practice medicine in a small clinic in an economically devastated African American ghetto. The injustice of inner-city Washington appalled me. The public perception -- then as now -- was that the behavior of the poor was primarily responsible for their poverty, but as I worked in the midst of that devastation, it soon became obvious that the racism and injustice of our society were the primary causes of the poverty, indeed, the primary causes of even the behavior of the impoverished (for instance, poor education or single parenthood) that society held responsible for the poverty. Still confident in the goodness of our society, however, I naively assumed that correcting the misperception required only educating affluent Americans about the real conditions oppressing the poor, so I began lecturing and writing. I discovered, however, that most affluent people were too comfortable to confront truths challenging their beliefs that they had earned their comfort or that the poor were themselves responsible for not earning theirs. I was beginning to understand that we were not the light to the world I had imagined.

The juxtaposition of the personal generosity of many Americans with their unwillingness to recognize the injustice that made their affluence possible was striking. Most people I knew would reach out to an individual poor person in their community with help, but they were unwilling even to acknowledge the structures that caused the poverty in the first place. Why did moral people not recognize the immorality of their society? I recognize the truth of Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara's statement, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." It was not enough to keep oneself morally upright and charitable; one had also to confront the structures that elevated some and oppressed other.

During my first years in Washington in the 1980s, I belonged to a faith community that was actively involved in protesting the U.S. role in Central America. Although I was personally more involved with the injustice in the inner city, the direct participation of trusted friends in Central America offered me a very different view of our government's actions there than was available in the mainstream media. The United States was actively involved in supporting military dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador, providing military aid and equipment to these, and other, repressive governments, and training their military and police officers in brutal tactics, all of which led to the massacres of hundreds of thousands of people. The Reagan administration defied congressional restrictions and funded right-wing attacks on the democratically elected Nicaraguan Sandinista government; it also mined harbors in Nicaragua, an action later denounced by the International Court of Justice. Yet there was very little coverage of any of this in our mainstream media. I watched our government simply stonewall what it was doing, lying to the American people.

I began to sense the connections between the poverty I was experiencing in the inner city of Washington and the devastation caused by American military force around the world. The inner city had itself been militarized with regular use of commandolike SWAT teams and the criminalization of large percentages of the population, especially through the "War on Drugs" that made criminals of addicts, but also through welfare regulations that made criminals of poor families. Both inner-city and foreign devastation were caused by structures that ultimately worked to benefit affluent Americans; both had causes that the American people were not only mostly unaware of but also unwilling to recognize. In neither case did our mainstream media ever give us a clear picture of what was going on, although the truth was in plain sight.

The Iraq Sanctions

But it was the personal confrontation with the economic sanctions imposed by the United States on Iraq that broke through my own reluctance and brought me face-to-face with the evil embedded in American political and military might.

In December 2002, shortly before the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, I visited the country for three weeks, out of a desire as an American to be in solidarity with a people soon to be attacked by my government. I had no particular agenda ahead of time, but I quickly learned about the United Nations economic sanctions that had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children in the preceding 10 years. I also discovered that although these sanctions were officially imposed by the United Nations, they had been sustained entirely at the insistence of the United States. How could my country be responsible for the deaths of so many children?

In August 1990, after a decade of tacit (and sometimes very active) support by the United States, Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait, an action that was universally condemned around the world. In response, under the leadership of the United States government, the United Nations Security Council authorized severe economic sanctions upon Iraq (U.N. Resolution 661) in an effort to force Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait. These were perhaps the most stringent sanctions ever imposed upon a modern nation, so severe that they could only humanely be used as short-term overwhelming pressure to compel withdrawal from Kuwait. It was widely appreciated by experts -- even within our own government -- that any long-term application of this level of economic sanctions would cause lethal civilian consequences, especially for children.

Despite the sanctions, the Iraqi army continued its occupation of Kuwait, so in January 1991, the United States led a coalition of nations in a military attack on Iraqi occupation troops in Kuwait, forcing a hasty retreat. While the military power of the United States and its allies easily overpowered Iraqi forces, the coalition decided for political reasons only to repel the Iraq invasion of Kuwait and attack Iraq by air but not to invade Iraq with ground troops or use military force to remove Saddam completely from power. But during the six-week air war, the Iraqi military had been decimated, including the complete destruction of the air force. The civilian infrastructure of Iraq -- including electrical generation, sanitation and water purification -- had been profoundly damaged.

The Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait fulfilled the stated objective of the U.N. economic sanctions. Nevertheless, the United States government insisted upon continuing the stringent economic sanctions upon Iraq. The intent was to force the people of Iraq to remove Saddam from power, even though it is illegal under international law to punish a population in order to provoke it to overthrow the government. Unfortunately, the original U.N. resolution did not provide for automatic withdrawal of the sanctions upon Saddam's compliance with its requirements to remove his forces from Kuwait; rather, the resolution's language required the passage of a new Security Council resolution to relax or abolish the sanctions. According to Security Council rules, however, any of the five permanent members of the Security Council can veto any new resolution. Over the next 12 years the United States -- sometimes joined by Great Britain -- made clear its objection to any lifting of the sanctions and vetoed periodic attempts by other nations to end them. In other words, although these were technically United Nations sanctions, they continued only because of United States insistence.

Given the previous devastation of Iraqi infrastructure, however, the severity of these sanctions was so extreme that the catastrophic effect on the civilian population (including the deaths of countless civilians) was predictable and inevitable. Indeed, documents obtained later reveal that senior officials within the United States government were well aware of the impact that the sanctions would have upon civilians. Specifically banned by the sanctions, for instance, were replacement parts required to repair the damaged electrical power plants, sanitation infrastructure and water-purification facilities throughout the country. Millions of Iraqis would be drinking contaminated water. The United States maintained these highly lethal sanctions until after the beginning of the Iraq war in May 2003.

While the exact number of casualties is unknown, the United Nations estimated that half a million Iraqi children died between 1991 and 1998 because of the sanctions, most from malnutrition and waterborne disease. Before the 1991 war and the economic sanctions, Iraq had been one of the most advanced countries in the Middle East, with low childhood mortality, high levels of education and relative freedom for women. Although the 1995 U.N. Oil-for-Food Program allowed Iraq to sell some of its oil for food and certain medications, the sanctions remained brutal, preventing repair of the electrical grid or sanitation systems. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, especially children, died; hundreds of thousands more were permanently affected by malnutrition and disease.

As I visited Iraqi families in late 2002, it was not unusual to walk along city ditches filled with sewage in a country that 15 years earlier had been the most modern in the Middle East. I talked with workers at a water-treatment plant. Even when they could jury-rig repairs to the machinery, the intermittent electricity (usually off at least half the day due to the continuing damage to the electrical grid) meant that for those hours there was no pressure in the water pipes -- that paralleled or went right through those sewage ditches -- thus allowing bacteria from the sewage to seep into the pipes. When the power went back on the pipes carried the now-contaminated water to families for drinking.

I also discovered that since 1991, United States air power had patrolled the skies to enforce "no-fly zones" in north and south Iraq, frequently attacking what they believed were military installations, often killing civilians. What was my country doing? How could the reliance on lethal force become such an accepted part of American life that not even the intentional murder of upward of 500,000 children raised any eyebrows? How was this possible?

I returned to the United States in January 2003 as our government was preparing to invade Iraq to realize that few Americans were paying attention to the devastation we had perpetrated in Iraq for the previous 12 years (just as I had not previously paid attention). When I talked with my liberal acquaintances, they were so focused on the Bush administration's aggression that few were willing to consider the bipartisan approval of these sanctions, which were initiated during the George H.W. Bush administration, continued during the Clinton administration, and would only be lifted after we had toppled Saddam's government. Few Americans seemed to care, and the few reports of their deadly effects on Iraqi children were buried in the media and inspired little passion.

But Osama bin Laden and many of the worlds Muslims cared and were impassioned. On Oct. 7, 2001, a few weeks after he unleashed the deadly attacks of 9/11, bin Laden released a video he in which he offered three reasons for his enmity toward the United States; one of them was the Iraq sanctions. "One million Iraqi children have thus far died, although they did not do anything wrong," bin Laden said. Certainly everyone I talked with in Iraq in December 2002 knew why their children were dying; they knew who had blasted their country back into Third World poverty. They knew who was responsible.

A Sense of the Beneficent Amid Pervasive Militarism

I believe that my country has become something different -- almost opposite to -- the country most Americans believe we live in. We see ourselves as benign. We see ourselves as the light of the world. We interpret our actions -- whether military adventures, economic initiatives or cultural exports -- as good and as welcomed by the rest of the world. (In 2005, a majority of Americans believed that most people in the world supported the invasion of Iraq!) We see ourselves as the (perhaps somewhat tarnished) white knight. In other words, we are holding on to a vision that might have had some truth in it right after World War II but that no longer holds true. We see ourselves as a great hope for the rest of the world; others see us as "the greatest danger to world peace."

Although it now shocks me how long it has taken me, how much evidence I previously hid from, only recently have I become conscious of the pervasiveness of American militarism, how it defines who we are and how we are perceived. What do I mean by "militarism?" I mean a general belief within a country that an overpowering military is necessary for national security and a general willingness to spend virtually unlimited funds for that purpose. Militarism means a national conviction that the country must be prepared to use its military power aggressively to maintain its interests. In practical terms, it means that the nation is prepared to turn very quickly toward military solutions to international problems without allowing other measures a real chance to work. The threat of military response becomes ever-present in international conflict and so becomes, at least as far as other countries are concerned, our first response to conflict.

Consider a few examples over the last years: It is militarism that breaks off reasonably successful diplomatic negotiations with North Korea, labeling the country among the "axis of evil" and making take-it-or-leave-it demands not so subtly backed up by our military. It is militarism when the nation refuses to consider internationally coordinated police and intelligence action as a response to al-Qaida's attack on 9/11, but instead insists on invading Afghanistan. It is militarism to refuse to allow the United Nations inspections team to finish its work in Iraq (no weapons of mass destruction had been found) in order to invade in 2003. It is militarism that rebuffs a direct high-level appeal to the Bush administration from Iran (in 2003) to enter into negotiations (in which Iran had suggested trading its nuclear aspirations for a guaranteed non-aggression pact), instead labeling Iran among the "axis of evil" and then leaking repeated threats to invade or bomb military targets.

Since 1941, the United States has been continuously engaged in, or mobilized for, war. That that fact does not seriously disturb or even surprise most of us is a powerful sign of how inured we have become to our nation's militarization. After conflicts prior to World War II, the United States disbanded or sharply reduced its combat forces and military budget when the fighting was over. But instead of reining in our military after World War II, we entered immediately into the Cold War. Even after the demise of the Soviet Union, when there was literally no military threat, our military spending barely hiccuped as we continued our mobilization for war. In addition to the massive expenditures in the Cold War, between the end of World War II and 9/11, the United States conducted approximately 200 overseas military operations in which our forces attacked first. In no case did a democratic government come about as a direct result, although we installed and protected numerous dictators, including the Shah of Iran, Suharto in Indonesia, Batista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua, Pinochet in Chile and Mobutu in Congo/Zaire, not to mention the series of American-backed militarists in South Vietnam and Cambodia. For decades we also ran what can only be called terrorist operations against Cuba and, for a shorter time, in Nicaragua.

As he was leaving office, President Eisenhower famously warned us against the military-industrial complex, in which the extraordinary power of the economic interests that profit from war push us in that direction. But Eisenhower was not the only president to warn us against war. James Madison, the chief author of the Constitution and later a president wrote, "Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it [contains the seed] of every other. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." George Washington cautioned against a standing army for similar reasons.

Evidence of our extraordinary militarism is everywhere. Although the exact number is unknown, the United States has at least 731 (according to Pentagon statistics) -- but more probably close to 1,000 -- foreign military bases around the world in more than 130 countries. Although many of those bases are small, each nevertheless represents American military presence in another country. Why are they there, except to project military power and threat? If one is trying to understand the anger in the rest of the world toward the United States, one place to start is imagining, say, German military bases in your community surrounded by the usual bars and brothels. Young GIs who speak no English nor know American customs speed drunkenly through your community on their time off, and there is the too-frequent assault or rape of young women, most of which go unprosecuted. Then imagine that your community is socially and religiously very conservative and that the base has been there for decades.

In September 2002, the Bush administration published an updated United States National Security Strategy that, for the first time, elaborated the doctrine of "preventive war." According to this policy, the United States will not wait until threats against us are "fully formed" but will act militarily to prevent them from developing. In other words, if the president perceives a growing threat to U.S. national interests, our military will force its removal. This unilateral doctrine directly flouts centuries of international law, which forbid attacks upon a country unless that country has already attacked or attack is "imminent" (such as when an enemy's troops are massed on one's borders). This newly formulated, and clearly illegal, doctrine justified our invasion of Iraq, much as Japan used its doctrine of preventive war to justify the attack on Pearl Harbor when it wanted to prevent what its leaders perceived to be the U.S. military threat in the Pacific from becoming fully formed.


One measure of our extraordinary militarism is the amount of money we spend arming ourselves. Total military expenditures constitute almost $1.5 trillion per year or 54 percent of federal discretionary spending. No other country spends anything remotely similar to this; in fact, the United States spends more than the next highest 16 countries combined. U.S. military spending is currently 47 percent of the world's total.

Militarization in our country has become self-sustaining and now drives our foreign and domestic policies rather than the other way around. The economic interests alone of those who benefit from military spending are staggering. Military contractors have dispersed their operations throughout the country so that virtually every congressperson has military spending in his or her district. In fact, lobbyists do not have to argue the utility of continued spending but only point to the economic importance to the congressperson's district. This is how projects that the Pentagon does not even particularly want end up in the budget. This is the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower so strongly warned against. The political power of the recipients of military spending is overwhelming.

As a writer, I struggle to find the words to express my shock, anger and shame at discovering that my country has been among "the bad guys," responsible for the deaths of millions of innocents in the last half-century, and in the view of most of the world's citizens (according to numerous polls of people in other countries) the greatest threat to world peace. It seems, I suppose, a bit dramatic -- an expression of the hyperpartisan posturing that has characterized politics for the last 15 years -- to express shock, anger and shame at something that has been going on my entire life, right under my nose. But, like the legendary frog that does not notice the water temperature rising in the pot until it is too late, I have been aware of many of the particulars but have not until recently pulled them together into a coherent picture that so massively condemns what we have become.

We Americans have allowed our assumptions that we're the good guys -- that we're acting in the best interests of justice, peace and democracy -- to blind us to the reality of the death and destruction we are responsible for. Even several years after the American invasion of Iraq, when it had become clear that there had been no weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein had never been a threat to us, close, well-meaning friends kept assuring me that "President Bush knows something that he can't tell us." And now that it is clear that the president had no secret information, many are blaming him for the disaster. But Iraq is atypical only in that the thin-to-nonexistent rationale for invasion has been so clearly exposed. But Iraq is no different in kind from dozens of other military and covert actions that we have unilaterally and illegally taken in the last 50 years -- from Vietnam to Nicaragua to Panama to Grenada.

Yes, of course, many of us have been shocked by the foreign policy excesses of the Bush administration -- preventive war, torture, extraordinary rendition, foreign policy unilateralism, and so on -- but these are more the extensions of previous American immorality than new directions. This is my country, but I am ashamed that we allow militarism to so dominate it and ashamed that it has taken me so long to see it clearly.

Arrogation of Power and Subversion of the Constitution

One of the major threats to democracy from this state of permanent war is the inevitable transfer of power from Congress and the judiciary to the president as commander in chief. With the entire military under his command, with the intelligence services under his control, with the political power of the military contractors backing him, the president has in wartime extraordinary power, even if it is only his own fiat that has created "wartime." Ongoing war profoundly endangers the checks and balances of our constitutional system.

It is not only the Bush administration; this subversion of the Constitution has happened during most wartimes. President Lincoln illegally suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. President Franklin D. Roosevelt interned Japanese Americans during World War II. Under Eisenhower, the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran to install the shah. Johnson engineered the Gulf of Tonkin incident to force Congress to authorize the war in Vietnam. President Reagan authorized the illegal Contra war against the government of Nicaragua, even after Congress had expressly prohibited him from doing so. True, the presidential arrogation of power has accelerated under our current president, but it is also a continuation of a long and dangerous trend. (It has also been the trend in many other historical empires just before they collapsed.)

President Bush has declared a "War on Terror." Since the Constitution allows only Congress to declare war, the War on Terror is not a constitutionally legal war, yet the president continues to claim extraordinary powers as commander in chief in "wartime." But how does one know when the War on Terror is over? When there are literally no more terrorists? A president who can define war however he chooses and remain at war as long has he chooses has indefinite dictatorial powers. The militarization of our nation puts us into a state of perpetual war (declared or undeclared), which creates a perpetual transfer of power to the president that makes a mockery of the constitutional balance of powers between the president, Congress and the courts.

When Bush several years ago signed the law (that he had originally opposed) prohibiting torture by U.S. forces, he created a "signing statement" indicating that he would follow the law only if it did not conflict with his understanding of his duties as commander in chief. In other words, he was not bound by the portions of the law he did not like; he was above the law. In reality, signing statements have no standing under the law and are most likely unconstitutional. All recent presidents have occasionally used signing statements, but primarily to clarify for the executive branch of government under him how the law should be interpreted. But under Bush not only have signing statements become routine, they have also been used specifically to nullify parts of the law, further arrogating power to the president. If their use is allowed to stand, they move us significantly toward presidential dictatorial powers.

Citing his authority as commander in chief, Bush several years ago authorized the National Security Administration to wiretap Americans without a warrant from the secret court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. In the history of that FISA court, there had been over 18,000 previous government requests for surveillance warrants; only four had ever been rejected, so it is difficult to understand why the president believed it necessary to break the lawb unless he thought that even the compliant court would not tolerate the kind of surveillance planned.

Chalmers Johnson writes that the inevitable result of our failure to reign in military spending once the Cold War was under way (and then even after it was over) was a continual transfer of powers to the presidency exactly as Madison had predicted, the use of executive secrecy to freeze out Congress and the judiciary, the loss of congressional mastery over the budget, and the rise of two new, extraconstitutional centers of power that are today out of control -- the Department of Defense and the 15 intelligence organizations, the best known of which is the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Bush administration is the most secretive in U.S. history. The 1979 Freedom of Information Act requires all federal departments to provide nonclassified documents to any who request it. But Attorney General John Ashcroft sent out explicit, detailed instructions to all government departments on how to foil the law. The Presidential Records Act was passed after the Watergate conspiracy to keep all presidential papers under public administration once the president left office so scholars could eventually determine what actually went on. But Bush signed an executive order contravening the explicit provisions of the act. The courts have not yet ruled on the constitutionality of his order, but that he believed he needed it is significant.

Our democracy is in danger. Congress has chosen not to challenge the arrogation of presidential power, and the Supreme Court has come perilously close to declaring constitutional the "unitary executive theory" (under which this power as commander in chief has flowed to the president). Despite clear Supreme Court precedent to the contrary, the present Court appears now to be one vote away from giving the president the power he demands.

Unfortunately, the danger is not just one man or one administration that will be swept from office on Jan. 20. No modern president has ever turned down the power given to him. As he has discovered the power of the intelligence agencies under his control, for instance, every modern president has used it. The power of the presidency has grown without interruption since the Great Depression. Unless something is done, the next president -- or the one after that -- will maintain these powers and pass them on. Our democracy is in peril.

Public Acceptance of Brutality

The militarization of our nation has had other profound effects. One has been the increasing public acceptance of brutality on the part of the government. Immediately following 9/11, over a thousand foreigners were rounded up. All details of their cases were kept secret, including their names and the charges, if any, against them. They were simply seized, incarcerated -- mostly in New York prisons -- beaten by guards, and, after a lengthy time in jail, deported, usually for the most minor of offenses. Not one of those arrested turned out to have the slightest connection to the 9/11 attacks.

There was no legal basis for any of this. There was also virtually no indignation expressed by the people of this country. Habeas corpus, the right to be brought before a judge to hear the charges against one to prevent baseless detention, one of the fundamental rights of democracy extending back centuries, had been trampled and very few objected.

Over the past several years, as it has become clear that the Bush administration has not only condoned but also encouraged torture from the highest levels (their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding), there has been some objection from both the right and the left. But there has been no general outrage, no mass demonstrations in the street, no general calls for impeachment. According to polls in May 2004, over 50 percent of Americans believed that the government was employing torture "as a matter of policy," yet Bush was re-elected later in that year.

The United States has signed the Geneva Conventions, which means, according to our Constitution, that those provisions have the force of U.S. law. The Conventions prohibit any kind of violence to civilians. During the "shock and awe" phase of the Iraq war, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his aides planned to try to kill "high-value targets" like Saddam Hussein. "According to the plans, Rumsfeld personally had to sign off on any airstrike thought likely to result in the deaths of more than 30 civilians. The air war commander proposed 50 such raids and Rumsfeld signed the orders for each and every one." We have become so used to the euphemism collateral damage that many are surprised to learn that the term is not recognized or even mentioned in international humanitarian law. Even without the Geneva Conventions, any interpretation of the just-war theory prohibits violence against noncombatants.

We have apparently become used to our governments acting in immoral, illegal and brutal ways. We apparently find it acceptable.

It's Not as Effective as We Think

An inevitable aspect of militarism is the general tendency to see military force as far more effective than it actually is and to accept it as the first response to conflict. According to firsthand accounts, after 9/11 the administration gave no consideration to a nonmilitary response. The assumption was that only military invasion could capture bin Laden and put an end to al-Qaida's terrorism. Did anyone think that the powerful U.S. military would not be able to capture this one man? It is telling that very few Americans dissented from the decision to invade Afghanistan -- despite the illegality of the invasion and its inevitable, predictable violence toward civilians. Only one member of Congress, California's Rep. Barbara Lee, voted against it.

But what if -- as many of us suggested at the time -- we hadn't glorified bin Laden by declaring war on him and his organization? What if we had declared bin Laden and his accomplices criminals and used intelligence and policing methods to bring him to justice? We had the sympathy and proffered cooperation of virtually every nation in the world. (Even the Taliban government offered to hand over bin Laden to a neutral country, if we provided proof of his guilt; the U.S. government, clearly intent on war, rejected this offer without seriously considering it.) What if we had considered the invasion of Afghanistan the last possible alternative and we had seriously negotiated with the Taliban to hand over bin Laden or allow an international police force to find him? What if we had offered substantial foreign aid to Afghanistan to encourage the citizenry to see the United States positively (we had helped rid Afghanistan of the Soviets in the 1980s) and help us find bin Laden? I obviously do not know what would have happened if we had followed that path, but could it possibly have been worse than what we did, which has clearly increased the number of Islamic fundamentalists willing to wage jihad against the United States? Militarism is not even considering another possibility besides military force.

The Iraq war is another obvious example. It's not surprising that the military power paid for by half the world's budget could easily sweep away the military power of a third-rate power already decimated by a previous war and 12 years of overwhelming economic sanctions. (In fact, Saddam's military hardly resisted; rather, the fighters took their weapons, retreated and waited.) Military power is highly destructive. But how effective has U.S. military might been in overcoming the insurgency or bringing about democracy?

Indeed, in the last 60 years, foreign military force has provided no match for indigenous, insurgent forces anywhere, whether the French in Algeria, the French or the Americans in Vietnam, the "coalition forces" in Iraq, or NATO in Afghanistan. Military force in those cases is not just costly, bloody and violence provoking; it is stupid and ineffective.

Alternatives to Militarism

Unfortunately, there is almost complete agreement among American political leaders that we need more, rather than less, military power and military spending. Even President-elect Barack Obama is part of the post-World War II, bipartisan consensus that views unchallengeable military strength as essential. In his campaign, at least, he called for increased spending on the military. Although he has called for withdrawal from Iraq, he has also called for moving those troops to Afghanistan, a move that will be as futile as the Soviet attempt to tame Afghanistan in the 1980s, unless the endeavor becomes something very different from a military campaign.

What are the alternatives? First, and most importantly, the United States military must become what most Americans believe it should be -- a defensive force that protects the United States from attack. The nearly 1,000 military bases around the world need to be dismantled, and its personnel brought home. Our country must strongly repudiate the pre-emptive-war doctrine of the 2002 National Security Strategy, give up our self-proclaimed role as the globe's policen and follow European nations' examples of having a purely defensive military.

Second, we must take the lead in world nuclear disarmament. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and the other former Soviet states were eager for the abolishment of nuclear weapons, but the United States government refused to consider disarmament. Instead, we have refused to honor our commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and refused to enter into the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The recent tensions between India and Pakistan (while highlighting the hesitation of nuclear powers to engage in open warfare), and the possibility that the political instability of Pakistan would leave nuclear weapons in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists underscore the necessity to abolish these weapons from the face of the Earth. Over the last 20 years, the militarism of the United States has been the greatest barrier to their abolition. We must take the lead in destroying them and leading other nations to do the same.

Third, we must strengthen capacity for international police action. For some time to come, international armed force against terrorist and other dangerous groups will be necessary, but this force must be deployed as police action not as war. (Military attacks always kill and wound civilians and damage civilian infrastructure, leading inevitably to the creation of new antagonisms and through them to the recruiting of new terrorists.) The world's current ability to provide such police force has been hampered by the U.S. insistence on being the sole world policeman. Intelligence services and cooperation with other nations to arrest terrorists as "criminals" (rather than the "freedom fighters" they become in military conflict) is the model used by other Western nations and would be far more productive (and far less expensive) than our current military model. Our country needs to encourage the strengthening of the United Nations or other such international organization that could provide military force when needed in failed states or situations of gross human rights abuses.

Finally, we must use the hundreds of billions of dollars saved from disarmament to provide foreign aid to underdeveloped countries. The growth of terrorism and the failure of states stems directly from poverty and ignorance. Providing enough food, shelter, basic education and adequate health care for everyone in the world is, relatively speaking, not an expensive endeavor, certainly less than we've been spending in Iraq. Only the development of the Third World will give us the potential for freedom from terror. The previous discussion of the financial cost of our militarization offers one clear avenue for reversing the current political consensus in favor of militarism. As Kevin Phillips outlines in his book, Wealth and Democracy, a primary cause of the decline of the last three Western empires (Spain, Holland and Great Britain) has been bankruptcy through militarization.

As each of these empires became wealthy and powerful, it attempted to maintain its world position through military spending, each time imagining that its wealth and power were limitless. In each case, the vast military expenditures crippled the empire, leading directly to its decline. It should be obvious that the United States is well into this process of damaging itself with its own military expenditures. With a $10 trillion debt (much of it to countries that could easily use it against us) and an annual deficit that has been running close to $500 billion, the time is ripe to push for a maximum reduction in military spending (that could reduce the average deficit to zero). While our nation does not have moral right to forego those aspects of the military budget that pay for past wars (primarily veterans' benefits), transforming our military from an offensive weapon into an institution for national defense would be an affirmation of American principles stated in our founding documents, while saving our country from the historical course of all empires that turn toward militarism.

Obama has promised that he will respond to the concerns of the citizenry. While he has indicated the willingness to change course in Iraq and to renounce torture and extraordinary rendition, he has so far demonstrated no consciousness of the danger of militarism or of the threat of the presidential arrogation of power. Now is the time to educate ourselves about our country's extraordinary militarism and begin the political push to change our national direction. American militarism is a dead end; it is time we woke up, smelled the coffee and created the change we can believe in.

Copyright -- David Hilfiker, 2008

David Hilfiker, M.D., spent his medical career as a physician with low-income people in rural Minnesota and inner-city Washington. He is the founder of Joseph’s House, a home and hospice for homeless men and women with AIDS and/or cancer. No longer in active practice, he is a lecturer and teacher and author of books and numerous articles on poverty and other subjects. His most recent book is Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen.