Thursday, March 30, 2006

Jill Carroll Released

This morning, while I was waking up out of my sleep, I heard on the clock radio the news report that Jill Carroll was released in Baghdad today. I jumped out of bed with a big smile on my face.

I've written about Jill a couple of times over the past couple of months (see my earlier articles here and here). In my last article, I drew an analogy with the appearance of Jill in the latest video along with some of the statements surrounding the video and the varied treatment of farm animals: a farmer may bond with his horse, but does not allow himself to develop sympathy for the other animals he plans to kill for food. Based on her appearance in that video and the statements around it, I predicted that the kidnappers did not plan on killing Carroll. I am very glad to see I was right.

I also suspect Jill might have been freed a few weeks ago if it were not for the bombing of the al-Aksari shrine and the resulting violence. The timing, and the fact that nobody seemed to be close to catching the kidnappers seems to suggest the kidnappers wanted to send a message: "we could have killed Jill Carroll, but we didn't." I also expect they knew the release would be well received on the Iraqi street, and did not want it to be overshadowed by the hubbub surrounding the shrine bombing.

I am happy for Jill and her family. I also feel very happy for my friends Baghdad Treasure and Twenty Four Steps to Liberty right now, who both worked alongside Jill and consider her a good friend.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Cracking Down on Illegal Immigrants

Back in December, the US House of Representatives passed a bill (House Resolution 4437), cracking down on illegal immigration. This bill is to be introduced in the senate this week. In reaction to this bill, massive protests were held yesterday in a number of cities, including about 500,000 people in Los Angeles. So, I decided to see what all the fuss was about and read through the whole bill (yes, all 250 pages of it).

Personally, I support this legislation. In my review, I found it to be an extremely well thought-out bill that does a number of much needed things.

Perhaps the biggest thing this bill offers is mandating a more effective system for employers to verify employment eligibility of workers. Under the current system, employers are required to make employees fill out an I-9 form and view and obtain copies of supporting documentation proving an employee is eligible to work, but there is no verification mechanism to guard against forgery. This new system will provide this, and will also alert authorities if a single social security number is being repeatedly used (a possible indicator of immimgration fraud).

The bill also provides for increased border security along the US/Mexico border by building double-layer fencing along a sizeable portion of it. Another major component is outsourcing some border security to local governments by empowering local Sheriff's departments in each of the counties along the Mexican border to arrest and detain illegal immigrants, and providing them federal funding to do so. The building of additional detention facilities is mandated by the bill, to provide sufficient jail space to detain illegal immigrants until their cases can be heard and they can be deported.

Some other components of this bill:
  • Making it a felony to be in the United States illegally.
  • Increasing penalties for alien smuggling and immigration fraud.
  • Increasing penalties for violent or drug crimes committed by illegal aliens.
  • Eliminating the Diversity Immigrant Program ("Green Card Lottery")
  • Automatically deporting illegal aliens arrested for drunk driving.
My overall sentiment towards this bill is, "it's about time." The United States has tried to have its cake and eat it too for far too long - making legal immigration overly difficult while turning a blind eye to millions of illegal immigrants living and working within the country. If you cannot control your own borders, you cannot stop terrorists, drug smugglers, gang hitmen, and other undesirables from entering as well. Some protesters yesterday complained that this legislation criminalizes millions of people, but this is not true: these individuals became criminals the minute they crossed into the US in violation of US immigration law. This bill merely increases the penalties for this crime.

House Resolution 4437 is an extremely well thought-out piece of legislation. It cracks down on illegal immigration, but also includes a number of checks and balances to prevent its misuse. As a foreigner living in the United States myself, I fully support this legislation and the House's attempt to protect America's borders.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Beyond Words

Tomorrow (Monday) is the third anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, an anniversary nobody seems to be celebrating. Good news from Iraq has become more and more scarce over the past few months, while the constant flow of bad news has gone unabated. Iraqis have very little to be happy about today, and I can't say I blame them.

Over the past two years, I have become friends with a number of Iraqis who I've met through blogging. One, I have already met in person. For a few others, I feel confident I'll get to meet in the not too distant future. If it were not for these friends, it would be somewhat easy for me to tune out the news about Iraq, to put it aside and just go on with my own life. But, it is more difficult to do this when I personally know people affected by it. Like my friend Hassan, who has been stuck in his house for the past three weeks, or Najma, hnk, and Sunshine, who had a mortar round hit their school in Mosul and had an uncle of theirs mistakenly shot by American troops. Perhaps my friends Baghdad Treasure and 24 Steps to Liberty have had it the worst - as professional journalists in a war zone, they have had the unpleasant job of gathering facts and writing articles about all the death and gloom around them. Is it any wonder these folks have been miserable lately?

As for me, I am simply beyond words. Like many people here in the United States, I felt optimistic three years ago about American troops going to liberate Iraq, and felt good that we were doing something positive. Right now, I am just sad about how things have turned out. I know the United States meant well with much of what it did with Iraq, and I know they have stayed the course over the past three years out of a genuine desire to leave Iraq in a better situation than they found it in. But, despite all the lives lost, and three years of hard work, it is quite obvious that there is still a long road ahead, and that Iraq is really no better today than it was three years ago.

Back in December, I wrote that I was still bullish about Iraq's long-term prospects. I still do feel this way, but I think it may take a bit longer to get there due to some of the recent setbacks. On the long term, I think Iraq will be very successful, but I feel bad for the people who are living there in the present, and I am concerned for the wellbeing of my friends.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

French protesters don't quite get it

Yesterday, 300 people were arrested in France in a series of violent protests over a new French labor law. This law relaxes France's traditional protectionist labor practices a bit by allowing employers to fire workers under 26 years old who have been working for them for less than two years for no reason.

I personally think this labor law is flawed, but for the opposite reason the French workers are protesting. I think the concept of being able to fire workers at will is great, I just think a law like this should apply to all workers, not just those under 26.

Here in the United States most states have a concept called "employment at will". Under employment at will, a worker may quit his job anytime he wants, and the company can fire him anytime they want. You don't need a good reason - you could fire someone because you don't like the color of the shirt he wore to work that day.

This may sound brutal, but it works. Just because you CAN fire someone doesn't mean you WILL, and if you fire people too often, you'll pay for it: the morale of your team will suffer and you'll find your reputation will prevent you from hiring good staff. But, because the employer knows firing is always an option, they do not need to be as cautious about taking a chance on hiring someone who may not quite fit their mold: an effect that benefits younger workers, minorities, and immigrants. Likewise, employees know that if they start to slack off, they run the risk of termination, and as a result push themselves to keep their performance up. Employment at will, and legal concepts like it make it easier for employers to run their businesses efficiently, and thus makes them more competitive.

As I wrote a few months back, France's protectionist labor laws have not served France well, because the only true beneficiaries of these types of laws are lazy workers - good workers don't benefit, because employers wouldn't want to fire them even if they could. But, these labor laws do hurt disadvantaged groups (minorities, lower skilled workers, immigrants, etc.), and hobble the French economy by discouraging investment. The violent riots that took place in France in November were partly caused by the negative effects of these protectionist laws.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Israel and Palestine - a year of change

It should come as no surprise to an outside observer that the simmering dispute between Israel and the Palestinian people is a main cornerstone of many disagreements between the West and the Arab World. Arabs feel a sense of brotherhood with the Palestinians and hate Israel's treatment of them, and when we realize this disdain can be easily extended to those nations who are friends of Israel we can see the root of much of the angst towards the West in the Arab world, and the true catalyst of terrorism.

This being said, if someone figures out how to fix the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians, and build a lasting peace that is well accepted by both sides, it will cut off a major source of support for terrorism, and will likely lead to a wider détente between the Arab world and the West.

The possibility of fulfilling this dream falls within the hands of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership. Ten years ago, we almost had peace, thanks in large part to the pragmatic late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish extremist shortly before he could cement the deal with the Palestinians. In the years since then, Ariel Sharon came to power (a man reviled by Palestinians for his role in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon) , and the icing started to melt off Yasser Arafat's Fatah party as the Palestinians started to view them as corrupt and ineffective.

However, since Arafat's death a little over a year ago, the leadership of both Israel and Palestine have been greatly shaken up, and the results seem promising.

Palestinian Elections

The recent Palestinian parliamentary elections were a real shakeup, with Hamas winning a majority government. As I wrote previously, I am not convinced that Hamas winning this election is a bad thing - in fact, I tend to think it may be a good thing.

The Palestinian elections bore a striking relationship to our recent election in Canada. Like the Canadian Liberal party, the ruling Fatah party had gotten way too comfortable, and had allowed corruption, ineptitude, and apathy to corrode its ranks. The Palestinians voted in large numbers for the party they viewed as the most likely to put together a competent government, the least likely to fall prey to the temptation of corruption. Many of these voters were not voting FOR anyone, they were voting against corruption, against ineptitude, against apathy, and against Fatah, and so they cast their ballots for the party they viewed as most likely to beat Fatah: Hamas.

Unfortunately, Hamas also had a militant wing attached to it, has a policy calling for the destruction of Israel through armed conflict, and is viewed as a terrorist organization by much of the rest of the world.

However, as I had predicted a few weeks ago, power has a tendency to moderate one's views. It is easy for Hamas to wage violence and to complain about how someone else is running government, but when they're handed the reins of power themselves, a greater sense of reason is needed. For Hamas, their first swimming lesson was being thrown headfirst into the deep end, as Israel and some Western governments threatened to withhold the aid funding the Palestinian government is dependent on for its functioning.

Already, Hamas leaders have tempered some of their rhetoric and have hinted they would negotiate with and possibly recognize Israel under certain circumstances. In addition, since Hamas has more street credibility with Palestinian militants than the former government, it seems they would be more able to rein in militants in order to meet their end of any agreement they might accede to.

Changes in the Israeli Political Landscape

For most of his tenure as Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon has had to deal with a dichotomy of interests within his own Likud party. On one side, there were the hard-core Zionists, and on the other side the more moderate voices. Israel's recent Gaza pullout was strongly opposed by the hard-core Likud members, and resulted in Ariel Sharon leaving Likud and forming a new party called Kadima. Sharon was successful in bringing over a number of other moderate and popular Israeli politicians from both Labor and Likud.

Of course, just weeks after forming Kadima, Sharon himself was felled by a stroke, leaving behind him a huge power vacuum. And so, the party that was Sharon's brainchild will be going into its maiden election on March 28 without Sharon.

Israel's Election

Israel is having an election on March 28. Who Israel elects will have a huge impact on the prospects for peace in the region. Ariel Sharon, while popular in Israel, was reviled by Palestinians as the "Butcher" and was viewed by them as an obstacle to peace. For the prospects for peace to be revived, the Israelis will need to choose a leader who is strong and able to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians; to compromise without selling out Israel's interests.

Of course, for such a negotiation to be possible, it will also be necessary for Hamas to abandon its annihilistic policy towards Israel, and allow themselves to negotiate with an atmosphere of mutual respect. Good faith negotiation is a two-way street, you give things, and take other things, and if you do it right, both parties can come out satisfied.

I will be watching the Israeli elections very closely, as the ripples emanating from it will be felt around the world.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

No, I'm not dead!

Sorry for the delays in posting, folks. It's been a crazy couple of weeks, between work and having relatives come down from Canada to visit me here in New York. I'm working on a couple of new posts which should be up in the next day or two.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Guantanamo Bay: Interesting Reading

On Friday, the US government released a real treasure trove of Guantanamo Bay related documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The material had all been released earlier but in a "redacted" format (with some text blacked out). This time, it was released with names and all. The documents are divided into three sections:

  • Testimony of Detainees before the Combat Status Review Tribunal
  • Testimony of Detainees before the Administrative Review Board
  • Administrative Review Board Summaries of Detention/Release Factors
The last one of these contains a summary of the case against each detainee, while the other two contain their raw testimony before the tribunal and/or ARB.

This set of documentation provides a real snapshot of the types of people the US is holding in Guantanamo Bay, and the reasons for their continued detention. It also exposes the real quandary the US government faces in determining what to do with these men. From the released documents, many of these men were not al-Qaeda terrorists, they were simple Taliban foot soldiers, whose only "crime" was to pick up a weapon and use it in combat against US forces. The problem is, many of these men expressed a hatred for the United States and all it stand for, and if released would likely pick up a gun and go find a place to continue their fight where they left off. So, what do we do with them?

The fact that many of these people were captured enemy combatants makes them valid prisoners of war, but does it make them criminals? And, if it doesn't, what is the US going to do with these people when the military operations in Afghanistan come to an end? I expect these questions will be a thorn in the side of the Bush administration for the next couple of years...

Monday, March 06, 2006

Anti-Semitic Cartoons

A few weeks ago, shortly after the Mohammed cartoon controvesy broke out, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri launched its own cartoon contest, looking for the 12 "best" anti-Semitic cartoons about the holocaust.

The Iranian newspaper probably did not expect a response like this: an Israeli Jewish blog holding its own anti-Semitic cartoon contest, except this one only open to Jewish cartoonists. To quote one of the authors, “we’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published! No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!”

Jews, at least here in the United States, are the masters of self-deprecating humor. Feel like a good laugh? Find a Jewish guy and ask him/her to tell you a joke about Jews or Jewish life and you'll be laughing your head off for an hour. A huge percentage of the stand-up comics here in the United States are Jewish: guys like Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Hope, George Burns, and even the Marx Brothers have done a good job of making people laugh by poking fun at themselves and their own culture for many years.

So, should it really surprise anyone that some Jewish bloggers decided to start their own anti-Semitic cartoon contest to outdo the Iranians?

Of course, this Jewish anti-Semitic cartoon contest is a bit of old news: Sandmonkey and a a few others wrote about it three weeks ago before they published much. Now, though, it's March 5, I still haven't seen the twelve Iranian holocaust cartoons, but the Israeli blog has published 24 of them (exactly double the number Hamshahiri promised to publish).

Hats off to these guys - it takes a real sense of self-confidence to laugh at yourself, and even more self-confidence to make jokes about yourself and encourage others to laugh.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Spinning the Truth: Force-Feeding of Detainees in Guantanamo Bay

Over the past few days, there has been some controvery over the force-feeding of detainees in Guantanamo Bay. Starting in August 2005, a group of detainees started a hunger strike to protest their confinement there - according to the New York Times, by the end of December there were 84 detainees involved. In reaction to the hunger strike, the US military has started force-feeding detainees, which has resulted in a drop from 84 hunger strikers at the end of December to just four now.

Several groups have protested the force-feeding of detainees. Some, including Amnesty International have even referred to it as "torture". A few days ago, Indymedia published some pictures of a protest in London by a group of doctors, who decided to demonstrate the technique of force-feeding an unwilling detainee by force-feeding one of the protesters in front of the US embassy. The technique they demonstrate is particularly brutal, showing the detainee being pinned down onto the hard asphalt while a tube is shoved up his nose.

Now, as I've written before, I'm no fan of the Guantanamo Bay facility, but let's get real here. Being force-fed may be unpleasant, but it is not torture.

The technique used for force-feeding prisoners is not unlike that used to feed comatose patients in hospital. A tube is inserted into the nose, and it goes through the sinuses, back around into the throat, and down into the stomach. Liquid food (with a similar consistency to a milkshake) is injected with a large syringe through the tube and into the stomach.

And, while hospital patients with feeding tubes are usually unconscious, there are times where a similar technique is used while the patient is conscious. A few years ago, I had a test called esophageal manometry done on me, where a tube, thicker than that used for force-feeding, was inserted through my nostril, into my nose, and down into my stomach. I remember gagging on the tube as it was inserted, and how the test was extremely unpleasant and something I would not want to repeat. But, it was not painful, and I certainly would not consider it torture.

In fact, the only real difference between the test I underwent and force-feeding in Guantanamo Bay is that I was a willing recipient. To assist with this process (and prevent the type of brutal situation the protesters above illustrate) the US military have reportedly employed special "Emergency Restraint Chairs" (shown below) for force-feeding. These chairs are made by a company called E.R.T., Inc., who describe the chair as "like a padded cell on wheels", designed to restrain a combative or self-destructive prisoner without injuring him/her and without impairing normal breathing.

While these chairs may be uncomfortable, the fact is, they are better than trying to hold down a prisoner by force (as in the protest photos above), and they are less likely to allow the prisoner to be injured in the process.

Keep in mind, a hunger strike is a very slow form of suicide. The prisoner gradually wastes away and eventually gets sick, and if the self-imposed starvation is allowed to continue, will eventually develop complications and die a slow and painful death. If administering food (by force if necessary) will prevent this horrible death from starvation, is this not a more humane action than allowing the prisoner to starve himself?

Let's not spin the truth here: force feeding may be unpleasant, but it is certainly not torture. In fact, one could easily argue that starving oneself to death is a form of torture, and that force-feeding is actually stopping this self-inflicted torture on the part of the prisoners.

Don't get me wrong - I do not like Guantanamo Bay. But, if you're going to hold prisoners there, do it right, and if some of the prisoners are trying to commit suicide through starvation, it is a fundamental and moral duty of those guarding them to intervene and prevent them from doing so. And, if that means force-feeding them, than so be it.