This Thing Called Courage

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Time to Rethink Afghanistan

Tom Dispatch

posted 2009-09-29 15:52:53

Tomgram: John Feffer, Will NATO's 60th Anniversary Be Its Last?

If you think the Afghan War is increasingly unpopular in the United States, try Europe. A recent German Marshall Fund poll offered these figures on the question of the "share of population who want to reduce or withdraw troops" from that country: Romania, 71%; Poland, 68%; United Kingdom, 60%; Germany, 57%; Italy, 55%; Spain, 54%; France, 51%; Netherlands, 50%. When NATO took on its initial reconstruction role in Afghanistan -- a show of support for the U.S. and a pledge to help clean up its post-invasion mess -- it seemed a major step in the expansion of an alliance with the word "Atlantic" prominently in its name. It also represented something else seldom commented on: the long-term inability of junior partner Europe -- former French President Charles de Gaulle excepted -- to say "no" to whatever Washington desired.

Of course, a number of European countries, possibly fearing the worst, placed restrictions on their Afghan expeditionary forces that were meant to keep them out of the thick of fighting and, in some cases, restrict them to the north of Afghanistan where Pashtuns were relatively few and the Taliban weak to nonexistent. So much for hoping against hope. The war has slowly spread northwards and headlines like last weekend's "Seven NATO soldiers die in Afghanistan" have grown ever more common. Lurking behind rising European popular dissatisfaction over the alliance's Afghan albatross lie bigger questions: When will the Europeans finally say that "no," and what will that mean for NATO? These are questions co-director of the invaluable Foreign Policy in Focus website and TomDispatch regular John Feffer addresses on his return from a recent trip across the Atlantic. Tom

Afghanistan: NATO's Graveyard?

Is the Transatlantic Alliance Doomed?
By John Feffer

Celebrating its 60th birthday this year, NATO is looking peaked and significantly worse for wear. Aggressive and ineffectual, the organization shows signs of premature senility. Despite the smiles and reassuring rhetoric at its annual summits, its internal politics have become fractious to the point of dysfunction. Perhaps like any sexagenarian in this age of health-care crises and economic malaise, the transatlantic alliance is simply anxious about its future.

Frankly, it should be.

The painful truth is that NATO may be suffering from a terminal illness. Its current mission in Afghanistan, the alliance's most significant and far-flung muscle-flexing to date, might be its last. Afghanistan has been the graveyard of many an imperial power from the ancient Macedonians to the Soviets. It now seems to be eyeing its next victim.

For NATO, this year should have been a celebration, not a dirge. After suffering a transatlantic rift of epic proportions during the Bush years, the alliance thrilled to the election of Barack Obama and his politics of conciliation. The new American administration swore it would shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan to give NATO more of what it wanted to fight "the right war." Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both promised to push the "reset button" on U.S.-Russian relations, potentially removing one of the greatest obstacles to NATO's health and well-being. And in a final flourish for the alliance's diamond jubilee, France agreed to return to the fold, reintegrating into NATO after 43 years of standoffishness.

But hold those celebrations. Afghanistan has an uncanny ability to spoil anybody's best-laid plans. At the April 2009 NATO summit in Strasbourg, Obama failed to get the troop reinforcements he wanted from his European allies. The NATO powers, in any case, have attached so many strings and caveats to the troops they are supplying -- Germany has kept its soldiers away from the conflict-ridden south, most contingents have complex rules limiting combat operations, Canada will be pulling out in 2011 -- that NATO's mission resembles Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians.

The real nail in NATO's coffin, however, has been its stunning lack of success on the ground. The Taliban has, in fact, not only increased its hold over large parts of southern Afghanistan, but spread north as well. Most embarrassingly for NATO, a recent surge of alliance troops seems only to have made the Taliban stronger. Nearly eight years of alternating destruction (air bombardment, over 100,000 troops on the ground) and reconstruction ($38 billion in economic assistance appropriated by the U.S. Congress since 2001) have all come up desperately short. A new counterinsurgency campaign doesn't look any more promising. What was once billed as the most powerful military alliance in history has been thwarted by an irregular set of militias and guerrilla groups without the backing of a major power in one of the poorest countries on Earth.

Worse yet, the Afghan operation has become a serious political liability for many NATO members. European politicians fear the kind of electoral backlash that ousted Britain's Tony Blair and Spain's Jose Maria Aznar when the Iraq War went south. Despite enthusiasm for Obama, European public opinion is, by increasingly large margins, in favor of reducing or withdrawing troops from Afghanistan (55% of West Europeans and 69% of East Europeans according to a recent German Marshall Fund poll). Mounting combat fatalities, a rising civilian casualty count, and devastating snafus like the recent bombing of two fuel trucks stolen by the Taliban in Kunduz Province that killed many civilians have only strengthened anti-war feeling.

Meanwhile, in the United States, both elite and public opinion is turning against the war. With the American economy still reeling from recession, President Obama faces a guns-vs-butter dilemma that threatens to wreck his domestic agenda as surely as the Vietnam War deep-sixed Lyndon Johnson's Great Society reforms of the 1960s. No surprise then that the president is ambivalent about following his top general's request to send yet more U.S. troops to fight in what the press now calls "Obama's War."

Not so long ago, pundits were calling for a global NATO that would expand its power and membership to include U.S. partners in Asia and elsewhere. This hubris has given way to despair and discord. Although the United States still holds out hope for a NATO that focuses on global threats like terrorism and nuclear proliferation, other alliance members would prefer to refocus on the traditional mission of defending Europe. Add in disagreements between the United States and its allies over how to approach the Afghan situation and NATO begins to look more like a rugby scrum than a military alliance.

NATO officials are now scrambling to sort things out, in part by calling the allies together to debate a new Afghan strategy before the year ends. Meanwhile, NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is preparing a new "strategic concept" that would recode the organization's operating system for the next summit in Lisbon in 2010.

It might be too little, too late. Some U.S. officials are fed up with what they consider European dilly-dallying about Afghanistan. "We have been very much disappointed by the performance of many if not most of our allies," Robert E. Hunter, the U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration, recently said in testimony before Congress. "Indeed, there are elements within the U.S. government that are beginning to wonder about the continued value of the NATO Alliance."

As for the Europeans, they are building up their own independent military capabilities -- and will continue to do so whether or not NATO gets its act together. The question is: Will the Afghan War eventually push the United States and Europe toward an amicable divorce? If so, the military campaign that was to give NATO a new lease on life and turn it into a global military force will have proven to be its ultimate undoing.

Near-Death Experiences

This is NATO's second brush with death since the collective security organization was founded in 1949 to counter the Soviet Union. Although it didn't fire a shot during its entire Cold War existence, NATO did fulfill its mission: to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down, according to the infamous catechism of Lord Ismay, NATO's first secretary general.

When the Cold War ended and the Warsaw Pact vanished, NATO was suddenly an organization without a mission. During the early 1990s, it cast around for new portfolios -- environmental work, humanitarian missions, anything. It needed a raison d'être fast. After all, the conflict-prevention mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe spoke more directly to the post-Cold War temperament, and transatlantic publics were eager for their peace dividends. NATO was seen as a pillar of the old world order at a time when even President George H.W. Bush seemed prepared to accept something radically new (though he settled, of course, for a rough approximation of the status quo ante).

Tragedy proved NATO's salvation. The organization got a second wind when Yugoslavia disintegrated into warring states and European governments did little to prevent the bloodletting in the Balkans. The United States belatedly turned to NATO in 1995 to fly a few bombing missions against Serbian forces during the Bosnian conflict. Then, in 1999, responding to fears of Serbian escalation in Kosovo, NATO engaged in its first-ever war. During the 77-day conflict, the alliance conducted 38,000 air sorties against Serbian targets that resulted in considerable "collateral" damage including Serbian civilians, Albanian refugees, and, famously, the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Although no NATO personnel died during these combat operations, the alliance acquired a reputation as the gang that couldn't shoot straight.

As if the Balkans weren't rationale enough, NATO also fell back on an old directive: to keep Russia out. Eastern Europe's persistent fear of its former overlord injected new purpose into the organization. Although Russia's leaders believed that Washington had promised not to expand NATO into Eastern Europe, the alliance did just that -- and with gusto. First, it established a kind of alliance halfway house in 1994 that it dubbed the Partnership for Peace; then, in 1999, NATO accepted the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland as members; and five years after that, it expanded into the former Soviet Union by absorbing the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia along with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Russia has, to put it mildly, been less than thrilled by NATO's eastward leap and then creep. Meanwhile, wary of Russia's military campaigns in Chechnya, Georgia, and Moldova as well as its energy power plays against countries to its west, the Eastern Europeans have eagerly huddled beneath the NATO "umbrella."

As it happens, neither the Balkan tragedies nor the putative Russian threat proved to be unalloyed blessings for the alliance. The Balkan campaigns created enormous stress for its military command, and only the brevity of the air war over Kosovo saved it from popular repudiation across Europe. The expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, meanwhile, made consensus within an already unwieldy institution more difficult.

The once central focus of NATO -- a commitment to the collective defense of any member under attack -- was, by now, looking ever less workable. Western European countries appeared anything but enthusiastic about the idea of defending the former Soviet bloc states against a prospective Russian attack. And despite promises to station troops in Central and Eastern Europe, the United States left its new NATO allies in the lurch. "While they are loath to say it publicly, [Central and Eastern European] leaders have told me that they are no longer certain NATO is capable of coming to their rescue if there were a crisis involving Russia," wrote Ronald Asmus, former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration. "They no longer believe that the political solidarity exists or that NATO's creaky machinery would take the needed steps."

On the eve of September 11th, a decade after the end of the Cold War, NATO had become an overstretched alliance with an ill-defined but expansive mission and a collection of member states increasingly at odds with each other. When the United States prepared to attack Afghanistan and then Iraq, the Bush administration simply bypassed NATO, constructing its own ad hoc coalitions "of the willing." (Only in 2003 did the Bush administration turn to NATO to shoulder some of the local burden.) There could have been no greater vote of no-confidence in the institution.

The Afghan Test Case

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. troop presence in Europe has been plummeting. From a Cold War peak of several hundred thousand, it had dropped to around 44,000 by 2007. Reductions to the 30,000-level or even lower have been discussed. With U.S. forces stretched to the limit elsewhere in the world and U.S. strategists fixated on the energy heartlands of the Middle East and Central Asia, the European theater of operations has been (and remains) the obvious place for force reductions.

Washington will certainly continue to maintain key military bases in the United Kingdom, Italy, and Germany and has been setting up new ones in Bulgaria, Romania, and Kosovo (that just happen to be closer to the energy resources of Eurasia and the Middle East). Turkey and possibly the Balkans are slated to become important locations for a more advanced version of the missile defense system that President Obama recently canceled for Poland and the Czech Republic, bases which once figured prominently in the Bush administration's plans for Europe. In sum, U.S. forces and resources once available to NATO's European operations have been rapidly dwindling.

At the same time, in the Bush years Washington chose to push the alliance to expand beyond its traditional focus on Europe and think global, focusing on terrorism, piracy, nuclear proliferation, and other international threats. In this way, the United States imagined that it might be able to place some of the financial burden for its own self-appointed global mission on its European allies. The Afghan War and reconstruction effort, an out-of-area operation with global significance, was clearly to be the test case for Washington's version of a new and improved NATO.

On the other hand, the newest members of the alliance from Eastern and Central Europe wanted the focus to remain on threats to Europe itself (that is, to them). They continued to be purely Russia-focused. The leadership in Poland and the Czech Republic, in particular, were eager for the recently canceled missile defense bases not because they particularly believed in, or cared about, missile defense per se, or feared a future Iranian first strike, but because they were eager for proof of Washington's willingness to counter Moscow. For these Europe Firsters, Afghanistan has been nothing but a distraction from the essential mission of keeping the Russian bear at arm's length.

This, then, is the tug of war within NATO: between the Europe First faction and the Go Global faction. Oddly, both sides appear on the verge of falling into the mud. Now that the Obama administration is making nice with Russia, the Europe Firsters don't have a threat to stand on. For the Go Global faction, meanwhile, victory within NATO requires victory within Afghanistan, which is why, in 2007, future AfPak czar Richard Holbrooke declared that "Afghanistan represents the ultimate test for NATO."

If Afghanistan is the test, then NATO is flunking. The Taliban has made a steady comeback since its rout in 2001. More American soldiers, as well as more soldiers from the other coalition partners, have already died in 2009 than in any of the previous eight years. The number of civilian casualties -- 2008 was a record year and 2009 will likely break that record -- fly in the face of NATO's "responsibility to protect" guidelines. There aren't anywhere near the number of troops necessary for an effective counterinsurgency campaign, if such a thing were even possible in distant Afghanistan, and what troops are there have proven ill-trained for "hearts and minds" work. Nor are there sufficient Afghan troops trained, almost eight years after the initial invasion of that country, to "Afghanize" the NATO side of the conflict. As for the grander projects of democracy promotion and nation-building, Afghanistan's rudimentary economy remains heavily dependent on opium poppy production and its political system suffers from rampant corruption of which the irregularities of the most recent presidential election represent only the tip of the malfeasance.

No wonder, then, that the Europeans are thinking seriously about how to get out. After a suicide attack in Kabul killed six Italian paratroopers in mid-September, for instance, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced that "we must bring our boys home as soon as possible." The war also suddenly became a major issue in Germany on the eve of national elections when a German commander called in U.S. air strikes on those two stolen fuel trucks in Kunduz. The attack, which killed an unknown number of Afghan civilians, has driven home to the German public that its mission in Afghanistan qualifies as neither a humanitarian nor a stabilization effort, and anti-war sentiment is rising accordingly. Moreover, the bombing has caused an unusual upsurge in bickering between Germany and the United States over responsibility for the incident and overall strategy. Just over the summer, the British lost 40 soldiers in the conflict, and a majority of Britons now want their troops withdrawn right away, which is likely to mean that the government's reported decision to send yet another 1,000 troops to Afghanistan will go down very poorly indeed with the voters.

How can NATO go global when it can't even pass its first major test in Afghanistan? "It is of course possible that NATO can survive Afghanistan even in the absence of total success: it depends on the extent of its failure," Danish security analysts Jens Ringsmose and Sten Rynning have written. "What seems certain is that failure in the Hindu Kush will constitute a serious blow to global NATO."

With NATO having to downscale, like the rest of us in these recessionary times, forget the notion that the alliance should mount out-of-area operations, argues former U.S. diplomat David T. Jones for the conservative think tank Foreign Policy Research Institute. "Aggression, terrorism, piracy, and human rights debacles need be addressed, but NATO is not the hammer for these nails. The United States needs to be more discerning about using this stiletto to chop wood. A 'coalition of the willing' is a tarnished term, but NATO is verging on becoming a coalition of the unwilling."

"NATO often seems to be an organization that is permanently in crisis, but it always seems to bounce back," argues Ian Davis of NATO Watch. "This is partly because collective defense/security solutions continue to make sense, not least to: prevent a renationalization of defense in Europe; to lock-in U.S. administrations (as far as possible) to multilateral and law-based approaches; and to provide sufficient security guarantees to enable nuclear disarmament to proceed, and for likely recessionary conventional disarmament to take place without causing instability." But will these workaday goals be enough to keep the institution afloat?

Fine-Tuning the Prime Directive

In 2010, NATO will update its prime directive for the first time in a decade, and the Go Global faction will battle with the Europe Firsters for the driver's seat. Neither group is likely to gain enough power within the organization to steer it alone. Undoubtedly, a compromise will emerge. For instance, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former U.S. national security adviser and consummate geopolitician, argues in a recent Foreign Affairs essay that NATO should focus on building security relationships with the world. In this scenario, NATO emerges as more of a grand facilitator than a robust fighting force. If, on the other hand, Afghanistan truly takes the fight out of NATO, the more radical proposals of the Citizens Declaration of Alliance Security, which calls for a more defensive military posture at lower levels of spending, while restricting out-of-area operations to U.N.-authorized missions, might come into play.

All institutions have a strong survival instinct, if only to continue providing salaries to their employees. NATO will surely outlive its strategic planning process, its failures in Afghanistan, and its adjustment to new global threats. But it may survive in name only. If it shrinks to the role of grand facilitator or U.N. handmaiden, it will have effectively ceased to be a transatlantic collective security organization. The United States will then lean toward ad hoc coalitions to achieve its military objectives, while Europe build ups its independent military power.

Initially, Europe began to beef up its collective military capabilities to acquire a voice in the international community commensurate with its economic power, as well as to send a not-so-subtle message to the unilateralist Bush administration. Today, the European Union maintains two rapid-deployment battle groups of 1,500 soldiers each and expects, in the near future, to pull together another 10 or so battle groups from existing national armies. These forces have already conducted missions in more than 20 countries. Europe's military-industrial complex, meanwhile, is trying to push up military budgets and aggressively market European arms in overseas markets. All of this still represents a far cry from what NATO commands, but a signal is certainly being sent: if the United States thinks it can go it alone -- or simply dragoon the alliance into its own version of a global mission -- Europe will have options.

Even at 60, NATO hasn't quite proven that it can live on its own in a sustainable and responsible manner. Indeed, it is still struggling with a Hamlet-like identity crisis: to attack or not to attack. The Afghan war has only underscored this central paradox. If the alliance doesn't engage in military operations, everyone questions its ultimate purpose. But if it does go to war -- and the war is unsuccessful -- everyone questions its ultimate efficacy.

Damned if it does and damned if it doesn't, NATO will limp along much as the British and Soviet empires did after their misadventures in Central Asia. These were, after all, dead empires walking. NATO may be in this category as well. It just doesn't know it yet.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies and writes its regular World Beat column. His past essays, including those for Tomdispatch.com, can be read at his website.

Copyright 2009 John Feffer

Scary: Nation's Bullet Makers Can't Keep Up With Demand

AlterNet


By Liliana Segura, AlterNet
Posted on September 28, 2009, Printed on September 29, 2009
http://www.alternet.org/bloggers/www.alternet.org/142934/

This post originally appeared in PEEK.

So here's a disconcerting little headline. From the Associated Press (via the Houston Chronicle): Bullet makers can't keep up with demand

Bullet-makers are working around the clock, seven days a week, and still can’t keep up with the nation’s demand for ammunition.
Shooting ranges, gun dealers and bullet manufacturers say they have never seen such shortages. Bullets, especially for handguns, have been scarce for months because gun enthusiasts are stocking up on ammo, in part because they fear President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress will pass antigun legislation -- even though nothing specific has been proposed and the president last month signed a law allowing people to carry loaded guns in national parks.

According to the article, "gun sales spiked when it became clear Obama would be elected a year ago and purchases continued to rise in his first few months of office. The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System reported that 6.1 million background checks for gun sales were issued from January to May, an increase of 25.6 percent from the same period the year before."

This is only the latest news report showing a rise in demand for guns and ammo since Obama took office. But the president didn't accomplish this on his own; a good deal of credit goes to the gun lobby, which has always relied on fearmongering and paranoia as critical parts of its strategic arsenal. In its propaganda campaign in the run-up to the 2008 election, the NRA portrayed Obama as the most anti-gun candidate in the history of the republic.

"Never in NRA's history have we faced a presidential candidate ... with such a deep-rooted hatred of firearm freedoms," read a letter sent out last August. The mailing purported to lay out "Obama's Ten Point Plan to 'Change' The Second Amendment," despite the fact that the "points" did not match Obama's campaign positions on guns. One of them was a ridiculous claim charging that Obama plans to "close 90 percent of the gun shops in America."

So perhaps it's no surprise that gun enthusiasts are behaving like colonists under siege. "I call it the Obama effect," one Louisiana gun dealer said, adding, “It always happens when the Democrats get in office."

But more than one dealer described the current situation as unprecedented.

"We are working overtime and still can’t keep up with the demand,” said Al Russo, spokesman for North Carolina-based Remington Arms Company, which makes bullets for rifles, handguns and shotguns. “We’ve had to add a fourth shift and go 24-7. It’s a phenomenon that I have not seen before in my 30 years in the business.”

It's hard not to be alarmed by such statements given the collective, apoplectic rage that has been directed at Obama -- and anyone perceived to support his policies -- not to mention the well-publicized tea-baggers who have shown up at rallies packing heat. Yet Congress seems to be too firmly in the grip of the gun lobby to waste much time worrying about this. Just this month, the Senate voted to force Amtrak to allow its passengers "to carry unloaded and locked handguns in checked baggage, even though Amtrak officials had raised concerns that the proposal could present 'numerous challenges,'" according to the New York Times. Under the legislation, "Amtrak would lose the funds earmarked for it in the must-pass spending bill if it did not comply with the new regulations."

The Houston Chronicle has more.

Liliana Segura is a staff writer and editor of AlterNet's Rights and Liberties and World Special Coverage.

© 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/bloggers/www.alternet.org/142934/

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Right to Dissent Under Siege


Our Right to Dissent is Under Siege: Why the Protests in Pittsburgh Are a Victory For Free Speech

By Bill Quigley, AlterNet
Posted on September 23, 2009, Printed on September 23, 2009
http://www.alternet.org/story/142828/

The recent decision of Federal Judge Gary Lancaster in Pittsburgh allowing protests at the upcoming G20 summit is an important one because, since 9/11, protesting against the government has become quite a bit harder.

Six peace and justice groups sued local state and federal government officials over severe restrictions on protesting at the gathering this month of the industrialized world's leading Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors -- precisely the sort of public event that free speech rights were designed for. The case, brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Pennsylvania ACLU, resulted in the government giving more permits to protest and the court allowing a tent city protest.

The First Amendment was enacted to allow challenges to political authority and protests were expected to be unpopular. The rights to freedom of speech and protest are keystones of democracy. Since 9/11, however, protesting has become much more difficult. The decision of Judge Lancaster is a step in the right direction.

I have litigated several cases and participated in dozens of protests across the country since 9/11. In every major protest exercising the right to dissent has been much more difficult than before 9/11 because the forces of government have been working overtime to limit protest and the right to dissent.

There are three main reasons that protesting is more difficult since 9/11. First, there is political advantage to keep fanning the fires of fear and insecurity and suggesting to the public that violence could well be a part of protests even though over 99% of protests and protestors since 9/11 have been completely non-violent (except for the right-wing gun toting folks at the healthcare forums -- can you imagine if African American protestors did that?) Second, government has poured billions into law enforcement with the result that their response to protests are in many cases no longer civil law enforcement but now quasi-military, a chance to both show off their new toys, and an opportunity for security forces to practice their mass response actions. Third, federal forces have taken over the leadership for security at any large protest so that local and state law enforcement have less and less to say in how the event is managed.

Since 9/11, there has been an insistent drumbeat from the highest offices in the U.S. on down that people have much to fear. This culture of fear has been used by the government as a rationale to refuse to allow protest. When protest is allowed, the same fears of violence and terrorist attacks are used to try to isolate the protestors into the infamous protest zones where government can isolate and limit protestors as was the case in New York City at the massive 2003 anti-war rally.

Additionally, local and state law enforcement forces have been given billions of extra dollars to fight terrorism. Hundreds of millions of these dollars have gone into special riot control and high tech security equipment. This means all police departments have lots of extra headgear, shin guards, shields, batons, pepper spray, tasers, bigger weapons and communication equipment. Most big city police departments have new armored vehicles and helicopters to fight terror. Every big police department has an anti-terrorism squad now. At big protests it is now common to see local police dressed up like and acting like military commandos. This militarization of law enforcement clearly inhibits the free exercise of the First Amendment right to protest.

After 9/11, the federal government was embarrassed and outraged by their lack of preparation. One of the changes made after 9/11 was to give federal officials more authority over protests which would have been handled by local and state law enforcement in the past. This means that protest organizers can no longer just talk with familiar local law enforcement to set up the ground rules for a protest, they must now deal with nameless faceless FBI and Secret Service bureaucrats who view every big gathering of people as a potential terrorist bomb opportunity.

Taken together these measures amount to what I believe is an unconstitutional assault on our freedom of speech. Judge Lancaster's decision is a step in the right direction but we must continue to be vigilant if we are to protect this essential fundamental right.

Bill Quigley is the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights

© 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/142828/

Homeless and GLB or T

AlterNet

In New York City, Queer Homeless Youth Survive at the Bottom of the Barrel

By Jimmy Tobias, Indypendent
Posted on September 22, 2009, Printed on September 23, 2009
http://www.alternet.org/story/142796/

Across the United States, thousands of kids are kicked out of their homes each year for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). In some cases, homophobic families dump them on the streets like litter. In other homes, kids run away in fear of retribution or as a result of ridicule.

They have nowhere to go. And the problem grows worse as American youth are "coming out" at increasingly early ages.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 575,000 to 1.6 million homeless and runaway youth are living on the streets from New York City to Los Angeles. Of these, between 20 and 40 percent are LGBT , according to the 2007 seminal study, "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness" by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF).

The study highlights a particularly dismal fact: Given that between 3 percent and 5 percent of the U.S. population identifies as lesbian, gay or bisexual, it is clear that LGBT youth experience homelessness at a hugely disproportionate rate. LGBT youth homelessness is a hidden reality of 21st-century America. The stories of despair, high HIV rates and street murders continue to be under-reported and unaddressed. I wanted to know who these kids were and how they survived in New York City. That is what took me to Sylvia's Place.

Below-Ground Haven

Nestled in the heart of Chelsea is a small safe haven on Eighth Avenue. A rusty iron gate closed behind me as I stepped into Sylvia's Place on a recent Monday evening. Located in the basement of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, the space was filled with clutter: old mail, hand-me-down clothes, boxes of donated food and cold metal chairs. There were no windows, but harsh lights kept it bright. A single bathroom provided a semblance of privacy. Brazil, a young transgender woman, saw me eyeing it. "If you go in there, don't sit down," she said. The shelter is named for Sylvia Rivera, the legendary transgender woman said to have thrown the high heel that sparked the Stonewall riots 40 years ago.

Sylvia's Place is one of three organizations in New York City that provides overnight shelter exclusively for LGBT homeless youth. Twenty-five to 30 kids sleep on the cold cement floor at Sylvia's Place every night, packed together and exposed to roaches. Still, it is better than shelters for straight kids, where LGBT youth often face verbal and physical abuse. It is better than the street.

Hip-hop music blared from the speakers. A few volunteers were cooking dinner in a makeshift kitchen. Diggy, from the Bronx, danced flamboyantly in the middle of the floor, belting out song lyrics. A chubby teenager with bright purple hair was drunk and sobbing in the corner. "I want to get clean," he cried softly, as his friend stood out on the sidewalk, calling to him through the front door, pressuring him to take another swig. Aqua Starr, the newest kid to take up residence at the shelter, was stoned and eating cold turkey stuffing and pizza by himself, leaning on a row of cabinets and eyeing me from a distance.

I sat down next to Chris Collazo, the 25- year-old drop-in coordinator at Sylvia's.

"If you want the kids to open up, show empathy," Collazo told me. "Then you won't be able to get them to stop talking."

Across the room Damien Corallo slouched in a chair, looking grim. Somebody had stolen his iPod. "Things are always getting stolen here," he said. I sat down next to him and, just as Collazo had said, once I got him talking, he did not want to stop. When he was a kid, his father was sent to jail and his mother sent him and his two siblings from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to New York City to live with his aunt. His brother was gay and Damien, who is transgender, had been dressing like a boy as long as he could remember.

"One day our aunt told us she didn't want any faggots in the house. And we figured out that she had given our rights over to the state. So we left," Corallo said. "I've lived in 32 group homes or foster homes. I've lived in shelters, halfway houses, safety houses. I've been into lock-up, stuck in residentials. I have been in every kind of home. I went to juvie for drugs. I used to inject drugs and snort coke. I was in for about a year. It was not friendly. It was a Missouri state jail and then I went to rehab."

Corallo said he stayed in a group home on Long Island. Three years ago he moved to Sylvia's, where he's been ever since. On three occasions, he's been beaten in what he described as "gay bashings." He's been called a faggot and a freak more times than he would like to remember. Somewhere along the line he contracted HIV, which has since turned into AIDS. He has attempted suicide more than once, and he relapsed, too -- he's got track marks up and down his arms and a chronic twitch. He is using crystal methamphetamines and heroin again. He said he wants to break the habit, but "I could never stay clean in this situation." Corallo is 18 years old.

My first evening at Sylvia's ended with a speech from T.T. Wilson, a 23 year old with purple hair who had just been suspended from the shelter for three days because she had been in a street fight outside. "At the end of the day, y'all can go home to y'all's motherfuckin' houses and y'all can sleep in your own fuckin' bed regardless if y'all strugglin' with your bills or not!" she screamed at the staff. "Y'all have a fuckin' home. I don't. I don't have anywhere to go. So what am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?!"

A Refuge on the River

Pier 45, at the west end of Christopher Street, is the epicenter of LGBT youth life, especially for kids of color who travel from neighborhoods around the city. Tucked in the Hudson River Park on the edge of New York's expensive and trendy Greenwich Village, it is where many youth gather during the day to pass the time, meet friends and organize around issues of gentrification, youth and LGBT rights. It is something like a home.

"This is a place that folks come to feel safe. You can meet other people and start to feel comfortable in your own skin," said Desire Marshall, a 25-year-old organizer with FIERCE , a group that advocates for LGBT youth of color. "There are few places you can go when you're young and there are even fewer places you can go when you're queer." The pier is one of them, but it too is threatened.

In 2001, the Hudson River Park Trust -- a public-private partnership that governs the park -- closed Pier 45 for renovation. The LGBT youth that use the pier were not consulted about the plans and many feared that they would have no place to congregate on a revamped, gentrified pier.

Their fears were well founded. When the pier was re-opened in 2003, it had changed dramatically.

"For two years they had nowhere to go," said Marshall. "Now they reopen it with a curfew that wasn't here before, with a police presence that wasn't here, with park enforcement patrol that wasn't here, and food that LGBTQ youth and low-income people cannot afford. They are pushing out a huge part of the community that utilizes this space." FIERCE's fight to protect Pier 45 from exclusionary development continues today as the Hudson River Park fishes around for more proposals to improve what it calls "quality of life" along the river.

THE RIVERSIDE STROLL

While Pier 45 is safe during the day, at night it turns into something entirely different: a center of commerce where sex workers and drug dealers, many of them homeless and queer, come to make money, to "get coin." They call it "the stroll."

One afternoon Wilson invited me to come with her to see the stroll. She'd been back from her suspension for at least a week and we'd already spent a good deal of time together at Sylvia's Place. She told me that she grew up in a well-off conservative community in North Carolina. When she came out to her family about her transgender identity, however, a conflict developed with her mother. Eventually, she left North Carolina for New York City two years ago.

"I know my mommy likes me, I know she loves me, but I was never peaceful," Wilson said. "My family don't accept me for being gay. They don't accept gay people period."

When Wilson came to New York, she found a new family -- four trusted friends. As the oldest among them, she called them her children and they called her their mother. LGBT homeless youth frequently piece together families for protection and support on the streets. Corallo had one as well. "Me and my friends developed a kind of homeless runaway family," he said. "When we didn't have a place to go we would all sleep together at Union Square at night."

I joined Wilson and her family on the pier one late rainy Saturday night to watch the stroll. Teenagers slowly walked up and down the sidewalks, strutting, making fleeting eye contact to draw in potential customers. Many of them were transgender, most were youth of color.

The occasional catcall and rowdy laughter blended in with the rain spattering the sidewalk and the buzz of cars on the West Side Highway. "If you watch closely, you'll start to see people disappearing into the bathrooms," Wilson said. To our left, a drug dealer in a baggy purple shirt stood on a corner with two others, hollering at people and peddling dime bags and joints for dollars.

Wilson explained that survival sex fuels the stroll. Many of the kids do it to eat or because they need a place to stay for the night and a stranger's bed is better than a cold, wet bench at Union Square. Others do it because they are saving up for a sex change operation or to feed a drug habit. According to the 2007 NGLTF report, LGBT homeless youth are three times more likely to engage in survival sex than their heterosexual homeless peers.

ON THE FRONTLINES

Sylvia's youth live on the frontlines of the battle against homophobia, gender discrimination, racism, class -- and they have the scars to prove it.

Carl Siciliano knows the depths of these wounds. As the executive director of the Ali Forney Center (AFC), an organization that provides emergency and transitional housing to LGBT homeless youth in New York City, he is a witness to this struggle.

"I don't think there is any other situation where so much oppression and persecution and cruelty is happening to people because they're gay," Siciliano said as we drove to Brooklyn to see a pair of AFC apartments. "These kids are bearing the brunt of homophobia in our society." Siciliano has been working with LGTB youth since the mid-1990s. "Every couple of months one of our kids would get murdered on the streets," Siciliano said. "They were just in this ground zero of danger." Ali Forney, a gay and transgender youth and the namesake of Siciliano's organization, was killed in 1997. He was found on Harlem's 135th early one winter morning with a bullet in his head.

With the help of a committed staff, Siciliano has turned a project that began in 2002 into the largest organization of its kind in the nation. His program offers counseling and mentoring services as well as a network of eight apartments that house 48 youth on any given night.

And it works. Every year his organization weans a new cohort of kids off drugs and sends a handful to college. And they receive a little more funding. But the waiting list is long. The program is successful, but it is simply not enough.

As Siciliano himself admits, the gay rights movement and its allies are failing to address the problem. "I don't think there are 200 beds in the country for gay youth," he says. "If there are more than 1,000 gay youth on the streets in New York, there has got to be at least 20,000 in the country. And that is a conservative estimate. So 200 beds for 20,000 kids? Obviously we are not stepping up to the plate."

Siciliano and politicians like New York City Councilmember Lewis Fidler (DBrooklyn) -- who have spearheaded the effort to get city funding for programs that serve LGBT homeless youth -- have ideas on how to solve the crisis. They propose two broad solutions: First, combat homophobia. Second, while homophobia still exists, generate the political will to care for kids who fall prey to it.

A study cited in the NGLTF report found that 50 percent of young gay males experienced a negative reaction from their parents when they came out and 26 percent were told to leave home. In addition, one third of all LGBT youth are assaulted by a parent or another family member after disclosing their sexual orientation.

Along with homophobia, class and poverty are part of the problem. "People from affluent backgrounds have more options and resources," Sicilian said. "They face the same rejection, but when half of your extended family is already living under one roof with you, so close to the street anyway, there is a lot less of a buffer zone."

The confluence of homophobia and poverty puts kids on the streets and keeps them there.

"I have stood on the steps and declared war on homelessness. I have done as much as I can to raise awareness," Fidler said. "And still, Brittany [Spears] can climb into a cab without underwear and get three pages in the paper, but I can't get three columns on kids who are couch surfing, who are selling their bodies to survive, who are exposed to unspeakable horrors."

Fidler believes the only way to truly address the issue is through a mass social movement. "My belief is that if people knew that on the streets of this city in this day there are children by the hundreds who are sleeping on the streets, if this problem were known, then the public would create the political will to solve it."

Meanwhile, however, young people like Damien Corallo will remain on the margins. "A lot of us feel rejected, like there is no place for us," Corallo said. "We're the bottom of the barrel."

© 2009 Indypendent All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/142796/

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Local Woman's Mission: To Save Birds

Boston.com THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Rescuer works on a wing and a prayer

Local woman’s mission: to save wild birds

To say that Jodi Swenson of Gloucester wakes up with the birds would be an understatement. The petite 42-year-old literally awakens early each morning in her modest home just off Route 128 to the chirping of three baby catbirds, who have taken up temporary residence in a compact plastic container on the kitchen counter, under her careful watch.

Upstairs, two pigeons and a wounded starling recover from their injuries in a room designated “the rehabilitation room,’’ where they can roam freely while on the mend.

The bird sanctuary continues outdoors, where a huge aviary stands that once housed two ailing black crows. Following weeks of nurturing and medication, Swenson recently released the pair back into the wild, where she believes they have joined a flock.

Swenson is a volunteer wildlife rehabilitator who has an affinity for saving songbirds, although it appears she’s unable to turn away any ailing bird. Another upstairs room - called “the parrot room’’ - houses four parrots and seven cockatiels, most of which were abandoned by previous owners.

Locally, Swenson is referred to as “the bird lady,’’ which makes her smile.

“I don’t mind,’’ said Swenson. “I get criticized sometimes, but my thoughts are that it is our fault these birds are in trouble. We’ve taken over their habitats. These birds don’t belong in my hand. It’s 95 percent our fault. We owe it to them.’’

She has held two rehabber licenses since 2007, one with the state and the other a federal permit, which is required because songbirds are protected nationally since they travel across state lines. She trained at the New England Wildlife Center in South Weymouth, where she continues volunteering to hone her skills.

Swenson gets unannounced visits from state Division of Wildlife and Fisheries inspectors and must submit annual reports on her work. The number of birds she has helped is in the hundreds now; many she rehabilitated before she was licensed; she received a warning from the state that what she was doing was illegal.

Rehabilitation costs are funded entirely out of pocket, which Swenson estimates runs an average of $50 per bird. Any donations Swenson receives must be tallied as taxable income. Aside from the monetary demands, several months during baby season, from spring until fall - entirely revolve around the baby birds, which require round-the-clock feedings every two hours.

Swenson relies on the support of Dr. Ray Cahill, owner of Seaport Veterinary Hospital in Gloucester, who donates his expertise, time, and diagnostic testing. Cahill commends Swenson’s dedication to her work and believes she has found a niche in rehabbing wild birds. He said she has natural ability to carry out such work, and is dedicated to giving back to the community.

Her neighbor Wendy Antrim shares Swenson’s love for birds. The two met when Antrim brought over a bird in need. Antrim now volunteers her time in assisting Swenson with the grunt work, like cleaning the aviaries.

For Swenson, the pivotal event came a few years ago, when Swenson rescued an orphaned baby seagull her daughter Maizi, now 14, named Sam. This particular bird sang to Swenson’s heart, she said, and helped her discover her calling.

Statewide, there are 101 licensed wildlife rehabilitators, with 38 holding migratory bird permits, said Kate Plourd, assistant press secretary for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Aside from a Hamilton woman who exclusively rehabilitates raptors, or birds of prey, Swenson does not know of anyone else in the area assisting the creatures.

Swenson owns an antique china restoration business, which she operates out of her home as well. That business, however, takes a back seat to the birds, which recently caused Swenson to lose a good customer when she was unable to handle a restoration job fast enough.

“The birds will die,’’ Swenson said. “China can wait.’’

The community has offered much support, Swenson said, with the Building Center of Gloucester last year donating lumber and supplies. On occasion, people drop off donations, too. Two local women turned up on Swenson’s doorstep with $200 worth of food for the birds, while a man from the neighborhood helped her move a large cage.

Swenson’s family also admires her devotion to birds in need even though it takes time away from them.

“It’s good to teach our children about compassion,’’ said Roland Leger, Swenson’s longtime companion.

“It opens their eyes to see their parents giving back. The birds were here long before us and will be around long after we go.’’

For more information on Jodi Swenson’s work, visit Cape Ann Wild Bird Rescue at www. valentine-design.com/Birds/. Bella Travaglini can be reached at bellatrav@gmail.com.

© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company



To say that Jodi Swenson of Gloucester wakes up with the birds would be an understatement. The petite 42-year-old literally awakens early each morning in her modest home just off Route 128 to the chirping of three baby catbirds, who have taken up temporary residence in a compact plastic container on the kitchen counter, under her careful watch.

Upstairs, two pigeons and a wounded starling recover from their injuries in a room designated “the rehabilitation room,’’ where they can roam freely while on the mend.

The bird sanctuary continues outdoors, where a huge aviary stands that once housed two ailing black crows. Following weeks of nurturing and medication, Swenson recently released the pair back into the wild, where she believes they have joined a flock.

Swenson is a volunteer wildlife rehabilitator who has an affinity for saving songbirds, although it appears she’s unable to turn away any ailing bird. Another upstairs room - called “the parrot room’’ - houses four parrots and seven cockatiels, most of which were abandoned by previous owners.

Locally, Swenson is referred to as “the bird lady,’’ which makes her smile.

“I don’t mind,’’ said Swenson. “I get criticized sometimes, but my thoughts are that it is our fault these birds are in trouble. We’ve taken over their habitats. These birds don’t belong in my hand. It’s 95 percent our fault. We owe it to them.’’

She has held two rehabber licenses since 2007, one with the state and the other a federal permit, which is required because songbirds are protected nationally since they travel across state lines. She trained at the New England Wildlife Center in South Weymouth, where she continues volunteering to hone her skills.

Swenson gets unannounced visits from state Division of Wildlife and Fisheries inspectors and must submit annual reports on her work. The number of birds she has helped is in the hundreds now; many she rehabilitated before she was licensed; she received a warning from the state that what she was doing was illegal.

Rehabilitation costs are funded entirely out of pocket, which Swenson estimates runs an average of $50 per bird. Any donations Swenson receives must be tallied as taxable income. Aside from the monetary demands, several months during baby season, from spring until fall - entirely revolve around the baby birds, which require round-the-clock feedings every two hours.

Swenson relies on the support of Dr. Ray Cahill, owner of Seaport Veterinary Hospital in Gloucester, who donates his expertise, time, and diagnostic testing. Cahill commends Swenson’s dedication to her work and believes she has found a niche in rehabbing wild birds. He said she has natural ability to carry out such work, and is dedicated to giving back to the community.

Her neighbor Wendy Antrim shares Swenson’s love for birds. The two met when Antrim brought over a bird in need. Antrim now volunteers her time in assisting Swenson with the grunt work, like cleaning the aviaries.

For Swenson, the pivotal event came a few years ago, when Swenson rescued an orphaned baby seagull her daughter Maizi, now 14, named Sam. This particular bird sang to Swenson’s heart, she said, and helped her discover her calling.

Statewide, there are 101 licensed wildlife rehabilitators, with 38 holding migratory bird permits, said Kate Plourd, assistant press secretary for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Aside from a Hamilton woman who exclusively rehabilitates raptors, or birds of prey, Swenson does not know of anyone else in the area assisting the creatures.

Swenson owns an antique china restoration business, which she operates out of her home as well. That business, however, takes a back seat to the birds, which recently caused Swenson to lose a good customer when she was unable to handle a restoration job fast enough.

“The birds will die,’’ Swenson said. “China can wait.’’

The community has offered much support, Swenson said, with the Building Center of Gloucester last year donating lumber and supplies. On occasion, people drop off donations, too. Two local women turned up on Swenson’s doorstep with $200 worth of food for the birds, while a man from the neighborhood helped her move a large cage.

Swenson’s family also admires her devotion to birds in need even though it takes time away from them.

“It’s good to teach our children about compassion,’’ said Roland Leger, Swenson’s longtime companion.

“It opens their eyes to see their parents giving back. The birds were here long before us and will be around long after we go.’’

For more information on Jodi Swenson’s work, visit Cape Ann Wild Bird Rescue at www.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Doing His Part for Whales

Youngster Boosts Whale Research

by Pat Leonard last modified 2009-08-28 16:11

August 27, 2009

Acoustic monitoring for whales in the New York Bight had to be halted earlier this year because of funding constraints. When seven-year-old David Petroski heard about it, this budding marine biologist decided to take action. Watch the video to learn more about David's passion for marine life and his visit to the Bioacoustics Research Program to deliver his generous contribution toward BRP whale research. Watch the video here:

http://www.birds.cornell.edu/brp/update-items/boy-boosts-whale-research

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pigeon Transfers Data Faster Than South Africa's Telkom



Wed Sep 9, 3:54 pm ET

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – A South African information technology company on Wednesday proved it was faster for them to transmit data with a carrier pigeon than to send it using Telkom , the country's leading internet service provider.

Internet speed and connectivity in Africa's largest economy are poor because of a bandwidth shortage. It is also expensive.

Local news agency SAPA reported the 11-month-old pigeon, Winston, took one hour and eight minutes to fly the 80 km (50 miles) from Unlimited IT's offices near Pietermaritzburg to the coastal city of Durban with a data card was strapped to his leg.

Including downloading, the transfer took two hours, six minutes and 57 seconds -- the time it took for only four percent of the data to be transferred using a Telkom line.

SAPA said Unlimited IT performed the stunt after becoming frustrated with slow internet transmission times.

The company has 11 call-centers around the country and regularly sends data to its other branches.

Telkom could not immediately be reached for comment.

Internet speed is expected to improve once a new 17,000 km underwater fiber optic cable linking southern and East Africa to other networks becomes operational before South Africa hosts the soccer World Cup next year.

Local service providers are currently negotiating deals for more bandwidth.

(Reporting by Peroshni Govender; Editing by Jon Hemming)

Remembering 9/11

Tom Dispatch

posted 2009-09-10 14:38:22

Tomgram: Rebecca Solnit, 9/11's Living Monuments

On September 11, 2001, a fellow New Yorker and friend of mine, a public health historian who knew instantly what the dangers were, bicycled directly into the smoke, ash, and chemicals that hung over lower Manhattan searching for his daughter whose school was only blocks away from the collapsed buildings. She was, it turned out, "safe" in that same pall of dangerous smoke. She had been evacuated to the street with her class in time to see people leaping or falling to their deaths from the upper floors of one of the crippled towers. You probably couldn't live in New York City that day and not be connected, however indirectly, to someone who died. In my case, it was the father of a classmate of my son's, a photographer, who also advanced into the chaos near one of the towers, leaving behind an eerie, moving trail of photographs.

As for myself, I was on my bedroom floor that morning most undramatically exercising when my wife called to tell me that something was happening. By then, TV cameras were already focused on the first punctured tower and, remembering tales of the B-25 that had hit the Empire State Building in 1945, I assumed I was watching a horrifying accident. Another friend, a rare North American who remembered the first 9/11 -- that day in 1973 when Salvador Allende, the Chilean president, was overthrown and murdered in a U.S.-backed military coup -- thought it might be Chilean payback.

Any half-plausible idea was, for a while, possible. History hadn't set. The Bush administration, in disarray, hadn't yet hijacked the day or the country. September 11th, still being lived, hadn't been renamed "Patriot Day." There was, as yet, no Department of Homeland Security, no Patriot Act. No one had been rounded up. No wars had been launched.

As for New Yorkers, those of us not making our way out of -- or into -- the danger zone were on the phone checking on loved ones, listening to rumors, or outside in the streets, talking to each other, wondering while the sirens wailed. It was a memorably terrible moment, but not, in fact, a nightmare of fear; nor would New York ever, as far as I could tell, find itself in the grip of blind revenge as, it seemed, so much of the country would soon be. Not so long after 9/11, for instance, two New Yorkers I know -- one had been close indeed to the collapsing towers -- headed for Afghanistan, not armed to kill but to help.

I remember my own now-embarrassing first reaction to 9/11 (once I grasped what was actually happening). It was unexpectedly dense and unprophetic, given the American reaction to come. I thought, then, that perhaps the horror of those acts of destruction and mass murder in my own city would open Americans to the sort of pain so many others in the world had felt -- sometimes, in fact, at our own hands. It might, I thought, change our politics. It did, of course, do that, but in no way I imagined. And that was the strange, unexplained thing for me: it seemed as if living at "ground zero" during the assaults of 9/11 somehow made you the worst predictor of what our nation would feel and do.

For me, even today, an especially unnerving aspect of 9/11 was the way so many Americans donned "I [heart] New York" T-shirts and hats -- New York having, until then, been Sodom to Los Angeles's Gomorrah for much of the country -- and under the Bush administration's fear-filled ministrations, began beating the drums of war, while panicking over prospective terrorists launching improbable attacks on their local amusement parks and landmarks. It seemed craven to me then and still does today.

Eight disastrous years later, I suddenly understand that day so much better, thanks to Rebecca Solnit, whom 9/11 indirectly sent my way offering hope in dark times. Now, she's returned with her latest book, A Paradise Built in Hell, which capsizes our most basic sense of what disaster is all about, humanly speaking. As befits an author who has written a guidebook to getting lost, she is bold beyond belief and her originality matches that boldness. And here's the thing: if you take a journey into disaster with her (9/11 being but one of the many disasters she explores in the book), you won't get lost. You'll find yourself. You'll find ourselves, our better selves, even in catastrophe.

Think of Paradise as the perfect companion volume to Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. Klein explained how governments try to take advantage of disasters to optimize their power and wealth (and that of their cronies); Solnit explains what ordinary people in disasters regularly do for themselves. They don't, as we have been taught, run screaming from danger. They head for the smoke, pedaling hard, and then, without the help of governments, they begin to organize. They become, briefly, their better selves. So here's a thought: Maybe it was the lack of the actual experience of 9/11 that left the rest of America so vulnerable when the Bush administration led them toward their lesser selves. Tom

How 9/11 Should Be Remembered

The Extraordinary Achievements of Ordinary People
By Rebecca Solnit

Eight years ago, 2,600 people lost their lives in Manhattan, and then several million people lost their story. The al-Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers did not defeat New Yorkers. It destroyed the buildings, contaminated the region, killed thousands, and disrupted the global economy, but it most assuredly did not conquer the citizenry. They were only defeated when their resilience was stolen from them by clichés, by the invisibility of what they accomplished that extraordinary morning, and by the very word "terrorism," which suggests that they, or we, were all terrified. The distortion, even obliteration, of what actually happened was a necessary precursor to launching the obscene response that culminated in a war on Iraq, a war we lost (even if some of us don't know that yet), and the loss of civil liberties and democratic principles that went with it.

Only We Can Terrorize Ourselves

For this eighth anniversary of that terrible day, the first post-Bush-era anniversary, let's remember what actually happened:

When the planes became missiles and the towers became torches and then shards and clouds of dust, many were afraid, but few if any panicked, other than the President who was far away from danger. The military failed to respond promptly, even though the Pentagon itself was attacked, and the only direct resistance that day came from inside Flight 93, which went down in a field in Pennsylvania on its way to Washington.

Flights 11 and 175 struck the towers. Hundreds of thousands of people rescued each other and themselves, evacuating the buildings and the area, helped in the first minutes, then hours, by those around them. Both PS 150, an elementary school, and the High School for Leadership and Public Service were successfully evacuated -- without casualties. In many cases, teachers took students home with them.

A spontaneously assembled flotilla of boats, ranging from a yacht appropriated by policemen to a historic fireboat, evacuated 300,000 to 500,000 people from lower Manhattan, a nautical feat on the scale of the British evacuation of an army from Dunkirk in the early days of World War II; the fleet, that is, rescued in a few hours as many people as the British fleet rescued in days (under German fire admittedly, but then New York's ferry operators and pleasure-boat captains were steering into that toxic cloud on a day when many thought more violence was to come).

Adam Mayblum, who walked down from the 87th floor of the north tower with some of his coworkers, wrote on the Internet immediately afterward:

"They failed in terrorizing us. We were calm. If you want to kill us, leave us alone because we will do it by ourselves. If you want to make us stronger, attack and we unite. This is the ultimate failure of terrorism against the United States."

We failed, however, when we let our own government and media do what that small band from the other side of the Earth could not. Some of us failed, that is, for there were many kinds of response, and some became more radical, more committed, more educated. Mark Fichtel, the president of the New York Coffee, Sugar, and Cocoa Exchange, who scraped his knees badly that morning of September 11th when he was knocked over in a fleeing crowd, was helped to his feet by "a little old lady." He nonetheless had his Exchange up and running the next day, and six months later quit his job, began studying Islam, and then teaching about it.

Tom Engelhardt, the editor of this piece, began to circulate emails to counter the crummy post-9/11 media coverage and his no-name informal listserv grew into the website Tomdispatch.com, which has circulated more than 1,000 essays since that day and made it possible for me to become a different kind of writer. Principal Ada Rosario-Dolch, who on the morning of September 11th set aside concern for her sister Wendy Alice Rosario Wakeford (who died in the towers) to evacuate her high school two blocks away, went to Afghanistan in 2004 to dedicate a school in Herat, Afghanistan, that included a garden memorializing Wakeford.

In a Dust Storm of Altruism

Hollywood movies and too many government pandemic plans still presume that most of us are cowards or brutes, that we panic, trample each other, rampage, or freeze helplessly in moments of crisis and chaos. Most of us believe this, even though it is a slander against the species, an obliteration of what actually happens, and a crippling blow to our ability to prepare for disasters.

Hollywood likes this view because it paves the way for movies starring Will Smith and hordes of stampeding, screaming extras. Without stupid, helpless people to save, heroes become unnecessary. Or rather, without them, it turns out that we are all heroes, even if distinctly unstereotypical ones like that elderly woman who got Fichtel back on his feet. Governments like the grim view for a similar reason: it justifies their existence as repressive, controlling, hostile forces, rather than collaborators with brave and powerful citizenries.

Far more people could have died on September 11th if New Yorkers had not remained calm, had not helped each other out of the endangered buildings and the devastated area, had not reached out to pull people from the collapsing buildings and the dust cloud. The population of the towers was lower than usual that morning, because it was an election day and many were voting before heading to work; it seems emblematic that so many were spared because they were exercising their democratic powers. Others exercised their empathy and altruism. In the evacuation of the towers, John Abruzzo, a paraplegic accountant, was carried down 69 flights of stairs by his coworkers.

Here's how John Guilfoy, a young man who'd been a college athlete, recalled the 9/11 moment:

"I remember looking back as I started running, and the thickest smoke was right where it was, you know, a few blocks away, and thinking that, like, whoever's going to be in that is just going to die. There's no way you could -- you're going to suffocate, and it was coming at us. I remember just running, people screaming. I was somewhat calm, and I was little bit faster than my colleagues, so I had to stop and slow up a little bit and wait for them to make sure we didn't lose each other."

Had he been in a disaster movie, he would have been struggling in some selfish, social-darwinist way to survive at others' expense, or he would simply have panicked, as we are all supposed to do in disaster. In the reality of September 11th, in a moment of supreme danger, he slowed down out of solidarity.

Many New Yorkers that day committed similar feats of solidarity at great risk. In fact, in all the hundreds of oral histories I read and the many interviews I conducted to research my book, A Paradise Built in Hell, I could find no one saying he or she was abandoned or attacked in that great exodus. People were frightened and moving fast, but not in a panic. Careful research has led disaster sociologists to the discovery -- one of their many counter-stereotypical conclusions -- that panic is a vanishingly rare phenomenon in disasters, part of an elaborate mythology of our weakness.

A young man from Pakistan, Usman Farman, told of how he fell down and a Hasidic Jewish man stopped, looked at his pendant's Arabic inscription and then, "with a deep Brooklyn accent he said 'Brother if you don't mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us. Grab my hand, let's get the hell out of here.' He was the last person I would ever have thought to help me. If it weren't for him I probably would have been engulfed in shattered glass and debris." A blind newspaper vendor was walked to safety by two women, and a third escorted her to her home in the Bronx.

Errol Anderson, a recruiter with the fire department, was caught outside in that dust storm.

"For a couple of minutes I heard nothing. I thought I was either dead and was in another world, or I was the only one alive. I became nervous and panicky, not knowing what to do, because I couldn't see... About four or five minutes later, while I was still trying to find my way around, I heard the voice of a young lady. She was crying and saying, 'Please, Lord, don't let me die. Don't let me die.' I was so happy to hear this lady's voice. I said, 'Keep talking, keep talking, I'm a firefighter, I'll find you by the response of where you are.' Eventually we met up with each other and basically we ran into each other's arms without even knowing it."

She held onto his belt and eventually several other people joined them to form a human chain. He helped get them to the Brooklyn Bridge before returning to the site of the collapsed buildings. That bridge became a pedestrian escape route for tens of thousands. For hours, a river of people poured across it. On the far side, Hasidic Jews handed out bottles of water to the refugees. Hordes of volunteers from the region, and within days the nation, converged on lower Manhattan, offering to weld, dig, nurse, cook, clean, hear confessions, listen -- and did all of those things.

New Yorkers triumphed on that day eight years ago. They triumphed in calm, in strength, in generosity, in improvisation, in kindness. Nor was this something specific to that time or place: San Franciscans during the great earthquake of 1906, Londoners during the Blitz in World War II, the great majority of New Orleanians after Hurricane Katrina hit, in fact most people in most disasters in most places have behaved with just this sort of grace and dignity.

It Could Have Been Different

Imagine what else could have sprung from that morning eight years ago. Imagine if the collapse of those towers had not been followed by such a blast of stereotypes, lies, distortions, and fear propaganda that served the agenda of the Bush administration while harming the rest of us -- Americans, Iraqis, Afghans, and so many others, for people from 90 nations died in the attacks that day and probably those from many more nations survived at what came to be called Ground Zero.

Not long ago I talked to Roberto Sifuentes, a Chicano performance artist who was then living in New York. Like many New Yorkers, he still marvels at that brief, almost utopian moment of opening in the midst of tragedy, when everyone wanted to talk about meaning, about foreign policy, about history, and did so in public with strangers. It was a moment of passionate engagement with the biggest questions and with one another. On a few occasions, Sifuentes was threatened and nearly attacked for having approximately the same skin tone as an Arab, but he was also moved by the tremendous opening of that moment, the great public dialogue that had begun, and he took part in it with joy.

In five years of investigation and in my own encounter with the San Francisco Bay Area's Loma Prieta earthquake 20 years ago, I've found that disasters are often moments of strange joy. My friend Kate Joyce, then a 19-year-old living in New Mexico, had landed in New York on the very morning of September 11, 2001, and spent the next several days in Union Square, the park-like plaza at 14th Street that became a regular gathering point.

She relished the astonishing forum that Union Square became in those days when we had a more perfect union: "We spoke passionately of the contemporary and historical conflicts, contradictions and connections affecting our lives," she wrote me later. "We stayed for hours, through the night, and into the week riveted and expressive, in mourning and humbled, and in the ecstasy of a transformative present." Such conversations took place everywhere.

We had that more perfect union, and then we let them steal it.

Perhaps Barack Obama, the candidate who delivered that address on race, pain, and nuance entitled "A More Perfect Union" some 18 months ago, could have catalyzed us to remain open-minded in the face of horror, to rethink our foreign policy, to try to grasp the real nature of the attack by that small band which was so obviously not an act of war, and to make of it an opportunity to change, profoundly. Such a response would have had to recognize that many were killed or widowed or orphaned on that September 11th , but none were defeated. Not that day. It would have had to recognize that such events are immeasurably terrible, but neither so rare as we Americans like to imagine, nor insurmountable. (Since 9/11, far more have been killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, the 2008 Burma typhoon, and of course the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Congo, among other events. More in this country have, in fact, died of domestic violence since that day.)

Obama, the candidate, might have been capable of that; of President Obama I'm not so sure. He has, after all, expanded the war in Afghanistan that was the first monstrous outcome of that day in New York. But he's had his moments, too, and it may be that another set of disasters -- the social disasters of racism, poverty, and government failure laid bare during and after Hurricane Katrina -- helped make it possible for him to become our president.

After the 9/11 storm struck, the affected civilians in New York were seen as victims; after Katrina, those in New Orleans were portrayed as brutes. In both cities, the great majority of affected people were actually neither helpless nor savage; they were something else -- they were citizens, if by that word we mean civic engagement rather than citizenship status. In both places ordinary people were extraordinarily resourceful, generous, and kind, as were some police officers, firefighters, rescue workers, and a very few politicians. In both cases, the majority of politicians led us astray. All I would have wanted in that September moment, though, was politicians who stayed out of the way, and people who were more suspicious of the news and the newsmakers.

The media, too, stepped between us and the event, failing us with their stock of clichés about war and heroes, their ready adoption of the delusional notion of a "war on terror," their refusal to challenge the administration as it claimed that somehow the Saudi-spawned, fundamentalist al-Qaeda was linked to the secularist Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein and that we should fear mythical Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction." Rarely did they mention that we had, in fact, been bombing Iraq without interruption since 1991.

After 9/11, it could all have been different, profoundly different. And if it had, there would have been no children imprisoned without charges or release dates in our gulag in Cuba; there would have been no unmanned drones slaughtering wedding parties in the rural backlands of Afghanistan or the Iraqi desert; there would have been no soldiers returning to the U.S. with two or three limbs missing or their heads and minds grievously damaged (there were already 320,000 traumatic brain injuries to soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan by early 2008, according to the RAND Corporation); there would not have been a next round of American deaths -- 4,334 in Iraq, 786 in Afghanistan to date; there would have been no trillion dollars taken from constructive projects to fatten the corporations of war; no extreme corrosion of the Bill of Rights, no usurpation of powers by the executive branch. Perhaps.

We Are the Monument

It could all have been different. It's too late now, but not too late, never too late, to change how we remember and commemorate this event and that other great landmark of the Bush era, Hurricane Katrina, and so prepare for disasters to come.

For the 99 years before that hurricane hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, the biggest urban disaster in American history was in my city, San Francisco. Half the city, including more than 28,000 buildings, was destroyed, and about 3,000 people probably died. The earthquake early on the morning of April 18, 1906, did a lot of damage, but the fires did more. Some were started by collapsed buildings and broken gas mains, others by the army troops who streamed in from the Presidio at the northern tip of the city and ineptly built firebreaks that instead actually spread the fires.

The presiding officer, Brigadier General Frederick Funston, presumed that the public would immediately revert to chaos and that his task was restoring order. In the first days after the disaster, the truth was more or less the other way around, as the Army and the National Guard prevented citizens from fighting the fires and collecting their property, shot people as looters (including rescuers and bystanders), and generally regarded the public as the enemy (as did some of the officials presiding over the post-Katrina "rescue"). As with many disasters, a calamity that came from outside was magnified by elite fears and institutional failures within. Still, on their own, San Franciscans organized themselves remarkably, fought fires when they could, created a plethora of community kitchens, helped reconnect separated families, and began to rebuild.

Every year we still celebrate the anniversary of the earthquake at Lotta's Fountain, which, like Union Square after 9/11, became a meeting place for San Franciscans in the largely ruined downtown. That gathering brings hundreds of people together before dawn to sing the silly song "San Francisco," get free whistles from the Red Cross, and pay homage to the dwindling group of survivors. (Two, who'd been babies in 1906, arrived this year in the backseat of a magnificent 1931 Lincoln touring car.)

Some of us then go on to the fire hydrant at 20th and Church that saved the Mission District, the hydrant that miraculously had water when most of the water mains were broken and the men who had already been fighting the fire by hand for days were exhausted beyond belief. The oldest person at the gathering always begins an annual repainting of the hydrant with a can of gold spray paint, and then some kids get to wield the spray can.

San Francisco now uses the anniversary to put out the message that we should be prepared for the next disaster -- not the version the Department of Homeland Security spread in the years after 9/11 with the notion that preparation consists of fear, duct tape, deference, and more fear, but practical stuff about supplies and strategies. My city even trains anyone who wants to become a certified NERT -- for the nerdy-sounding Neighborhood Emergency Response Team -- member, and about 17,000 of us are badge-carrying, hard-hat owning NERT members (including me).

Every city that has had, or will have, a disaster should have such a carnival of remembrance and preparation. For one thing, it commemorates all the ways that San Franciscans were not defeated and are not helpless; for another, it reminds us that, in disaster, we are often at our best, however briefly, that in those hours and days many have their best taste of community, purposefulness, and power. (Reason enough for many of those who are supposed to be in charge to shudder.) For the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians were invited to ring bells, lay wreaths, pray, encircle the Superdome, that miserable shelter of last resort for those stranded in the hurricane and flood, and of course listen to music and dance in the streets to second-line parades, but also to keep volunteering and rebuilding. (Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of that disaster is the vast army of citizen-volunteers who came to the city's aid, when the government didn't, and are still doing so.)

New York has its pillars of light and readings of names for the anniversary of 9/11, but it seems to lack any invitation to the citizenry to feel its own power and prepare for the next calamity. For there will be next times for San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, and possibly -- in this era of extreme and turbulent weather, and economic upheaval -- a great many other cities and towns in this country and elsewhere.

That hydrant on a quiet residential corner of San Francisco is about the only monument to the 1906 earthquake and fire. The rebuilt city, the eventual rise of disaster preparedness, the people who go on with their everyday lives -- these are the monument San Francisco needed and every city needs to transcend its calamities. New Yorkers could gather in Union Square and elsewhere to remember what happened, really remember, remember that the heroes weren't necessarily men, or in uniform, but were almost everyone everywhere that day.

They could open their hearts and minds to discuss mourning, joy, death, violence, power, weakness, truth and lies, as they did that week. They could consider what constitutes safety and security, what else this country could be, and what its foreign and energy policies have to do with these things. They could walk the streets together to demonstrate that New York is still a great city, whose people were not frightened into going into hiding or flight from public and urban life. They could more consciously and ceremoniously do what New Yorkers, perhaps best of all Americans, do every day: coexist boldly and openly in a great mixture of colors, nationalities, classes, and opinions, daring to speak to strangers and to live in public.

The dead must be remembered, but the living are the monument, the living who coexist in peace in ordinary times and who save one another in extraordinary times. Civil society triumphed that morning in full glory. Look at it: remember that this is who we were and can be.

Twenty years ago this October, Rebecca Solnit was writing about the Kennedy assassination for her first book when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. She hit save, stood in a doorway until the shaking was over, and marveled in the days after at the calm, warm mood of the people of her city and her own changed state of mind. She's written regularly for TomDispatch since the outbreak of the war in Iraq. Her just published new book, A Paradise Built in Hell (Penguin, 2009), is a monument to human bravery and innovation during disasters.

Copyright 2009 Rebecca Solnit