It's time to face facts: In today's United States, the central question underlying political life for most people is not how to best create a just civil society or promote democratic values, but rather who is the arbiter of God's Holy Word.
Just look at the dilemmas posed this week. American Catholics face the question of whether they should listen to their own consciences or to church apologists like Cardinal Bernard Law, whose supporters remind the laity that the church is not a democracy and that God's Law is handed down through the pope and his underlings.
North Carolina's retiring senator Jesse Helms's interpretation of Christian family values trumps a United Nations attempt to define basic human rights. When the UN General Assembly meets in New York for the Special Session on Children this week, the focus will be on the failure of the U.S. to ratify the most widely accepted human rights treaty ever: the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The U.S. and Somaliawhich currently does not have the governmental capacity to ratify an international treatyare the only two UN members not to have ratified the treaty. Apparently the treaty is inconsistent with the family values of the Bush administration. Opposition has been led by Helms, who has said, "The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is incompatible with the God-given right and responsibility of parents to raise their children," adding that "the Convention has the potential to severely restrict states and the federal government in their efforts to protect children and to enhance family life."
Underpinning it all is George W. Bush's continuing, unabashed depiction of the war on terrorism as a Christian crusade. More and more, Congress and the White House have the feel of Bible study groups as religious quackery fills the capital air. In this state of affairs, secular humanists might as well throw in the towel.
While Bush talks about an oil shortage, the real crisis is sneaking up on us in the form of a horrendous worldwide water scarcity. Droughts in the U.S., once a feature of the Midwest, are now occurring regularly all across the continent, even on the verdant East Coast, where in New York the provisioning of fresh water has become a political issue. The Pacific Coast suffers from reduced hydroelectric power output in places like California, salinity in Florida's groundwater has become a major problem, and drought has even spread to the area around the Great Lakes. The St. Lawrence Seaway is drying up so fast that oceangoing vessels won't be able to pass through in a decade's time.
The scarcity of fresh water is causing the birth of a booming new business. Where provisioning of water once was the work of public utilities, private corporations are increasingly doing the job. Two huge French-based transnational corporationsVivendi Universal and Suezmonopolize more than 70 percent of the existing water market, according to Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians in her new book, Blue Gold. Suez operates in 130 countries, Vivendi in more than 90.
There is also a burgeoning business in bottled water, with market forecasts projecting 20 percent annual growth. Here, three big companiesCoca Cola, Pepsi, and Nestleare gobbling up the business. Nestle alone owns 68 different bottled-water brands, including Perrier. Last year some 1 billion liters of water were bottled and sold.
The water business is so profitable that a Canadian company has a deal to ship water from Sitka, Alaska, aboard supertankers to China, where private companies taking advantage of low-wage labor will package it into bottles for sale in the "boutique" water markets of Asia.
As with oil, the basic bulk trade in water will be by supertanker, supplemented perhaps by a tow of huge water bags shunting up and down the Pacific Coast from Alaska and Canada to parched Mexico and Southern California. Eventually the business will shift to more economical pipelines. Water pipes will be laid along the same corridors that now carry oil and gas, adding political clout to the oil industry's plan to construct a gas pipeline from Alaska across Canada down into the U.S. Another scheme envisions damming James Bay, creating a great basin for clear drinking water. Canada's rivers run north, which means that water coming out of the north end of the James Bay basin would have to be reversed and run down a canal toward the East Coast of the U.S. American companies have long dominated the Canadian oil and gas business, but Canadians have fought hard to keep the U.S. from taking their water. Now with free-trade agreements between the U.S. and Canada, this may not be so easy, especially because Bush has said he views Canada's vast amounts of fresh water as a hemisphere-wide resource. Canada currently can supply up to 9 percent of the world's immediate need for fresh water and is thought to hold enough to potentially supply 25 percent of the overall need.
Other pipelines would be built from Austria, which draws water from the Alps, to Paris and elsewhere, and from Scotland down to London. Brazil, with its immense river systems, has a surplus of water. And China has substantial amounts of fresh water, although it's located in odd, hard-to-reach places.
Last week federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin of New York's Southern District ruled that the government cannot hold suspects as material witnesses for grand jury proceedings, one of the techniques Ashcroft's Justice Department is using to prosecute its "war on terror." The judge found that material witnesses must be used in trials, and not put before grand juries, which are often viewed as merely rubber stamps for prosecutors. Currently, all that's required is one affidavit from one FBI agent for an individual to be held indefinitely as a material witness.
The ruling came in a case involving Osama Awadallah, a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. and citizen of Jordan. Last September 20, some 20 FBI agents surrounded him on the street outside his San Diego home and ordered him to come to their office. None of the agents advised Awadallah of his Miranda rights, his right to refuse searches of his home or cars, or his right to contact the Jordanian consulate. He was detained as a material witness, held for 20 days, and brought before a grand jury, after which the government charged him with perjury. He's accused of lying about whether he knew two of the September 11 hijackers.
FBI agents gave him three lie-detector tests, according to a summary of facts and allegations in Scheindlin's opinion. According to the summary, Awadallah claims that the agents covered the lens of a surveillance camera to prevent the procedure from being filmed. After accusing him of lying, he was imprisoned first in San Diego, then in San Bernardino, and then sent to a federal prison in Oklahoma City on September 28. While he was in Oklahoma, a guard threw shoes at his head and face, cursed at him, and insulted his Muslim religion. On October 1, Awadallah was shackled in leg irons and flown to New York City, where U.S. marshals threatened to "get" his brother and cursed "the Arabs." The marshals then transported him to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, where he was put in an ice-cold room and was kicked by guards, "who pulled him by the hair to force him to face an American flag." The next day, the marshals transported Awadallah to court, cuffing his hands behind his back and binding them to his legsóthe marshals pinched his upper arms hard enough to cause bruises. In the elevator, the marshals made his left foot bleed by kicking it, and the supervising marshal threatened to kill him. When the government presented Awadallah to the grand jury as a material witness on October 10, he was dressed in prison clothes and escorted into the room by FBI agents, and agents kept him handcuffed to the witness chair throughout his testimony. He was questioned by two prosecutors rather than one. During his testimony, one of the prosecutors interrupted him, spoke in a very loud voice, argued with him, and made what Scheindlin's opinion called "inappropriate judgmental remarks before the grand jurors." For example, one prosecutor said Awadallah's testimony "seems odd" and "suspicious."
In her opinion, Scheindlin wrote, "In their totality, Awadallah's allegations might require this Court to exercise its supervisory power. Awadallah may be able to prove that he was unlawfully arrested, unlawfully searched, abused by law enforcement officials while in prison, denied access to his lawyer and family, and denied an acceptable diet. In addition, his grand jury testimony may have had an illegitimate purpose and may have been conducted under unusually harsh conditionsótestifying while shackled to a chair."
"In our investigation, we have not uncovered a single piece of paper-either here in the United States or in the treasure trove of information that has turned up in Afghanistan and elsewhere-that mentioned any aspect of the September 11 plot." -FBI director Robert Mueller
Additional reporting: Meritxell Mir, Ariston-Lizabeth Anderson, and Gabrielle Jackson
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