Monthly Archives: November 2005

Getting there

The New York Times finally publishes a toughly worded editorial about reports that white phosphorus used by U.S. forces against insurgents in Fallujah last year wound up injuring and killing civilians as well. An excerpt:

Now the use of a ghastly weapon called white phosphorus has raised questions about how careful the military has been in avoiding civilian casualties. It has also further tarnished America’s credibility on international treaties and the rules of warfare.

White phosphorus, which dates to World War II, should have been banned generations ago. Packed into an artillery shell, it explodes over a battlefield in a white glare that can illuminate an enemy’s positions. It also rains balls of flaming chemicals, which cling to anything they touch and burn until their oxygen supply is cut off. They can burn for hours inside a human body.

The United States restricted the use of incendiaries like white phosphorus after Vietnam, and in 1983, an international convention banned its use against civilians. In fact, one of the many crimes ascribed to Saddam Hussein was dropping white phosphorus on Kurdish rebels and civilians in 1991.

Among other things, the editorial is invaluable for its implicit challenge to the news side to start investigating this story.

Judging the Herald

The Globe reports that Superior Court Judge Ernest Murphy has asked that the financially ailing Herald’s assets be frozen in order to protect the $2.1 million libel judgment he won against the paper earlier this year.

The Herald does not cover the story — at least not in its online edition — and avoids taking any cheap shots against Murphy in this article about the judge’s decision yesterday to boost former UMass president William Bulger’s pension. Interestingly, the story is co-bylined by Dave Wedge, the principal target of Murphy’s libel suit. (The Globe covers the Bulger story here.)

The Herald’s reporting on Murphy was not exactly a model of good journalism. In fact, it was the opposite, pockmarked as it was with inaccuracies and dubiously sourced accusations. But free-press advocates ought to be concerned that a sitting judge can have some influence over the Herald’s future — and possibly its very survival — because of reporting that amounted to criticism of how he performed his public duties. That, more than anything, is what the First Amendment was designed to protect.

The harshest wrist-slapping ever

Boston Magazine hasn’t updated its “Thank God We’re a Two-Newspaper Town” feature since last July. But Media Nation is here to pick up the slack. From today’s papers:

In one of the harshest punishments it has ever handed down, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct suspended a Plymouth County judge yesterday for a year without pay for sexually harassing two female court workers. The commission also fined him $50,000 and barred him from ever sitting in any court in the county. — Boston Globe

The one-year slap-on-the-wrist suspension that will allow “love judge” Robert F. Murray to return to the bench after sexually harassing female underlings would never pass muster in the private sector, experts say. — Boston Herald

They report, you decide.

L.A. Times on the phosphorus case

The Los Angeles Times today fronts an excellent in-depth story on claims that U.S. forces injured and killed civilians with the flesh-burning substance white phosphorus during its assault on Fallujah last year.

Reporters John Daniszewski and Mark Mazzetti write: “In the 1990s, in fact, the U.S. condemned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for allegedly using ‘white phosphorus chemical weapons’ against Kurdish rebels and residents of Irbil and Dohuk.” So much for U.S. denials that phosphorus is a chemical weapon.

And there is this:

Abdul Qadir Sadi, an Iraqi from Fallouja in his 30s, said doctors had told him that two of his family members were killed by white phosphorus.

“They had a lot of serious skin burns,” Sadi said. “The doctor at the hospital told us that they must have been hit by these chemicals. They were being treated by the doctor, but after a while, these burned places started to dissolve.”

“We have registered the documents and exhibits of everything that happened,” said Mohammed Tariq, a human rights worker in Fallouja. “We informed the Iraqi Red Crescent, the International Red Cross and [other] international organizations, but our efforts were in vain.”

The L.A. Times dutifully reports Pentagon denials that civilians in Fallujah were targeted. But I can’t imagine that anyone to the right of Ramsey Clark thinks that’s what happened. The issue remains whether U.S. forces attacked insurgents with white phosphorus even though they knew — or should have known — that civilians were in close proximity. Since the Pentagon has already admitted to the former, it’s hardly a great leap of logic to arrive at the latter.

At least it’s not a porn site

Making up the name of a fake Web site in order to write a cute headline, only to find out later that it’s a real site — it’s a mistake that’s so ’90s. But here we are in 2005, and the New York Times’ “Practical Traveler” column today is accompanied by the headline “Wishyouwerehere.com: Blogs From the Road.”

Yes, as you might have imagined, there is a real Wishyouwerehere.com, a forwarding site that takes you to the online home of a British company called FremantleMedia, “one of the largest international creators and producers of programme brands in the world, with leading prime time drama, serial drama, entertainment and factual entertainment programming in around 43 territories, including the UK, the US, Germany, Australia, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia, Latin America and Asia.”

According to this “whois” search, the domain name wishyouwerehere.com was registered in London in 1997 by the aforementioned FremantleMedia.

Someone at the Times needs to get a clue.

In a heartbeat

That’s how fast I’d latch on to Peter Gammons’ idea of trading Matt Clement for Derek Lowe. (Via Nick Cafardo in today’s Boston Globe.) Lowe may be no one’s idea of a role model, but he can pitch under pressure. For that matter, in his last two seasons with the Red Sox he showed that he might not be able to pitch except when there’s pressure — the more, the better.

Meanwhile, Clement, I’m afraid, is going to be Matt Young-ized if he stays here, not just because of his own skittishness but because many Boston fans are spoiled, mean-spirited yahoos. (That is, unless you think the hapless Mark Bellhorn deserved to be hounded out of town.)

Marian Walsh on financial disclosure

State Sen. Marian Walsh, D-Boston, has posted an op-ed piece to Media Nation on the financial-disclosure bill that would require religious organizations to adhere to the same reporting requirements as secular nonprofit groups. Walsh writes:

Applying neutral laws to charities does not violate the separation of religion and the state. The goal of this bill is to bring all charities into compliance with a neutral charitable law. This reporting requirement will remove an inequity in charitable law that allows religious organizations to keep their donors and the public in the dark about their finances. This bill does not expand the powers of the attorney general. He or she may already obtain this information with a court order. The attorney general cannot currently run any religion and will not be able to run a religion when this bill becomes law.

Public disclosure of finances is not a punishment. Public disclosure protects the taxpayers, who subsidize all charities with tax breaks; the donors, whose money finances the charity; and the charity itself, whose operation provides a greater good to society. All other charities, large and small, currently provide basic financial information and all religious charities should as well.

Walsh also argues that the cost of compliance should not be particularly onerous.

“Genocide” and free speech

One of my favorite Bostonians, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, finds himself — that is, has injected himself — into the midst of a controvery over genocide, history and public education.

Silverglate has filed suit in U.S. District Court over a state law that uses the word “genocide” to describe the deaths of an estimated one million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Kara Scannel of the Wall Street Journal reported on the suit in this Oct. 27 article. Shelley Murphy followed up the next day in the Boston Globe.

Today, Silverglate and a fellow lawyer, Norman Zalkind, have an op-ed piece in the Globe explaining their actions. They write:

The legislative seed curtailing debate on this historical question was planted more than six years ago. In March 1999, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted a statute that required the construction of a curricular materials guide “on genocide and human rights issues” for use in public schools. The guide itself states that it should provide ”differing points of view on controversial issues.” However, when it came time to implement the law, the Department of Education, after initially including materials on both sides of the “Armenian Genocide” controversy, eliminated all materials arguing against the genocide classification.

This censorship of previously included materials occurred after the department was lobbied by a state senator and others who claimed that any thesis calling the label genocide into question was “racist” or ”hate speech.” Commissioner David Driscoll and Board of Education Chairman James E. Peyser consequently wrote on Aug. 31, 1999, that “the legislative intent of the statute was to address the Armenian genocide and not to debate whether or not this occurred.” Driscoll and Peyser thus made an inherently political decision that reversed the educational judgment of those who thought both sides worthy of being aired. Any time political interference results in censorship of educationally suitable materials, our students lose.

Although I’ve worked with Silverglate as both an editor and an occasional collaborator, he and I haven’t talked about this. And Harvey certainly knows that I wouldn’t hesitate to disagree with him. Though I would never doubt his motives, it doesn’t necessarily follow that I would therefore agree with his conclusions.

In this case, I’m not sure what to think. To my mind, the question comes down to whether there really is a legitimate historical debate over what happened to the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, a terrible crime that is routinely described as “genocide.” (For what it’s worth, the Encyclopedia Britannica — to which I can’t link because I access it via a closed database — does indeed use the “G”-word.)

If Massachusetts school officials are excluding a legitimate historical point of view in order to appease the state’s Armenian-American community, then Harvey’s got a strong case to make. If, however, denying that what happened to the Armenians was genocide is akin to denying what took place during the Holocaust, then there’s nothing good to say about teaching “the other side.” That would make as much sense as making sure that the Holocaust-education program Facing History and Ourselves included David Irving‘s Holocaust-denial books in its curriculum for the sake of “balance.”

I’m uncomfortable with Silverglate and Zalkind’s reliance on the legal definition of “genocide” in discussing this issue. They write in today’s Globe:

Though historians have documented death and deportation of large numbers of Armenians (as well as the deaths of many Turks), they disagree over whether what happened constitutes “genocide,” a term defined by international law as the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.

It strikes me that the definition of “genocide” that I found in the American Heritage Dictionary (“The systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group”), which is similar to the legal definition but grounded in life rather than law, is more than sufficient. What happened during World War I was either genocide or it wasn’t, and it shouldn’t matter what international law has to say about the matter.

Silverglate and Zalkind’s next sentence goes to the heart of the matter:

While many historians argue that it was the intent of the Turks to exterminate the Armenians as a people, others counter that such intent has not been firmly established and that the events more closely resemble a civil war than a genocidal campaign.

The question, then, is whether the historians on the it-wasn’t-genocide wing of the dispute are conscientious scholars or a bunch of David Irvings.

For what it’s worth, this Wikipedia article seems balanced, even if it’s accompanied by a warning that says, “The neutrality of this article is disputed.” Here’s the lead:

The Armenian Genocide (also known as the Armenian Holocaust or the Armenian Massacre) is a term which refers to the forced mass evacuation and related deaths of hundreds of thousands or over a million Armenians, during the government of Young Turks from 1915 to 1917 in the Ottoman Empire. Several facts in connection with the genocide are a matter of ongoing dispute between parts of the international community and Turkey. Although it is generally agreed that events said to comprise the Armenian Genocide did occur, the Turkish government rejects that it was genocide, on the alleged basis that the deaths among the Armenians, were not a result of a state-sponsored plan of mass extermination, but from the result of inter-ethnic strife, disease and famine during the turmoil of World War I.

Despite this thesis, most Armenian, Western, and an increasing number of Turkish scholars believe that the massacres were a case of what is termed genocide. For example, most Western sources point to the sheer scale of the death toll. The event is also said to be the second-most studied case of genocide, and often draws comparison with the Holocaust.

Toward the end of the Wikipedia article is this intriguing section:

There is a general agreement among Western historians that the Armenian Genocide did happen. The International Association of Genocide Scholars (the major body of scholars who study genocide in North America and Europe), for instance, formally recognize the event and consider it to be undeniable. On the other hand, the academic recognition has not always been followed by government and media recognition. Many governments, including the United States, United Kingdom and, ironically, Israel do not officially use the word genocide to describe these events, due in part to their strong commercial and political ties to Turkey, though some government officials have used the term personally.

Based on this rather cursory evidence, it seems to me that if refusing to refer to what happened to the Armenians as “genocide” isn’t quite on a par with Holocaust-denial, then it nevertheless may be heading in that direction. Harvey is right in thinking of this as a free-speech issue, but it’s not solely a free-speech issue. It’s also an educational issue. For instance, scientifically literate educators refuse to teach intelligent design not because they oppose free speech, but because there’s no scientific basis for it.

Along the same lines, refusing to teach Massachusetts schoolchildren that what happened in the Ottoman Empire wasn’t genocide may be less a matter of censorship than it is of not teaching bad history.

As I suggested at the top, I’m open on this subject. I really don’t know enough about the Armenian catastrophe to be passing judgment on this. But if this was a genocide — and the weight of history strongly suggests that it was — then denying it has no place in the classroom.

Beacon Hill theology

Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara today charges that political insiderism is responsible for the delay of a bill that would require churches, synagogues and mosques to do the same kind of public financial reporting as non-religious, nonprofit organizations. McNamara writes:

Churches became exempt only in 1954 from the reporting requirements that govern tax-exempt, charitable organizations in the state. The sex abuse scandal illuminated the folly of such secrecy. Critics are being disingenuous when they argue that disclosure would be an infringement on religious freedom. This is not about theology; it is about money.

This follows on the heels of a Globe story by Frank Phillips last week reporting that Protestant groups had succeeded in postponing action on the bill, drafted in order to force more accountability on the part of the Catholic Church.

So is McNamara right? I don’t know. Her argument makes sense. But here’s another perspective: A friend who is an Episcopal priest told me last week that the bill, if it passes, will cost her small, struggling North Shore church $5,000 a year in paperwork and accounting expenses — possibly forcing it to close.

Moreover, she said, the bill wouldn’t even accomplish the goal of requiring the Boston Archdiocese — the real target in all of this — to disclose the finances of each individual Catholic church. The archdiocese simply doesn’t budget that way, keeping everything in a central account. Legislators would like to know more because of the church closings, some of which appear to have been motivated by internal church politics and/or land-value considerations.

Opponents of the bill argue that it would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. I could argue just as logically that exempting churches from the same reporting requirements with which other non-profits must comply amounts to unconstitutional state sponsorship of religion.

Nevertheless, the possibility that a bill aimed at the Catholic Church would almost certainly miss its target and instead harm innocent bystanders suggests that we need to know more about it before the state Legislature votes.

As McNamara notes, this bill has been floating around for quite a while. It’s time for the Globe to stop covering this solely as a Beacon Hill story, and instead to explore what it would mean for churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious organizations.