Archive for the ‘sara ledesma’ Category

Afghanistan: Crime and Corruption With Our Tax Dollars

November 11, 2009

Written By: Sara Ledesma

Our colossal, on-going military and financial expenditure in Afghanistan was intended to yield democracy and stability. Despite throwing exorbitant financial and military resources down the bottomless ditch we call “the war on terror,” Afghanistan is no more stable than when we sent our first brave soldiers and wrote our first blank check. Why, with all the military might and formidable financial wherewithal of the number one superpower in the world, have we yet to make any progress toward the goals of stability and ‘democracy?’ Military resources are exhausted to the point of endangering national security, spending is so out of control we are bankrupting our national reserves and we are losing our mothers, fathers, sons and daughters in escalating numbers. Yet, we are still no closer to declaring our goals met and ending the massive hemorrhaging of our national treasury and our soldiers’ blood.

Since billions of our tax dollars are funding this epic fiasco, we have a right, and a patriotic duty, to ask what return we are receiving on our tragic investment. Violence levels mock our goal of stability. The recent sham of an election in Afghanistan is a glaring indicator we have failed miserably to institute any semblance of ‘democracy.’ By taking a closer look at our military strategy in Afghanistan, we can discern why we have yet to make a single step toward progress despite years of appalling waste.

Afghanistan is run by two brothers, both of whom enjoy unwavering U.S. military, political and financial support. Hamid Karzai is the official president of the country and controls the political state. His brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai is a tribal warlord who controls Southern Afghanistan with a mafia-like, iron fist. Reports from our own CIA, narcotics officials and military personnel describe a history of government collusion with Wali Karzai, including eight years of pay-offs from the CIA. Our government agencies pay Wali for such services as: intelligence, the orchestration of meetings with insurgent groups we want to convert to our side, and the renting of his properties to house U.S. military.

Despite the existence of long-held knowledge that Wali Karzai is involved in the 3 billion-dollar- a-year Opium trade, U.S. tax revenue is used to protect and enrich Wali. In addition to being a known heroin trafficker (the illegal drug made from Afghanistan’s Opium), allegations against the leader of the southern half of Afghanistan include: orchestrating mass election fraud to keep his brother illegitimately in power and playing both sides of the fence with U.S. and insurgent forces. Wali takes money from our CIA and military, then turns around and accepts bribes from Taliban smuggling their heroin through his territories. No doubt he then allows them to pass back through those same routes to smuggle weapons paid for with profits from that heroin. Wali Karzai uses his control of the bridges and pathways in Southern Afghanistan to profit off the heroin dealers who must pay to transport their contraband through the territory he rules. He has used his control of areas such as the Khyber Pass (to Pakistan) to create great wealth off those who traffic in contraband.

Wali Karzai has used the military crackdown on the heroin business in Afghanistan to increase his own influence and power. When our narcotics agents make an arrest of an Afghani drug trader, Wali himself steps in to fill the void, thus increasing his own share of the multi-billion dollar drug trade. Is it any wonder that with all the resources we are dedicating to stamping out the opium trade in Afghanistan, it still amounts to 15% of the nation’s GDP?
The drug trade is so entrenched in Afghanistan politics, the Obama administration recently pressured President Karzai to purge those with drug ties from his government and depose hi s brother from Southern Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, President Karzai has yet to do either. In fact, Ahmed Karzai’s running mate in the recent election, Mohammed Fahim, is a former warlord accused of drug trafficking.

Advocates of our current Afghanistan policy argue no one in Afghanistan is untainted by the drug trade or corruption. They claim it is a country run on an informal, back-channel system of survival of the fittest. From local police demanding bribes, to high-level political corruption and election fixing, conspiring with thugs and warlords is routine and customary. Everyone in Afghanistan is somehow compromised. Two cunning brothers, colluding to play our government for a fool and profiting by any means available—legal or illegal—are the perfect poster boys for politics in Afghanistan.

We partake in a corrupt system, reinforce it with our resources and complicity, and then have the audacity to wonder why we make no progress toward a legitimate, stable government in Afghanistan? If we participate in a soiled, perverted system, we cannot expect results that are free from taint and perversion. We say we are committed to destroying the lucrative drug trade which funds the death of our soldiers and undermines every goal we have in Afghanistan. Yet, Wali Karzai takes advantage of our hard work by capitalizing on any advances we make in prosecuting drug leaders, to enhance his own status as a drug king pin. Wali’s grip on the South (stronghold and sanctuary of Taliban forces) means anyone who passes through does so with his consent—which of course comes with the prerequisite kickback. Who is to stop him when he has the backing of the U.S. military and Drug Enforcement, as well as the political immunity granted him by his brother, the President of the country?

We are palling around with drug lords and corrupt politicians who care nothing for democracy, make a mockery of free elections and democratic principles and only value wealth and power. Our government is being manipulated by a pair of thuggish brothers who take our money, extol the virtues of democracy and diplomacy, then turn their backs and spit on everything democracy stands for. They engage in such widespread corruption, with well-known drug leaders and thugs, that there is no chance to earn the legitimacy that political and social stability requires.

In Other Words…the problem in Afghanistan is crime and corruption pay, and they pay with our tax dollars.

In Other Words… Military Contractors Gone Wild Part2

October 21, 2009

Who is Blackwater and why are they building a privately owned mercenary army in our country?

Written By: Sara Ledesma

• Founded in 1996, Blackwater has used government contracts granted by the Bush administration to build up a private army of twenty thousand soldiers of fortune and a massive military base. The Blackwater compound in North Carolina is worth about $50 million.

• The Blackwater base contains: tanks, helicopter gunships, a Boeing 767, a Zeppelin and a complete arsenal of weapons.

• The most publicized incident involving Blackwater involved the shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians on Sept. 16 in Baghdad labeled by American troops present at the scene a “criminal event.” It is alleged this was payback for the killing and hanging of Blackwater troops. The subsequent investigation cleared Blackwater of any criminal liability. As it turns out, the report exonerating Blackwater for the massacre was written by a Blackwater employee. Is it any surprise he found his company innocent of any wrongdoing?

• Another case of unprovoked assassination was the murder of the Iraqi Vice President’s bodyguard by an intoxicated Blackwater contractor.

• None of these violations were deemed prosecutable by law. Blackwater effectively plays both sides of the fence to escape prosecution. When they are being sued in the U.S they claims they are part of the U.S. Armed Forces to declare immunity, and alternately assert themselves as an independent contractor domestically, to avoid being subjected to the military court martial system. Thanks to Paul Bremmer who, on his last day in Baghdad signed the order making this legal, the strategy is airtight.

• Blackwater recently re-branded itself as ”Xe” in order to separate itself from the notorious reputation of scandal and lawlessness tied to its former name.

• Their original contract in Iraq was to provide private security for Bremer, but within a year, their services expanded to include military combat.

• The U.S .occupation is now dependent on this one private, mercenary company and can’t function without Blackwater on the roads.

• The White House has systematically fought every attempt to establish oversight of the contractors and has granted them immunity under Iraqi law.

• Blackwater is not the only company making its own rules while the government writes the checks –tens of billions of our tax dollars have been allocated to the rebuilding of Iraq, and the tally keeps rising. Add to that the estimated $9 billion of Iraq’s own oil money that has gone missing and we’ve got waste, and possibly fraud, on a massive level.

• We’ve now added Afghanistan to the bill, and still, there is no effective oversight as to how the money is being spent.

The Iraq Embassy Scandal

• The embarrassing photos coming out of the ArmorGroup scandal proves we have learned nothing from the debauchery and contemptible behavior by contractors at Abu Ghraib.

• September 15, 2009: photos are released showing half naked, boozing contractors, entrusted with the job of protecting our embassy, running wild like immature frat boys.

• Members of the independent Commission on Wartime Contracting, established to investigate contracting issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, make parallels between the infamous photographs of detainee abuse and those depicting the Kabul Embassy guards caught engaging in various acts of lewd conduct. The widely publicized photos show contractors: urinating on one another, exposing themselves, engaging in sexually deviant behavior, drinking off each other’s naked body parts and more.

• The photos circulate online, embarrassing the State Department and endangering our missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

• Terry Pearson, a 23-year veteran of the British Army who worked for ArmorGroup subcontractor RAI in Kabul gave the following firsthand account: “The first thing that struck me was they had a metal container in the middle of the road, on which they were burning wooden pallets. The second thought that went through my mind was alcohol and a fire this size, looked very unsafe. Most of people there were wearing underwear, but many were also wearing coconut shell braziers [sic] and coconut shells over their groins, and were for the best part naked. Some were standing there urinating on the ground and on each other.”

• As recently as March 2009, spot checks revealed that the guards were often absent for hours at a time.

• An employee of ArmorGroup made counterfeit purchases from his wife’s company worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

• The Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight investigated AmorGroup’s 5 year, 189.3 million dollar contract awarded to them in 2007 by the State Department. They found AmorGroup failed to provide: a sufficient number of guards, proper weapons training, requisite levels of ammunition or the proper security clearances. They also severely lacked the adequate number of medical technicians and emergency planning.

• As of today, AmorGroup still holds its contract in Kabul

Commission on Wartime Contracting 


Congress formed The Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan to study the allocation and administration of privatized military contracts. These are a few of the findings in their report:

• The commission calculated that investigators had issued 1,287 recommendations to fix waste, fraud and abuse in the Pentagon, but many had never been implemented.

• The 111-page report documents mismanagement, lack of oversight, and a failure to learn from past mistakes.

• The Commission noted a perfect example of waste/mismanagement: Houston-based KBR was building a 30-million-dollar dining facility at Camp Delta in southern Iraq, after the company had just completed a 3.36-million-dollar renovation of the old dining facility—making the new one a sickening waste of tax payer money.

• Of the 504 oversight officials that the military estimated it needed to oversee contracting in Afghanistan, only 166 were actually in the field in April 2009.

• The Pentagon had only four auditors in Afghanistan to supervise billions of dollars in government money.

• The Pentagon failed to deduct money from contractors who underperformed or didn’t meet the terms of their contracts.

• The investigators were prevented from uncovering the full extent of the fraud because they were not allowed to examine the work of sub-contractors.

• Although companies like ArmorGroup and KBR work directly for the U.S. government, an estimated 70 percent of the work is done by sub-contractors (like First Kuwaiti Trading Company, Prime Projects International from Dubai or Tamimi of Saudi Arabia) and these companies operate outside the jurisdiction of the oversight committee.

• Many of the soldiers assigned to supervise the contractors had never received the formal training necessary to conduct their oversight duties. 


KBR

KBR, a former subsidiary of Halliburton, holds the contract for the electrical services performed in Iraq. They are being sued for causing the unnecessary deaths of our courageous men and women in uniform as a result of criminally negligent electrical work.

• An Army inspector found thousands of buildings at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan have such poorly installed wiring that it places the lives of American troops at risk.

• Many of the wires installed in Iraq need to be replaced.

• Jim Childs, a master electrician and the top expert in the Army Safety Survey told CNN that “with the buildings the way they are, we’re playing Russian roulette.”

• In Iraq, 18 U.S. troops have died by electrocution since 2003.

• Of the nearly 30,000 buildings the Army’s “Task Force Safe” has examined so far: more than half “failed miserably” and 8,527 were given a “flash” warning to repair in four hours or evacuate the facility.

• After the January 2008 elocution death of the Army’s Green Beret Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth at a U.S. base in Baghdad, faulty electrical work has become a chief concern in Iraq and Afghanistan.

• Staff Sgt. Maseth’s electrocution in the shower prompted the creation of “Task Force Safe,” a team of master electricians assigned to inspect Army posts for electrical dangers.

• At least two service orders were issued warning of the hazard in Maseth’s quarters.

• Maseth’s family is suing KBR. An Army investigator has sided with Maseth’s family and recommended his death be declared a “negligent homicide.”

• KBR denies responsibility for Maseth’s death or those of any other soldiers.

• KBR was not the only company found to be negligent. Unbelievably, the Army survey found problems with every contractor whose work it inspected.

• Task Force Safe has begun to inspect another 70,000 buildings in Iraq and is commencing a review of bases in Afghanistan. Pentagon spokesman Chris Isleib told CNN, “We are correcting hazardous conditions every day.”
The vote against Franken’s Amendment

A final case study exposes the true depths of depravity to which our government leaders will sink in order to protect the cash cow contracts of their cronies in the ever-expanding privatized military contracting industry. 30 Republican members of the United States Senate voted to protect a private contractor, in this case Halliburton/KBR, over a woman who was gang raped. The shocking details of this implausible low to which our Congress has sunk:

• In 2005, Jamie Leigh Jones was working for Halliburton/KBR in Baghdad and was gang-raped by her co-workers. She was locked in a shipping container for at least 24 hours without food, water, or a bed, and “warned her that if she left Iraq for medical treatment, she’d be out of a job.”

• As sick as this is, it was not an isolated incident.

• Jones was denied the right to bring charges against KBR because her employment contract stipulated that sexual assault allegations could only be addressed in private arbitration.

• Senator Al Franken of Minnesota stepped up to the plate to confront this glaring injustice committed against Jamie Leigh Jones. He proposed an amendment to the 2010 Defense Appropriations bill that would withhold defense contracts from companies like KBR “if they restrict their employees from taking workplace sexual assault, battery and discrimination cases to court.”

• Despite the obvious responsibility of our government to protect women from rape, 30 Republican senators voted against justice for victims of violent sex crimes in order to allow private contractors to continue living above the law.

• Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions of Alabama had the audacity to claim that allowing victims of sexual assault their day in court is tantamount to a “political attack” of Halliburton. Apparently the GOP believes the interests of their contractor cronies supersede the constitution of the United States.

• The fact that 29 others, exclusively men, chose to join the Republican lawmaker in opposing the Franken amendment is too sick and sad to comprehend.

• Those senators who refused to protect a victim of rape in order to privilege a callous corporation are:
Alexander (R-TN)
Barrasso (R-WY)
Bond (R-MO)
Brownback (R-KS)
Bunning (R-KY)
Burr (R-NC)
Chambliss (R-GA)
Coburn (R-OK)
Cochran (R-MS)
Corker (R-TN)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Crapo (R-ID)
DeMint (R-SC)
Ensign (R-NV)
Enzi (R-WY)
Graham (R-SC)
Gregg (R-NH)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)
Johanns (R-NE)
Kyl (R-AZ)
McCain (R-AZ)
McConnell (R-KY)
Risch (R-ID)
Roberts (R-KS)
Sessions (R-AL)
Shelby (R-AL)
Thune (R-SD)
Vitter (R-LA)
Wicker (R-MS)

• Ten Republican senators did vote according to their humanity and conscience, including every female member of the GOP.

• Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska defended her vote for Franken’s Amendment by stating: “I want to make sure that a woman, any individual who is a victim of a terrible act, knows that they have got protections.” Republican Sen. George LeMieux of Florida explained his vote in the following words: “I can’t see in any circumstance that a woman who was a victim of sexual assault shouldn’t have her right to go to court,” LeMieux said. “So, that is why I voted for it.” Perhaps a hint of morality still exists in the GOP.



Conclusion

From Abu Ghraib, to the gang rape of a contractor at Halliburton, to Blackwater’s repeated abuses of power and KBR’s criminally negligent electrical work, we have witnessed a spectacle of waste and debauchery unleashed by unregulated military contractors. Halliburton overcharges us for everything from towels to gas. KBR sticks it to us for over 33 million dollars for a dining hall and is so criminally negligent in the performance of their duties that enlisted soldiers, fighting for their lives on the battlefield, are dying in their bathrooms as a result of shoddy wiring.

A woman can be gang raped and 30 Senators will vote to deny her justice. A U.S. Watchdog agency can report such fraud as: “The State Department does not know specifically what it received for a billion-dollar contract with security firm DynCorp International to provide training services for Iraqi police”. Despite these incidents, and more, nothing is done to rein in these rogue companies. The only explanation is that our government is complicit.
In Other Words…our military and intelligence agencies are being outsourced to private companies who are running wild like cowboys on the frontier and pillaging our federal treasury, unaccountable to the laws of our country or to us tax payers who are footing the bill.

In Other Words… Military Contractors Gone Wild Part1

October 20, 2009

Military Contractors Gone Wild: Hijacking our Treasury and Living Above the Law

Written By: Sara Ledesma

Billions of dollars flow into the private contracting sector in Iraq and Afghanistan and into Homeland Security, here at home. The way in which this money is spent and the services provided by these contractors are performed is, for the most part, unregulated and unsupervised. The private armies, and the mercenary soldiers that comprise them, are not held to any legal standards…not the laws other citizens must abide by, not the laws our U.S. Troops are held to, and not the laws which apply to the countries in which they are contracted to fight and rebuild. Despite investigations which expose habitual negligence, waste, fraud, incompetence, and even criminal conduct, on behalf of these private contractors, nothing is being done to follow the trail of our tax dollars or make the employees of these companies accountable to the laws that the rest of us must follow.

How can our government willfully look the other way, abandoning one of their chief duties— supervising government contracts? Why do they refuse to demand responsibility for the billions of dollars unaccounted for, and criminal actions perpetuated by, military contractors voraciously profiting off the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Military contractors are calling the shots, writing their own contracts, conducting their own investigations when accused of wrong-doing, receiving immunity from the rule of law our men and women in uniform abide by, profiting off crony capitalism akin to corporate welfare where exorbitant profits are paid to the pet companies of the administration, all with no competition or accountability. A string of scandals has not been enough to put an end to the unregulated run, tallying in the billions, on our government coffers. In fact, an amendment to make it illegal to use government contractors that don’t allow rape victims their day in court was just defeated in the Senate. One of the first attempts at reigning in the outlaw military contractors committing criminal acts with impunity was actually voted down.

The use of military contractors is exploding as war abroad, and homeland security domestically, are transformed into privatized industries. Private security contractors now outnumber our own troops. We are witnessing the creation of the most privatized war in our history, and the same is happening with Homeland security here in the U.S. Private contractors have co-opted our international and domestic security, but at much higher profits and none of the regulation or accountability, of our military and government agencies. The CEOs of these companies bank billions of taxpayer dollars while their employees get a license to rape and kill at will.

Meanwhile, our men and women in uniform are dutifully held to U.S. Military law and get paid embarrassingly less for doing the same, or often more difficult and dangerous, duties than those of privately-contracted soldiers.

Halliburton, Bechtel, Parsons, KPMG, Blackwater, among others, are feasting insatiably off a corporate welfare system designed by their friends in our U.S. government. The Bush administration created private markets for war contractors, barred their competitors from even entering the race, and then paid them to do the work on “cost-plus” contracts, which guaranteed them profits –all at taxpayer expense. For Example, 90 percent of Blackwater’s revenues come from government contracts and virtually its entire staff is comprised of former U.S. soldiers. Our government spent millions training these soldiers and then Blackwater poaches them, pays them many times the salary our military pays, and charges the bill back to us!

Blackwater builds its staff, facilities and state of the art armory of weapons, tanks and jets on the government’s dime and yet this vast infrastructure is all privately owned and controlled. Our tax dollars foot the costly bill for the build up and running of this private army, yet as citizens we have no right to any of the equipment and infrastructure we’ve paid for or any right to demand accountability by the soldiers we’ve spent millions training. The CIA has lost so many staffers to contractors they had to prohibit recruiting in the agency dining room.

So how did the privatization happen? The Bush administration cannot claim it was a scheme to apply free market rules to the security industry because the granting of these outrageously profitable contracts are not given according to free market, capitalist principles. In fact, it’s a text book definition of crony capitalism. According to former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in his book The Age of Turbulence: New Adventures in a New World, “When a government’s leaders or businesses routinely seek out private-sector individuals or businesses, and, in exchange for political support, bestow favors on them, the society is said to be in the grip of ‘crony capitalism.’ The favors generally take the form of monopoly access to certain markets, preferred access to sales of government assets, and special access to those in power.”

Corporations are funding their private, illegal armies and spy agencies with our tax dollars. The cronies of these private contractors in the Bush Administration’s State Department and Pentagon designed it so the contractors would have no government oversight, despite being funded by the National Treasury and having an enormous amount of power usually reserved for military, and intelligence agencies (CIA, NSA and FBI).

Rumsfeld took advantage of the state of emergency after 9-11 to create a new system of military outsourcing without a legal or national debate. His plan to enrich the pockets of his contractor friends at the expense of our tax dollars was laid out as follows: Reject troop increases in Iraq, force the military to go to private soldiers of fortune to fulfill its combat needs, build up private armies such as Blackwater while downsizing our military, then extend this privatization to homeland security back in the U.S. Once he began outsourcing security, he quickly expanded the services of private contractors to intelligence, interrogation, and homeland security.

There are hundreds of companies profiting rapaciously off of this privatization scheme. Lockheed, GE and Booz Allen are a few companies receiving some of the biggest slices of the military contracting pie and enjoying exemption from oversight. The problem is the outsourcing of our security has been deliberately constructed to allow contractors to operate completely outside the checks and balances of the constitutional structure of our country.



Rumsfeld, at the direction of Bush himself, put Paul Bremer in charge of orchestrating the laws to guarantee private contractors carte blanche to operate with complete immunity. Most of these laws are still on the books today. There is no political will to change the status quo. In Iraq and Afghanistan, companies like Blackwater and Halliburton are performing more and more of the duties our troops in uniform once performed. Here at home the intelligence industry continues to be outsourced and privatized to such an extent that the CIA has had to restrict Blackwater and others from poaching their spies inside the CIA’s own dining hall.


A few numbers to drive the point home:

• Counterintelligence Field Activity, an intelligence agency created under Rumsfeld to act independently of the CIA, outsources 70 percent of its budget to private contractors.

• In 2003, the U.S. government gave 3,512 contracts to private companies for security services

• From 2003-2006: the Department of Homeland Security issued more than 115,000 such contracts.

• The global homeland security industry—basically non-existent before 2001– is now a $200 billion sector of the economy.

Frighteningly enough, these private companies, entrusted with sensitive, classified intelligence pertaining to the security of our entire nation are allowed to play fast and loose with almost no oversight and no accountability. There is a blurring of the line between government and private corporations that breeds abuse, misconduct, and fraud because where these corporations end and government begins is becoming less and less discernible. This lack of a clearly defined demarcation allows for such perversions of oversight as: Blackwater being permitted to investigate its own alleged massacre in Baghdad, the Army to outsource the job of updating the manual for dealing with private contractors to a private contractor and for a private contractor to be awarded the job of overseeing other private contractors. And since Bremmer has already ensured private contractors work and play in a legal limbo where they are subject to no jurisdiction of law, when an investigation is actually conducted, it is ineffectual and merely for show.

Meanwhile, our own military and our own troops are left to do the dirty work and endure much more risk for much less pay. While our troops are subject to the rule of law, private contractors are allowed to run wild in a state of perpetual immunity. They play the game according to whatever rules they choose and the government pays the bill.

A close up look at a few of the recent scandals illustrates how our military and national budget is being hijacked by the military contractor cronies of those who are elected to serve the common good of the citizens of our nation – continued in Part2.

In Other Words… Who Needs Fact and Logic?

September 29, 2009

Who Needs Fact and Logic When Fear and Loathing Pass as Legitimate Discourse?

Written By: Sara Ledesma

The death of Walter Cronkite signaled an overall death of accuracy, accountability and professionalism in the mainstream media. It is tragic that the country with the freest media in the world is squandering it away on sensationalism and partisan bickering. The free press is paramount to keeping our country both free and democratic.

Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of thought and freedom of the press are the essential instruments that sustain and uphold the liberty we enjoy as citizens of this great country. Why then has it become acceptable to short change our democratic process and our national dialogue by promoting falsehoods and muddying intelligent discourse about actual issues with ridiculous inventions? There is no accountability when these lies are told and the constant media coverage they receive serves to promote them and grant them credibility.

In place of civil, reasoned debate, we have ill-informed talking heads screaming at one another with no regard for accuracy or logic, only for “winning” and increasing ratings with their performance. Polls pass for data, sound bites pass for thoughtful dialogue and knowledge, and there is no standard of legitimacy, civility, logic or most of all—accuracy and truth—for any statement or claim made by journalists and bloggers. More and more, even politicians, officials elected to serve and lead, are engaging in formulating and promulgating theories and statements that are outlandish, unsupported, and sometimes flat out contradictory to the actual facts.

We’ve reached an apex of disrespect in discourse that allows blatant vulgarity against the President of our country during a joint session of Congress. Joe Wilson can yell at the President and many think him a hero, including some whom confer the title of journalist upon themselves. In fact, over a million dollars was raised on behalf of Joe Wilson’s disrespect. Instead of outrage at his breach of appropriate conduct, he received praise by the fringe Right that has high jacked the Republican Party. Wilson’s lack of decency transformed him from an obscure politician into a fundraising cash cow. Walter Cronkite is turning over in his grave.

We have always proudly been a country of competing ideas and viewpoints. Our “marketplace” of competing ideas is what makes our country the egalitarian, democratic, free thinking, diverse nation we embrace as uniquely American. Throughout our history it has been vital to what is flouted as American ingenuity, innovation, resourcefulness and creativity. Enter the current political and social climate where we are witnessing a perilous, radical rupture with our history of honored tolerance and encouragement of multiple points of view. Our prior reverence for freedom of thought, born of the Enlightenment, is succumbing to a Dark Age of incivility to those whose views we oppose and contempt for any ideology that differs from ours. In place of tolerance, intellectual integrity and intellectual curiosity is a total lack of regard for truth or facts in discourse and a willingness to disrespect any person who is deemed a threat to the views and way of life one holds as preeminent.

Our current disregard for actual discussion and relevance is evident from the recent outbursts and finger biting at town halls, to the toting of assault weapons to presidential appearances, to the photos of our President as Hitler and Stalin, to Joe Wilson’s outright debasement of President Obama during a speech to Congress. Thinly veiled threats of violence at protests, outright declarations of succession in Texas rallies and virulent rants calling for the assassination of our president by religious zealots are ubiquitous in the media and distract us from the actual facts and policies at hand.

The democratic process suffers when we are unable to focus on serious issues because outlandish inventions, and theories with no relationship to reality, dominate the media and our national debate. The majority of the country is held captive by the unhinged fringe element that is being manipulated by pundits, media personalities and politicians that are exploiting an ill-informed, fearful, conservative faction of society. It’s tragic to see those who are intelligent enough to know better use fear and misinformation to play to the cultural dislocation and fundamental misunderstanding of the issues of Americans who seek their guidance.

Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the Fox News team realize they are fanning the flames of violent and racist rage with their manipulation of fact and blatant fear mongering, yet feel no accountability for the environment of political and social hostility and aggression they are ushering in. Extremists now head the Republican Party which was once the party of intellectuals. They incite racist opposition to our President and promote theories he is not an actual citizen, his birth certificate is fake, he is an outsider usurping power of our government in order to subordinate White America. Glen Beck no longer uses coded messages to perpetuate this false anxiety, but said explicitly, “Obama is a racist” and “Obama hates white people.”

Of course, Beck chooses not to highlight the fact that Obama was birthed and raised by his White mother.

As a country we are experiencing a breakdown of civility and mutual respect in our society. I am fearful of what this new age of intolerance and antagonism will unleash upon us all. I wasn’t alive to see the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or JFK, but I am terrified we will see a new round of violence erupt and claim innocent lives. I fear our President will meet a similar fate, and it keeps me awake at night, frightened and confused at how we got to this point. Weren’t we supposed to be past this division and hatred? It has already begun with the assassination of doctors who perform abortions at the hands of extreme Pro-Life groups. They share the same rhetoric of violence in the name of God and country that many Deathers, Birthers, Successionists, Tea baggers, Militia groups and religious fundamentalists share. I pray this country remains the bastion of diversity, freedom and tolerance that have made it the noblest political system in the world.

Those on the fringe are blinded by their own fears and use hate as a way to protect themselves from that fear. Eventually that hate gives them comfort and, even satisfaction, or worse, a sick pleasure and sense of superiority. The enlightened, reasoned discourse that is the foundation of Democracy is suffering at the hands of those who perpetuate illogical emotion over facts and honest debate. Our communities, our children and our future will suffer at the break down of respect, empathy, decency and compassion for one another that is spreading like a perilous virus.

For those who will give anything to win, the damage they are inflicting is of no consequence. That is the scariest fact of all. They are benefiting from the breakdown of all that makes our country great and they have no remorse for the destruction of all that this country has represented for so long to so many. Those who perpetuate our divergence from science, progress, rationality and a compassionate, civil society, do so with calculating purpose. A fearful, misinformed, misguided, electorate is exactly what they want.

It is a constituency they can bend and manipulate any way they choose. It is an electorate that is powerless to challenge the status quo they so greedily and effectively benefit from because it is a public that does not understand their own interests or posses the judgment to vote according to what is best for themselves and their families. In Other Words…to those that relish in the breakdown of an educated, informed electorate, who needs fact and logic when fear and loathing pass as legitimate discourse?

In Other Words… A Journey of Redemption: From Orphaned Child Soldier to International Hip Hop Star and Activist

September 4, 2009

Written By: Sara Ledesma

In modern society we recognize some things should always be diametrically opposed: Children and Violence, children and exploitation, Religion and hate, religion and intolerance. Yet around the globe religion is used to divide citizens, provoke war, justify unspeakable acts of terror and condone mass homicide. Children are targeted for exploitation precisely because of the vulnerability of their innocence.

Africa, a continent plagued by a history of civil warfare, knows the barbarism fueled by religious and ethnic division leaves no true survivors. Children do not survive childhood with their families, or their innocence, unbroken. But they can survive the hell of mayhem and destruction with their souls and dignity intact. Emmanuel Jal is proof of that possibility. Having survived the terrifying plight of being a child soldier himself, he is now working to ensure the broken children of war have the chance to grow up with the dignity that is the birthright of every human child.

Emmanuel Jal walked through the demented fires of a living hell, was forced to participate in the most dehumanizing acts one person can perpetrate against another, and came out the other side an activist and artist determined to right every wrong, to cleanse himself, and his beloved Africa, of sins committed as a “war child” in the Sudanese army. He entered the army an innocent casualty of the lust for power that fueled the civil wars of Sudan. Bolstered by rhetoric of religious and ethnic intolerance, the SPLA inducted orphaned Emmanuel. Warlords placed an assault rifle in his hand, where there should have been a ball or a pencil. Any innocence left unmarred by the murder of his mother, rape of his aunt, and burning of his home and village evaporated as he became a child soldier at seven years of age.

Emmanuel escaped on foot with over 300 other “lost boys”. They walked for more than three months to find sanctuary from the front lines of war. They scavenged for snails, snakes, leaves, roots and vulture carcasses to fend off starvation. Emmanuel dreamed of tasting the tender meat of a good friend as hunger drove his mind to envision cannibalism to appease its agony. Those who starvation did not slaughter, were executed by animal attacks, disease or military ambush. 16 survived the death walk to reach the safety of a refugee camp. There Emmanuel found safe haven from the torment of a war that had held him prisoner to the vilest of human nature.

He crossed into a new reality where hope, life and love were once again possible. Rescued by English aid worker Emma McCune, Emmanuel’s life, and soul, were saved. Emma educated Emmanuel, setting him free from the illiteracy and ignorance that had allowed him to be manipulated by scheming warlords. While other kids were learning to read and add and write, Emmanuel was foraging for food, raiding villages and fighting a bloody, vicious war.

Education gave Emmanuel fresh eyes to see the war for what it was: a senseless, wicked prison that held his people captive in a cycle of poverty, starvation, disease, lack of infrastructure, lack of clean water, lack of access to employment, education and medical care. Emmanuel saw himself as one of 4 million made homeless, and hopeless, by decades of perpetual war. He recognized how his thirst for revenge had been influenced by the religious and ethnic rhetoric of the SPLA designed to convert him from a traumatized boy into a merciless soldier. He realized it was a lust for oil, diamonds and gold for which villages, lives, and a country’s future, were desecrated.

Emmanuel felt used and remorseful. He forgave the soldiers that raped his aunt as he watched, a scared, confused 5 year old boy. He forgave them for burning into ashes the village he had called home. He forgave them for scattering the family he loved and destroying the world where he had been so happy. Innocence, family and community defiled, he was fed lies that nourished a thirst for revenge. A 7 year old boy, armed with hatred and an AK 47 machine gun taller than him, would go on to exact his revenge over the next 5 years. As a little boy soldier he would dwell in the darkest recesses of the human spirit. Atrocities committed against Life, God, and his own countrymen—fellow Africans he could only recognize as the enemies who had stolen everything from him.

Emmanuel survived five years of the front lines of two Sudanese civil wars and a terrifying death march to make it back to humanity. Into his story of redemption comes Emma McCune, a British aid worker who smuggled Emmanuel into Nairobi, adopted him and sent him to school. Salvation came through education and redemption came through telling his story. Through music, a documentary and an autobiography he exposed his private pain. He told the story of war worn Africa for all those who could not share their heart breaking stories and voice their dreams for change and peace.

Emmanuel is now an international hip hop star who sings of the suffering of life in a death zone riddled by war. An award-winning documentary and an autobiography, both titled “War Child”, document the evils perpetuated against a people trying to hold onto family, life and hope while ensnared in an endless cycle of military conflict. His critically acclaimed third album, also titled “War Child” dropped in 2008 and he is working on his 4th album now. Emmanuel is also an activist who braves the torment of telling his story to audiences across the globe so he can raise money for his non-profit foundation Gua Africa. Gua means “peace” in his native Nuer, a southern Sudanese dialect. An innocent soul, soiled by the crimes of war is finally able to bring about the healing power of peace.

Emmanuel‘s first CD, Gua, brought the plight of the children of war to the international community. He chose to turn his terror into triumph after realizing the power of music to heal, to cross ethnic and religious boundaries and speak to a part of the human soul that is common to all—regardless of color, creed or country. He sings of an ailing Africa besieged by a cycle of civil war and generations of children raised by constant violence, hungry, orphaned, violated and afraid.

Religious and ethnic rhetoric disguise an Africa strapped by a brutal struggle for resources, power and control. Children orphaned, women and girls raped, boys forced to commit the sins they’ve witnessed done to their own families and villages, unto others. And he sings of the aid worker, and second mother, Emma McCune who saved his life: “What would I be, if Emma never rescued me? What would I be…another starving refugee.” He sings of his beloved savior who dedicated her life to the children of war. It is a pull you up onto your feet and make you dance track you want to replay over and over again. It ends with Emmanuel telling you to “Go save a child”. Emma saved 150 children in war ravaged Sudan, going as far as to marry a Sudanese guerilla commander and convince him not to use children as soldiers.

Emmanuel is doing his part to save children through his charity Gua Africa. They are building a primary school, teacher training center and secondary school in his hometown of Leer, Sudan. It is named Emma Academy, in honor of his beloved Emma McCune who passed away in a car accident. Gua also supports another school, Kariobangi, which serves 400 kids orphaned by war who would not have access to education without Emmanuel’s organization. Emmanuel is currently on a limited hunger strike, where he only eats one meal a day until he raises enough money to finish the academy. His “lose to win” hunger campaign is a tribute to many in his country who eat only one meal daily out of necessity. www.gua-africa.org

Through his music and his foundation Emmanuel is fighting for a new Africa. Gua is building schools and sponsoring the education of ex-child soldiers and refugees so they become artists, engineers, teachers and doctors. These survivors of Africa’s war riddled legacy are studying so they can create the change they want to see in Africa’s future. Emmanuel says the old men who are orchestrating wars in Africa will die soon, and he is doing his part to ensure the next generation can resurrect the demolished institutions needed to bring Africa into a new age of prosperity, progress, health and peace.

For some in the most disadvantaged and heinous parts of the world, their circumstances drag them so deep into the depths of hell they lose sight of their own humanity. It is not a choice any human would make to live and suffer the violence of war. It is, however, possible to spin a life of inflicted savagery into forgiveness and a quest for peace. It is possible to live through the hell of war and dedicate oneself to doing everything humanly possible to ensure no child has to endure what you have survived. Emmanuel chose to turn pain into music…the more beautiful because of the deep, raw emotion and profound message it sings to the world. His music is a universal call for healing, peace and a brighter tomorrow.

In other words…the human soul has an almost unfathomable capacity for resilience and redemption. It is this potential to right our wrongs, to weave hope out of despair, to build peace out of violence and violation that proves peace can one day be a reality the whole world can share. Give peace a chance. And while you are at it, give Emmanuel’s albums “Gua” and “War Child” a chance. It’s some of the rawest, most insightful lyrics, spread over some of the most bumping beats, you will hear in music today. It’s a rare cry for a return to the dignity of humanity.

More info – http://www.emmanueljal.com/

In Other Words… There Should Never Be A Fine Line Between Church and State

August 10, 2009

Written By: Sara Ledesma

The brilliant political minds who masterminded the construction of our country deserve resounding praise for one of their finest founding tenets: the separation of Church and State. How marvelously fortuitous to be a citizen in a country where you are without fear of being held captive to the subjective interpretation of morality or religious beliefs of another person or entity!

Which one of us can deny the ingenuity of guaranteeing protection against the tyranny of one’s values over another, the claim of moral superiority of one religious philosophy over another, the hegemony of one absolute point of view? Those shrewd political strategists who brought the ideal of freedom, equality and justice to life in the creation of the United States of America knew one thing with absolute certainty: Freedom starts with our heads, our hearts and our souls. If we have no freedom to believe as we choose, to define morality, spirituality and our own concept of God, for ourselves, we will never genuinely experience freedom.

To fully comprehend the absolute necessity for separation between Church and State as a pre-existing condition of freedom and Democracy, we only have to look at the disastrous consequences wreaked upon our government when the distinct line between the two is blurred.

Enter the religious right and it’s self-righteous, minions in the Republican Congress. Beginning with President Ronald Regan it has become advantageous, and accepted, in Republican politics to legislate morality, based on a subjective interpretation of a conservative, Christian, religious doctrine. Flash forward to current times, it has become the solid basis upon which the Republican platform is built. Consequence for all citizens, regardless of political persuasion: the eradication of the crucial, freedom-safeguarding, separation of Church and State. What began as a sanctimonious crusade to legislate, and thereby legally control, the morality of you and I, backfired heinously when politicians elected on their self-proclaimed pious values set themselves up as the moral standard by which we should all aspire and then refused to embody those same values.

These law-making hypocrites condescendingly told us how “good, Christian” people with family values should behave, and then proceeded to behave exactly the opposite in their personal. Arrogant enough to believe they were above the laws they sought to tyrannically impose upon us, they became exposed as hypocritical examples of men who lack any integrity or values.

I fear living in a country where someone’s personal interpretation of religion, values, or morality becomes my lawfully mandated way of life. As citizens of the United States of America, our constitution guarantees us protection against such dangerous religious tyranny. Why should publicly recognized moral failures be the ones to dictate religious morality?

It’s wrong to drag a politician’s personal life into the public spotlight, especially if it will negatively impact their family. The personal choices an elected official makes are not the business of the constituents he or she serves—as long as it does not adversely affect the job they are elected to perform. If a legislator decides to have an affair, for example, it is between that person, their conscience and their family. It only becomes a matter of public concern when that politician is asserting himself as a defender of family values, or herself, as a model of religious and moral piety.

It’s the arrogant and insincere hypocrisy that adds salt to the wound of the transgression these politicians make against the constitutionally protected distinction between Church and State. It is the assertion of moral superiority to their counterparts in the Democratic Party, and their opponents in their own party, that brings their personal lives into the public. When a politician’s personal choices and private behavior become political, it is a danger to all whom cherish the freedom of thought and belief our country is loved and envied for by people throughout the world. To these self-purportedly, pious lawmakers I say: stick to your job making policy and law; and leave religious and family values to us and our families. We can’t do a worse job determining our own guiding principles in our lives then you are doing in yours.

To illustrate the point, a few case studies: Five Republican congressmen who dared to define for us what was “moral,” while clandestinely violating those same values themselves. Have these supposedly devout Christians ever heard the biblical teaching: Those in glass houses should not throw stones?

Newt Gingrich

The Facts:

•He branded the Democratic Party as: “decadent,” “permissive,” “sick,” “selfish” and, of course, “liberal.”

•He vehemently demanded Clinton resign for having an affair with a staffer.

Hypocrisy Highlight:

•At the same time he vilified Clinton for sleeping with someone other than his wife, and charged that his personal sexual exploits made him unfit to do his job as a public servant, the Georgia Republican was on his second marriage and carrying on a secret affair with the young Capitol Hill clerk who later became his third wife.

•In 2007, he admitted that he was cheating on his wife while simultaneously chastising President Clinton for consorting with Monica Lewinsky.

Today: Gingrich is a spokesman for the Republican Party and a possible Presidential candidate in 2012.

Paul Stanley, (Senator, TN)

The Facts:

•This southern lawmaker resigned from the state Senate just last week after an investigation into an extortion case exposed his adulterous affair with a 22-year-old intern.

•Stanley‘s disgraceful exit statement: “Due to recent events, I have decided to focus my full attention on my family and resign my Senate seat effective August 10,”

•His Mistress’ boyfriend, Joel Watts, is charged with trying to extort $10,000 from Stanley in April. Watts allegedly threatened to release naked photos the Senator took of the intern to the media if Stanley did not pay up.

•Stanley is a married father of two children.

Hypocrisy Highlight:

•He advocated against funding for Planned Parenthood citing his sanctimonious belief that unmarried people should not have sex.

•The conservative legislator sponsored failed measures to ban gay couples from adopting children. Being gay apparently offends his sincere dedication to traditional family values.

•The lawmakers patronizing excuse for his hypocrisy: “And just because I fell far short of what God’s standard was for me and my wife, doesn’t mean that that standard is reduced in the least bit.”

Mark Sanford (R-NC):

The Facts:

•This self-proclaimed believer in the sanctity of the family, pursued a clandestine affair with a women from Argentina, flying to South America to visit her on numerous occasions, all while participating in marriage counseling to save his failing marriage.

•Sanford has been married for nearly 20 years to the mother of his four sons.

•Sanford’s wife, Jenny, was her husband’s political adviser for most of his career. She is cited as a major player in crafting his political success.

•He disappeared over Father’s Day weekend to rendezvous with his mistress in Argentina, not providing any information about his whereabouts to his four sons or his confused staff.

•He lied to the public he was elected to serve, as well as the staff who aids him in running the state, about where he was during his irresponsible abandonment of his professional duties.

•Sanford held a press conference to “confess” his sins, once they were exposed by an investigative reporter. He apologized first to his mistress and, later, his wife.

•His wife’s comment on his family values:”… the greatest legacy I will leave in this world is the character of the children I, or we, leave behind. It is for that reason that I deeply regret the recantations of my husband Mark, and their potential damage to our children.”
Hypocrisy Highlight:

•Governor Sandford portrayed himself as a champion of conservative, Christian, family values to get elected in South Carolina, and then eagerly discarded those values for an Argentinean lover he enjoyed a romance with while his wife raised his 4 children and diligently worked as his political advisor.

•Stanford Called for Clinton to resign, declaring his extramarital affair made him unfit to continue to hold office. Now that he himself has been exposed as an adulterous politician, Sanford doesn’t feel he should be held to the same standard.

Today: The South Carolina Governor seems determined to continue his term in office, despite being shown as a fraud to the principles upon which he was elected.

John Ensign: (R-NV)

The Facts:

•John Ensign publicly acknowledged his covert affair with a woman on his staff. Like Stanley, a man involved with the woman—this time the woman’s husband—demanded money from the lawmaker to keep the matter out of the media.

•Senator Ensign had an affair with the wife of his own administrative assistant and long time friend, Doug Hampton.

•Ensign transferred his staffer and friend to another position (without telling either Doug Hampton or the new employer the reason) so he could have sex with his mistress more easily and frequently.

•Senator Ensign employed the teenage son of his mistress, Cynthia Hampton. The young man was paid $5,400 according to Federal Election Commission records. No one on the Commission, or from Ensign’s office, has stepped forward to explain what services the Hamptons’ son did to receive this paycheck.

•Cynthia Hampton’s salary escalated during the time she and Ensign were committing adultery.

•Ensign’s parents paid out nearly $100,000 to the Hamptons. This money was supposed to keep cuckolded Doug Hampton quiet. After receiving the money, Doug Hampton blew the scandal open by going straight to the media.

•Ensign publicly destroyed two families with his extra marital affair.

•Senator Ensign, and his wife Darlene, have three children.

•Sinner Ensign’s remorse: “I deeply regret and am very sorry for my actions.”

•Previous to his outing as a hypocrite, Top of FormEnsign received a 100 percent rating from the Christian Coalition.

Hypocrisy Highlights:

•He fervently called for Clinton to resign for having an extramarital affair.

•Ensign zealously impugned Sen. Larry Craig when he was caught in a sex scandal.

•If he has the courage of his convictions, why doesn’t Ensign resign? Easy answer: He is a hypocrite who tells others how to behave, but feels the same rules don’t apply to him.

•Ensign declared: “Marriage is the cornerstone on which our society was founded. For those who say that the Constitution is so sacred that we cannot or should not adopt the Federal Marriage Amendment, I would simply point out that marriage, and the sanctity of that institution, predates the American Constitution and the founding of our nation.”

•Ensign is a born-again Christian and member of Promise Keepers, a male evangelical group that promotes fidelity.

Today: Ignoring his arrogant hypocrisy, John Ensign has yet to resign for the same peccadillo for which he vilified Bill Clinton and Larry Craig. Evidence is quickly accumulating that he concealed his affair through the misuse of public funds. He is up for reelection in 2012.

David Vitter: (R-LA)

The Facts:

•Vitter’s phone number was found five times in phone records for the upscale brothel run by the now-famous D.C. Madame

•The Canal Street Bordello in New Orleans also claims Vitter as a former client.

•Vitter issued a statement on July 9, 2007 admitting: “This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible.” He added that he has already made peace with his wife and his God.

•David and his wife Wendy have four children.

•The conservative Family Research Council presented Vitter with an award for his diligence in preserving family values.

Hypocrisy Highlight:

•The first line of his official biography reads, “David Vitter is dedicated to making life better for his young family and all Louisiana families.

•Vitter campaigned by promising to protect “the sanctity of marriage.”

•Vitter co-authored the “Federal Marriage Act” that sought to prohibit courts from interpreting same-sex marriage laws, and said of marriage, “I don’t believe there’s any issue that’s more important than this one.”

•He contrasted himself to impious Louisiana politicians of the past by portraying himself as a holier-than-thou reformer against immorality and corruption.

•Vitter went to Washington in 1999 after winning a special election to replace Rep. Bob Livingston, who had resigned in a sex scandal when his marital indiscretions were publically aired. Vitter cultivated an image as a reformer who would rid Louisiana politics of sex scandals like the one that ended the career of his predecessor.

Today: David Vitter is currently running for re-election to the Louisiana Senate. He promises to champion old-fashioned, Southern, conservative values. His capacity for insincerity and incongruity knows no bounds.

THE END SCORE: Vitter, Ensign, Gingrich, and perhaps even Sanford, have maintained their positions and political viability among the conservative base.

Hypocrisy in Republican politics runs rampant like an infectious plague. From the more benign transgression of trading in campaign promises of religious conservatism and family values for hedonistic adulterous affairs, to the more repugnant offenses of Larry Craig (soliciting sex from a stranger in a public airport restroom), Mark Foley (vulgarly propositioning underage boys working as staff pages) and Ted Haggard (engaging in sex with male prostitutes while high on methamphetamines), the scandals keep coming. Some of these moral failings are merely two-faced and damaging only to their own families and others are criminal offenses that break the laws these men are elected to uphold, injuring the common good of society as a whole.

Family values as defined by adulterous, hypocritical, politicians who believe themselves above the law, need to be re-evaluated. Those who fail to live according to the mandates they would legislate for others, are in no way qualified to legally define what is moral for the rest of society. They obviously possess no religious fortitude or insight that makes them, in any way, suitable to mandate their personal religious values, familial or otherwise, for others. It is no longer acceptable to say, I flagrantly refuse to live by these principals I espouse, but that will not impede me from forcing them upon you and your family. I don’t want to live in a country where the sinners dictate the legality of the personal choices I make regarding my body, my mind and my relationships.

I refuse to live my life according to a code of values instituted by lying, cheating, hypocrites. Evidenced by their own personal actions, these politicians have no sense of true morality or integrity.

In other words… Separation of Church and State should be paramount in any elected official’s values. As for their religious beliefs and personal notions of family values, they should keep them in their family and church where they belong—and out of the office. The only values that have any place in government are secular values, such as justice, compassion, civil liberties, fairness, equality, freedom of thought, religion and speech. Those we elect to run our government should stick to policy and leave religious values and personal philosophy to individual conscience.

“In Other Words…”

July 17, 2009

Written By: Sara Ledesma

Being a woman is tough, right? It wears on you to be judged by your outer appearance, as if your body dictates who you are as a person, thought of as inferior to a man in intelligence, strength, and overall ability. Subjected to a double standard that says you must resist sexual urges to be considered a “good woman”, all while being told being sexy is the key to attracting, and maintaining, a man’s interest. Being told having sex makes you a whore, while it makes a man a stud, it’s as natural as peeing standing up. And yes…we still make less money in the work place.
Not easy…but it’s cake walk, wrapped in a cocktail party, topped with a shopping spree, compared to the unlucky fate of living life as an Arab female in the Middle East.

The Islamic view perceives women as temptresses, capable of leading followers away from God and into evil destruction. Women are thus rivals to God and a threat to leading a holy life. As such, they must be restrained and strictly controlled so not to bring all of society into civil and moral chaos. In the Middle East, where social behavior is dictated by Islamic law…this control and subjugation of women is institutionalized through law. In most Middle Eastern countries it is legal, and expected, for the men of the family to ensure obedience of their wives and children to Islamic law.

In many Middle Eastern nations, legal rights and social behavior are grounded in Islamic law. Men have the legal, as well as moral, right to restrict travel, arrange marriage (even of very young daughters to much older men), physically abuse their wives if they are insubordinate, commit marital rape, deny food , and prohibit access to education, freedom of dress and freedom to work outside the home.

The few rights afforded women in the Middle East are often hard to exercise. In these male domineered societies a woman’s testimony is not highly regarded and seldom believed. Who protects women and girls in the Middle East? Unfortunately, too often the answer is…no one. It can be a horrific and terrifying circumstance of fate to have a uterus and live in the Arab world.

A few statistics to paint a portrait of the state of women’s rights (or more accurately, lack of women’s rights):

• Ritual sexual mutilation of females is still common in rural areas of Egypt, Libya, Oman and Yemen.

• In Jordan, Iraq, Libya and Omen and Yemen married women must have their husbands’ written permission to travel abroad, and they may be prevented from doing so for any reason.

• In Saudi Arabia women must obtain written permission from their closest male relative to leave the country or travel on public transportation between different parts of the kingdom. When allowed to ride public transportation they must sit segregated from men, at the back of the bus (sound familiar?)

• Saudi women may not marry non-Saudis without government permission. The government rarely grants permission, locking women into this repressive social and legal system.

• 55% of Arab women are illiterate. That’s 1 in 2 women.

• It is legal in almost every Middle Eastern country to murder women and young girls to protect the family “honor.”

• In many countries women are denied the right to custody of children, inheritance, decision making in the family and divorce.

• Polygamy and forced marriage of girls as young as nine still practiced in areas of the Middle East.

Burning question: Have 5 years of a war and billions of dollars help “Liberate” Arab Women in the Middle East? Surely, at least in Iraq, things must be more democratic between the sexes?

In response, a few statistics:

• In Afghanistan: Women are no longer allowed to be legally beaten by their husbands. Instead, it is now legal for men to starve their wives if they disobey. (Is this progress?)

• In 2005, after a three-decade-long struggle, Kuwaiti women finally won the right to vote.

• In the United Arab Emirates, while still very restricted in terms of political rights and civil liberties, the country has introduced a very limited voting process where women, for the very first time, were allowed to vote for elected bodies in the Federal National Council.

• In Saudi Arabia the ban on women checking into a hotel or renting an apartment has been lifted, although they still need written permission to get on a plane or leave the country. They are still denied the right to drive a car or leave the house un-covered.

• Women’s access to education has been an area in which many Middle Eastern nations have made progress. Unfortunately, this has been enjoyed mostly by non-rural, upper class and royal women.

I have to wonder how we can declare that we “liberated” Iraq from tyranny, and are in the process of liberating Afghanistan from oppressive religious fundamentalism, when half of the population of both countries still lack basic human rights. Women must be obedient to the men in their families and to their husbands. They are trapped in an infantile state where they are told what to wear, where they are allowed to go, and with whom. They are told who they will marry and what will be done to their bodies. The luckiest of them live in countries where they can vote, work and go to school, yet too many Arab women are denied even these “privileges.”

Their testimony is weighed less than a man’s in court, yet they face stricter penalties when convicted for the same crime as a man. Women have few laws to protect their physical well being, or their children, and even less access to recourse when the meager rights they have are violated.

The Koran forces women to be compliant to their husbands. Most often, a husband is judge, jury and executor when he decides his wife or daughter disobeys him. In many Middle Eastern nations, sentences for a transgression against his honor include: stoning, beating, and even death.

As for me, next time I’m cursing traffic— I’m going to relax and be thankful I have the right to drive. When I get frustrated trying on swimwear because my stomach isn’t as flat as I’d like it to be, I’m going to breathe a sigh of relief that I’m not being forced to wear a Burqua in boiling summer temperatures. As soon as start to feel annoyed at having to answer a ton of emails, I’ll release a joyful “Alleluia” I have the ability to read and write. When I’m aggravated at the arrival of yet another school loan payment, I’m going to sing out in praise how lucky I am having had the opportunity to pursue a college education.

In other words…In order to install genuine Democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries in the Middle East, it is imperative that women are first granted basic human rights. Democracy, after all, necessitates equality in order to function. There is no liberation in a country where half the population is not free, no Democracy in a country where half the population has no voice and no rights.

In Other Words…A No-Nonsense Translation of Current Events

July 2, 2009

Written By: Sara Ledesma

Don’t ask, Don’t tell prohibits openly gay soldiers to serve in the military. Finally, we have a president who declares himself a “fierce advocate” in the fight to end this discriminatory ban. Almost seems like a no-brainer that gay military personnel deserve to share in the freedom for which they make the ultimate sacrifice…their very lives. But alas, such equality is denied these defenders of the land of the free, home of the brave.

The Pentagon claims gay people must lie about their sexual orientation because morale is at risk. If this argument sounds vaguely familiar…that’s because this is not the first time it’s been used to defend bigoted military policy. Military management used the same argument to oppose racial integration of the military. Desegregation, it was said, would put national security at risk by destroying the military. It took a rebellious executive order by President Truman to integrate the military. If history is any lesson, racial integration of the military worked out just peachy.

I have to wonder if being a person who loves another person of the same sex is as much a threat to the morale of our troops as, say, stop loss. Stop loss is the frightening practice of forcing soldiers who have finished their tour of duty back to the battlefield for additional tours. The military will re-enlist troops even after they are declared unstable by mental health professionals. They are shipped out to the battlefield suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or emotional and psychological exhaustion.

Stop loss increases the chances soldiers will develop debilitating mental and emotional problems, make dangerous mistakes in battle that put them and their fellow soldiers at risk, develop substance abuse problems and face marriage and family problems back home. I have a nagging feeling this has to be more damaging to a soldier’s state of mind than anguishing over who their bunkmate is choosing to date, on his or her own time, off the battlefield. Gay men and women in the military who are volunteering to return to battle are being fired, meanwhile soldiers in precarious health are being forcibly shipped back to the battlefield; instead of home to heal and receive proper medical attention.

Other issues I would presume are not conducive to a soldier’s peace of mind: shoddy electrical work conducted by contractors resulting in negligent deaths of our brave military personnel, lack of proper equipment, lack of translators and other skilled personnel (due in part to the firing of gay soldiers with specialized skills), and sexual harassment of women in the service.

A perfect example: Lt. Dan Choi, distinguished grad of West Point, an Iraqi vet eager to return to battle voluntarily, fluent in Arabic (much needed right now!), decorated with accommodations for bravery in battle…recently fired because he felt lying about his identity went against all the values instilled in him at West Point and in the Army. Telling the truth apparently not the type of courage rewarded in the armed services. With real dangers posing daily threats to our military, it seems ridiculous that refusing to admit you are a gay man or woman is what the military finds threatening to the lives and health of our soldiers.

In other words… our government is telling skilled, desperately needed, decorated soldiers that they have the privilege to leave their families and put their lives at risk for our freedom here at home, as long as they don’t expect to partake in that freedom for themselves.

Sara Ledesma

June 17, 2008

Position: Staff Writer

Location: L.A. transplant from San Francisco

Bio: A story-teller and student of Life, known for always taking her artistic and journalistic passions seriously, but never making the mistake of taking herself too seriously.

Likes: the smell of fresh laundry, a good glass of wine, interesting conversation, playing with my dog, Chico, the Arts and Entertainment, telling stories, creating art, seeking Wisdom, spreading knowledge, and the great outdoors.

Columns At CWG: Politics

Website: SaraLedesma.com