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The Environment Trumps the Economy – Part One

Since the turn of the year I have been facilitating two global warming/climate change study groups. At the beginning of our wrap-up session later this month, each participant will have five minutes to articulate a synthesis of our reading and discussion and propose a plan of action. I look forward to this challenge, but extracting the essence of eight books and drawing conclusions about this enormous issue has left me wrestling with a dilemma.

On one hand, I believe there are two basic principles that address the root causes of the problem and focus our attention on what needs to happen to save most life on our planet. On the other hand, I fear that many people will reject these principles as an impossible path to sustainability.

First, what are the root causes of our environmental mess? As Fred Magdoff wrote in the most recent issue of Monthly Review, “It is as though there is a flat tire with perhaps a thousand holes and people are working on the best way to patch this hole or that one. No one there seems to consider that the problem might be the tire itself….” Historically, our species’ impact on the planet grew steadily, but relatively slowly, until the invention of capitalism several hundred years ago started quickening the pace. Since the industrial revolution in the early 19th century, our global footprint has mushroomed, and in the last 50 years it has consumed the world. While we might have come to this crossroads eventually if we’d maintained our pre-capitalist rate, we face human induced global warming, massive resource depletion and mass extinction today, because of the interaction between capitalism and industrial production.

The developed world produces too much, consumes too much, and its economic system demands that we continue on this “more and more” course. The underdeveloped world has a much smaller carbon footprint, but its natural resources are being vacuumed up by the richer nations. Finally, there are now so many people on the planet that even if we were to spread the earth’s bounty more equally, humanity would still take up more ecological space than is sustainable.

To address the root causes AND overturn their effects as we take baby steps in the right direction, I’m considering including two simple underlying principles in my five-minute presentation.

1. The needs of the environment trump the needs of the economy; in other words, capitalism has to go.

The majority of American “greens” take our current economic system as a given. Some focus on increased efficiency, a green new deal, or technologic magic bullets. Others posit no-growth capitalism (an oxymoron). Even those who agree that capitalism is incompatible with sustainability can’t imagine overturning it. They hope to buy some time by reigning in its worst excesses. They argue basic change is not politically feasible, but since the science is telling us that our survival is impossible if we don’t change, this principle states that we have no choice but to try.

2. The needs of the biosphere trump the needs of humanity.

This one may be even tougher to swallow. Even those who espouse an ecologically sustainable socialist distribution of resources place human beings at the center of the ecosystem. But the earth’s awesome web of animals, plants and minerals has evolved in complex interaction for over two billion years. I doubt our species can manage this web “humanely” (a problematic term in this context?) as long as the ultimate aim of such management is to meet human needs rather than the requirements of the entire biosphere. If we fail to understand that people are not the pinnacle of evolution on earth, we will eventually revert to exploiting it in an unsustainable manner. In long run – if we are lucky enough to get there – this may prove our greatest challenge because it runs counter to powerful biological urges, but it is essential to creating long-term sustainability.

I hope I’ve been clear enough about why these principles are both necessary and problematic. What do you think? Read More 
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Family Gathering

Earlier this month, I attended the fourth Family Gathering of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC). Although the RFC’s primary mission is to provide grants for the educational and emotional needs of the children of targeted activists, we’ve also held eight “Gatherings” for our beneficiaries. Carry it Forward Gatherings bring together 18 to 24 year-olds, and Family Gatherings are for targeted activist families with school-age children. The three-day programs are loaded with expressive arts workshops, facilitated discussions, and informal fun.

In general, these events have been emotionally intense and very successful at lessening isolation and fostering connection. This weekend was no exception. Activist families came from all over the country and from many different social change movements to share their stories and their concerns about parenting, and to realize that they are not alone.

This year’s Gathering was also an important milestone for me. While I had a lot of help from our staff and Board, I was the principle producer of our first six Gatherings. I co-produced the seventh event in 2011 with my daughter, Jenn, who was then the RFC Grantmaking Coordinator. By the time this year’s Gathering took place, I’d been retired as the Executive Director for almost a year. While Elli and I led a “politics and parenting” workshop for the adults, and Jenn and I facilitated the “tell your story” session for them, I played no part in its overall planning.

I am very proud of the organizing job done by Jenn as Executive Director and Julie, who has taken over as Grantmaking Coordinator. I should also mention the special support we received from Board Member Nina Lessin-Joseph. I think it was the best run Gathering we’ve had. That doesn’t mean it didn’t have its exciting moments (like the bat flying around the common room on Friday evening), but it was mostly smooth – although exhausting – sailing.

It helped that we had a terrific group of peer leaders and participants. We benefited from having families join us from multi-generational activist communities, which helped facilitate the rapid development of powerful bonds among all involved. Amazing bonding has been a feature at all these events, but I’ve never witnessed such 100% cohesion before.

This Gathering was such an affirmation of what the RFC seeks to accomplish. To have the power of multi-generational political communities demonstrated so clearly, so soon after handing off the leadership of the RFC project to the next generation was, for me, the icing on the cake.  Read More 
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Corporate Polluters, too Big to Jail

I wrote recently about Tyler Lang and Kevin Olliff, two animal rights activists charged with releasing 2000 mink from a fur farm, who face major prison time as terrorists. If jailed they will follow in the footsteps of dozens of other militant environmental and animal rights activists, some still imprisoned with “terrorist enhancements” after more than a decade.

At the same time the FBI and Department of Justice are preparing to throw the book at people who are viciously trying to save our planet’s animals, plants and minerals from corporate exploitation, they are failing to pursue over 99.5% of corporate violations of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Carey L. Biron’s article about this, published online by Portside, reports “Both the EPA and the Department of Justice do continue to score high-visibility accountability successes for environmental crimes every year, but most of these are civil charges….”

The few corporate polluters who get caught only face fines. True, it is more difficult to obtain a criminal conviction because the prosecution must prove the defendants’ criminal intent beyond a reasonable doubt. But many corporations who are convicted and fined are repeat offenders whose agents have tried to cover up their illegal activity. Criminal intent is obvious in such circumstances.

Corporations don’t like fines, but they are treated as part of the cost of doing business and passed on to the purchasers of the company’s products. And unbelievably such fines are also tax deductible. Moreover, even the number of civil cases prosecuted against polluters is dropping.

We can conclude that the government is only interested in pursuing criminal environmental prosecutions against those whose actions threaten corporate profits. The actual polluters appear to have an unlimited number of Get out of Jail Free cards. No one even faces prison for BP’s Deep Horizon disaster which resulted in eleven human deaths and region-wide ecological devastation.

You could conclude that what I’ve written above demonstrates that the system is stacked against those trying to solve our cascading environmental problems. That’s true, but it goes deeper. America’s most powerful economic forces, from the military industrial complex to the fossil fuel industry to the manufacturers of disposable consumer goods, have the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the Federal and State governments in their pockets. Isn’t the juxtaposition I’ve described powerful proof that the system itself is the problem?

I’ve never met Tyler and Kevin, but to me their actions demonstrate that they know two things: 1. We must transform the nature of our interaction with the plants and animals with whom we share our planet. 2. Our profit-driven economy is rotten to the core. You may disagree with their tactics, but their analysis is light-years ahead of the mainstream environmental experts who argue we can engineer our way to a de-carbonized, sustainable economy within the confines of the current economic and political system. Such wishful thinking is a powerful lure, but in order to be effective whatever actions we take to hold off the approaching catastrophes must be based upon Tyler and Kevin’s understanding, not that of the so-called experts.
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For Love and Liberty

A collection of photographs of Tom Manning’s paintings was released last week. I was eager to see the finished product. I have a remarkably multi-faceted relationship with Tom Manning, given that we’ve never met.

Tom was one of the Ohio Seven (one single person and three married couples, each with three children), charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government. The trial took place in my then-hometown of Springfield, MA during 1988 and 1989. I became peripherally involved in their defense and saw him in court from time to time, but we never spoke.

The fate of the defendants’ nine children gnawed at me. I was most disturbed that Tom’s three children, aged three, five, and 11 at the time of his arrest, were confined and held in isolation from all family members for several weeks while the eldest was repeatedly interrogated. I was shocked to learn this. Bad as my childhood had been after my parents’ arrest, I had never been confined or interrogated. The treatment of the Ohio Seven children is what inspired me to start the Rosenberg Fund for Children, and two of Tom’s children became its first beneficiaries.

Since then, Tom and I have exchanged a few letters. I shared my memoir with him in 2003 and he reciprocated by sending me two of his oil paintings. They hung on my RFC office wall for over a decade. My favorite was of Cassandra Wilson. She stared out at me as she turned away from her piano with the sheet music of Strange Fruit, which she introduced to a new generation in 1990’s, in the background. Now a photograph of that painting, and some 80 others, fill this beautiful book.

The photographer, Penny Schoner, contacted me in late 2012 and asked if I’d write the preface for the collection. I was honored, but put her off until after I retired as the RFC Executive Director; it was the first project I completed after my daughter, Jenn, took over as Executive Director last September. My opening lines were, “I’m overwhelmed by the talent, indomitable will, and purity of heart displayed here. To say that I am awed by this book does not do it justice.”

Tom Manning helped begin and end my RFC leadership. He closes his autobiographical essay in the book with this quote “The revolution is never begun anew, only continued where others left off…”

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415.863.9977

Tom Manning is a freedom fighter, political prisoner and prolific artist. His paintings are stories that jump off the page, revealing the outlook of people who struggle for liberation around the world. His paintings are about life and his landscapes recall times of importance. Tom is currently incarcerated at Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina as a result of revolutionary actions undertaken while a member of the United Freedom Front. You can read more about the book and purchase a copy at Read More 
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Freeing Mink not Terrorism; Corporate Contributions not Speech

Why aren’t the two parts of that headline a non sequitur?

Last week two animal rights activists, Tyler Lang and Kevin Olliff, were indicted as terrorists. Federal prosecutors claim they released 2000 mink from a fur farm. That act is defined as terrorism under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). Tyler and Kevin each face two counts. Each count carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. If they are imprisoned as terrorists, they may be forced to serve their time in Communication Management Units under restrictive conditions that the Center for Constitutional Rights calls cruel and inhumane. They are also accused of the terrorist act of spray painting “Liberation is Love” on the walls of the farm.

How can freeing animals constitute terrorism? Lobbyists for the multi-billion dollar animal enterprise industry (defined as anything from fur farms to chicken factories to perfume companies) got Congress to pass a law defining protests that damage corporate property or hurt their profits as terrorism. President Bush signed it into law and Federal Courts have ruled that activists who damage property, even if those actions pose no threat to human life, can be convicted of terrorism.

I’ve had difficulty convincing left-wing friends to support targeted animal rights activists. One friend responded, aren’t they the people who think animals are more important than people? This echoes the belief of many progressive people that this is a relatively trivial pursuit compared to the terrible crimes against humanity carried out by the multi-national corporations and our government. But the corporate behavior the animal rights activists are fighting is part of the same culture that permeates the military industrial complex, the energy companies, the private prison corporations, and so on. These are the same foes we face every day. The rights that the corporations and their political flunkies seek to curtail belong to us all. The sensibilities these heroic young militants work to spread are the same values to which progressives aspire. They don’t think animals are more important than people; they attack corporations that place greater value on profits than either people or animals.

What do these indictments have to do with the Supreme Court’s decision declaring that corporate contributions to election campaigns are speech protected by the First Amendment? Corporations are striving for ascendancy on several fronts. On the one hand they wish to dominate public discourse by gaining all the protections guaranteed citizens under the constitution. On the other they seek to protect their primary purpose - making money - by demonizing as terrorists all who might turn public opinion against them and diminish their profits.

Evidently, the FBI had been investigating the mink release for a year, but chose to issue the indictments and arrest Tyler Lang in Los Angeles on the opening day of National Animal Rights Conference being held in that city. They are attempting to intimidate this movement just has they attacked the communists, anti-war, civil rights, anti-globalization, Occupy Wall Street, and other movements before them.

Divide and conquer is their age-old tactic. Let’s not help them out. We are in this together and we need each other’s support. For more information go to  Read More 
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I’ve been fascinated by the weather since I was a child, and attracted to environmental movements since the early 1970’s. But it wasn’t until my first grandchild was born six years ago that global warming/climate change became the focus of my political attention. The science taught me that if we didn’t change course the second half of her life would be hellish, and I felt compelled to work at preventing that from happening.

Since her birth I’ve been reading and studying to understand the latest scientific analysis, and the proposed political solutions. These readings convince me that we need revolutionary economic changes and that Americans must come to a radically different understanding of our place on the planet.

I summarized the latter point in a blog earlier this year: “We are merely one manifestation of an almost unimaginably complex web of life…. Placing ourselves at the center feeds our sense of importance and justifies our efforts to dominate our environment. It is, however, a potentially fatal misreading of our current circumstances. The vibrancy of the biosphere is essential to our survival. If our economic system and personal requirements are shredding it, our system, not it, must change. Human beings with our unprecedented capacity can, for a while, act as nature’s master, but the biosphere as a whole holds the trump cards. The mounting torrent of extinction is a warning we ignore at our peril.”

In the face of a likely near-extinction sequence of events over the next several generations, humans must enter into a partnership with the land, plants and animals rather than trying to dominate all other life. This partnership can be viewed as biological, or spiritual; I sense it most strongly when working in my yard, when I feel as if my molecules are singing in harmony with my surroundings. My beliefs are grounded in a material scientific understanding, but they can also include a more spiritual worldview. They are, however, way out of synch with anthropocentric American consumerism.

Elli has pointed out an apparent contradiction in my thinking. On the one hand I’ve chosen to focus on combating global warming/climate change for intimately personal, species-oriented reasons – that is protecting my grandchildren, each of whom carry 25% of my genetic material. On the other hand I’m focused now on the biosphere as a whole, which or may not include human life in the future.

She’s right; multiple primary motivations are a contradiction in terms. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I now have two powerful motivations and maybe they complement rather than contradict each other. I want my grandchildren to live long and fulfilling lives as part of our glorious and healthy natural world. It would be tragic for them and it for this to become impossible.

Perhaps this is just a new version of the slogan “think globally; act locally” Read More 
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Writing Our Hot Planet

Next week Elli and I will present a program entitled “Writing Our Hot Planet” at World Fellowship Center in Conway, New Hampshire. The brochure describes the program: “Words can change minds and build a climate justice movement. Novelist Ellen Meeropol and nonfiction writer Robert Meeropol wrestle with how to transform science into education, motivation and hopefully, activism.”

This program grew, in part, out of discussions we’ve had in a global warming/climate change study group I’ve facilitated this year. Our of course of study includes the eight books listed below. This is not light summer reading, but worth the effort if you are so inclined. I will not post a blog next week, but plan to report on the program when I return the week of July 14th.

Climate Change Study Group Syllabus

A. The problem:
• Six Degrees, Mark Lynas (2008, National Geographic). The best scientific models in 2007 indicated that the global climate might warm by six degrees Celsius this century. The author employs current information and climatological data from prior geologic eras to describe the effects of each degree.
• High Tide On Main Street, John Englander (2012, The Science Bookshelf). Rising sea levels are inevitable, will have disastrous consequences, and will last at least 1000 years. Englander believes significant adaptation is possible and that we can survive this challenge without changing the basic nature of our system.
• Countdown, Alan Weisman (2013, Little Brown). Focuses on overpopulation by traveling the world interviewing people who are either working to control population or opposed to family planning. His thesis is if we reduce our population to a sustainable 2 billion, it will be much easier to deal with all other aspects of climate change.
• The Green Zone, Barry Sanders (2009, AK Press). This quote sums it up: “even if every person, every automobile, and every factory suddenly emitted zero emissions, the earth would still be headed…toward total disaster…. The military produces enough greenhouse gases, by itself, to place the entire globe, with all its inhabitants … in the most immanent danger of extinction.”

B. Possible Solutions
• Hot: Living Through The Next Fifty Years On Earth, Mark Hertsgaard (2011, Mariner Books).Overview of the problem and what actions we must take, written from the perspective of a father who wants to protect the quality of life of his young daughter. The author believes we can do this without changing the nature of our economic system.
• What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, Foster & Magdoff (2011, Monthly Review Press). This is a Marxist analysis of green capitalist efforts to combat catastrophic climate change, written for activist-oriented environmentalists. The authors argue that the nature of capitalism is the primary cause of our current ecological crisis.
• Deep Green Resistance, Lierre Keith, Aric McBay, introduction by Derrick Jensen (2011, Seven Stories Press). The authors argue that humanity went wrong when we settled down, built cities and modified nature to suit our needs. This is an anarchist vision, claiming that to protect the earth we must sabotage modern industrial society and return to a pre-industrial life-style.
• True Wealth, Juliet B. Schor (2011, Penguin). This discussion of how we can consume less and have better quality of life while protecting the environment offers a glimmer of light in an otherwise dark landscape.  Read More 
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I Shouldn’t Do What?!

I feel ambivalent about urging people to reduce their personal carbon footprint, even though I’ve worked to reduce my own. First, because whatever we do on a personal level will have a minor impact on the world’s greenhouse gas output; the problem is institutional rather than individual. To obtain a dramatic reduction we must transform our throwaway, consumption-oriented economy which is sustained by – and primarily benefits – the global military-industrial complex. Still, it would feel inconsistent, even hypocritical, to sound the alarm about global warming/climate change while ignoring my own carbon footprint. As they said in the civil rights movement; you must walk the walk if you talk the talk.

But there are other reasons as well. One is that reducing our individual carbon footprint may be more complicated than we think. In AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, Al Gore claimed that we could significantly reduce personal carbon footprints by purchasing hybrid cars and putting solar panels on roofs. Elli and I have done both, but we now know that producing hybrid car batteries and solar panels is so greenhouse gas intensive that these changes have relatively little impact on total carbon emissions. Moving into an efficiently heated apartment building in a city center would probably have had a greater effect.

More recently, I learned that perhaps the single worst thing we can do to damage our environment is fly on a jet plane. Each passenger accounts for additional tons of carbon spewed high into the atmosphere where it will do a lot more damage than it would at sea level. While I haven’t entirely stopped flying, I no longer fly solely for vacation or pleasure. However, last weekend a friend alerted me to an article that compared the greenhouse gas emissions of air travel to that of internet usage. The gist of the article was that global IT use produces a greater percentage of total greenhouse gas emissions (2-4%) than passenger air travel (2%), and that the former is growing while the latter is dropping.

How can that be? The article focuses on Google to make its point. Google has over 1,000,000 servers worldwide and processes over one billion searches daily. As of 2011 Google was installing 400,000 more servers annually. The carbon footprint of producing these servers is enormous. Google also maintains vast server farms in China that are powered by coal. Google sends each search through multiple servers to speed response time. Google could lower the energy cost by using only one server for each query, but that would slow down the process. The article states that the carbon footprint of daily Google searches is equal to that of 80,000 people commuting by car to work 15 miles each way. YouTube searches are worse, accounting for four times that number.

I found these figures interesting. Perhaps taking greater care with my Internet usage would have a more beneficial impact than reducing my air travel. Of course, cutting back on both would be better still. But – WAIT A MINUTE – here I am again, getting sucked into focusing on individual solutions which I believe will be ineffective at staving off global disaster.

I understand the temptation to avoid looking at the big picture. It is difficult, terrifying even, to consider how dismantling our current system and rebuilding a sustainable one might unravel our lives, given the human and natural forces we face. But in the words of Derrick Jensen: “Those who come after us, who inherit whatever’s left of the world once this culture has been stopped… are going to judge us by the health of landbase, by what we leave behind. … They are not going to care how you or I lived our lives. … They’re going to care whether they can breathe the air and drink the water.” DEEP GREEN RESISTANCE  Read More 
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A Quiet Anniversary

At first I was perplexed by how much I was enjoying June this year. Yes, it is my first year of retirement. I have more time to work in my yard, enjoy the fine weather, and savor those magical evenings during which time slows and the sun seems to hover endlessly at the horizon. Then I realized that I had another reason.

Today is the 61st anniversary of my parents’ execution, and for the first time in many years I am commemorating it quietly at home. I’m convinced that humans make a big deal out of anniversaries in multiples of 10 because we have ten fingers. The RFC was not immune to this trend. Last year we staged a major program in New York City for the 60th. And although the years just before last were not multiples of ten I’d spoken at significant, but smaller, events on June 19th in Rio de Janeiro, New York and Paris.

Every June 19th is an emotionally laden time, even when I’ve spent the day at home doing nothing in particular. Being part of public events on that date, however, added a layer of nervous tension. The June 19th stress had become so familiar that it took me a while to note its absence. I’m grateful that I don’t have to organize anything or get on a plane this June 19th. I relish the pleasure of being able to pass the day engaged in ordinary activity.

Given the political consequences of the United States government’s unjust termination of my parents’ lives, it makes sense that we mark the day with special events. But the personal tragedy of their execution was that a couple and their two young children were forever foreclosed from continuing their family life. My parents couldn’t do the kind of things I’ll do this June 19th. I find satisfaction today - as I walk around the neighborhood, go to the grocery store, hang out with Elli, talk with my now middle-aged children – in knowing that Ethel and Julius’ children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to spend today engaged in typical life activities.

Next year, in September, we’ll commemorate the centenary of my mother’s birth. (Julius was almost two years younger.) I look forward to marking that milestone with something public and special. But some years, it is fitting, and satisfying, for the day to be marked in this quiet and personal way. Read More 
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Whom Do You Believe

On June 12th two groups, Support and Legal Advocacy for Muslims (SALAM) and the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF), held a press conference at the New York City office of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) to announce the publication of a new study entitled: INVENTING TERRORISTS: The Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution. The study defines preemptive prosecution as “a law enforcement strategy… to target … individuals or organizations whose beliefs, ideology, or religion affiliation raise security concerns for the government.” The study, reviewed a list of 399 “terrorism” cases the Department of Justice prosecuted and concludes that an astounding 94% of them were, entirely based upon or had elements of, preemptive prosecution.

In the simplest terms preemptive prosecution is an adaptation of old-style entrapment procedures adjusted to fit post-9/11 laws and prejudices. The goal is to entice individuals who might not otherwise engage in illegal activity into taking acts that could be interpreted as violating post 9/11 conspiracy and material support to terrorism statutes. Such prosecutions, which have no impact on our national security, enable the Justice Department to crow about fighting terrorism while terrifying Muslim communities.

Upon review, the evidence employed to convict many of defendants seems flimsy. But in all the cases, despite weak evidence, juries unanimously voted to convict the defendants.
I do not have the space to recite the details of these cases, but a combination of weak evidence and a frightened citizenry common to so many of the reports, resonates with me because of my personal history.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were charged with Conspiracy to Commit Espionage. The prosecutor in his opening statement claimed they’d stolen “the greatest secrets known to mankind.” Yet the defense was able to show that the chief prosecution witness, who supposedly committed this theft, was a high school graduate who dropped out after the first semester of college because he failed every course he took. Was it reasonable for such a person to gather and transmit effectively some of the most complex and cutting edge scientific data of that era? Coupled with the fact that the evidence against my parents was verbal, rather than physical, this might have given the jury pause, but they did not deliberate long before unanimously voting for conviction.

Credibility was the key. This was the McCarthy period, the height of the great red scare. Who was the jury going to believe, the government of the United States and their witnesses who said “we did it at the Rosenberg’s direction, but now we regret aiding the communists,” or the defendants who denied stealing atomic secrets, but refused to answer when asked if they were members of the Communist Party.

The same dynamic is generating these preemptive prosecution convictions today. Who will the jury believe; the government of the United States who the jurors view as a bulwark against terrorist attacks, or the defendants whose religion links them to the terrorists who crashed the planes into the Twin Towers? How many of these convicting jurors worried that if they voted to acquit, they’d be responsible if one or more of the defendants later committed a terrorist act? Prejudice, not evidence, rules.

Hopefully, SALAM and NCPCF’s press conference will receive the coverage it deserves, but I doubt you’ll see or hear anything about it on the evening news. But you can read the entire study for yourself. Inventing Terrorists has been posted for public download at:  Read More 
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