Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Return of the Hydra

Bad legislation takes on a hydra-like quality here in NH. A bad bill may be slain in one session, but it will come back again in the next, and often again, in the next…and so on. A heavily funded group from out of state has been pushing so-called “right to work” legislation here every two years, despite the fact that it is defeated every time. Last session, an amendment banning same gender marriage was proposed. Even though the arm was chopped off, it has grown back. Our legislature will once again be dealing with the issue of whether or not to make discrimination a part of our state’s constitution. Representative Daniel Itse of Fremont was one of the original sponsors, and he is again, sponsoring this particular hydra.

Representative Itse is a busy fellow. He also sponsored HB 69, which had a hearing this week in the House Judiciary Committee. HB 69 called for permitting officiants of any denomination to be able to perform marriages, “provided that such marriages did not conflict with existing state law prohibiting marriage between persons of the same sex.”
This was befuddling to everyone who was present at the hearing, including the sponsor, it seemed. Representative Itse, who was late for the hearing, couldn’t clearly articulate the need for this proposed law. One committee member pointed out that same gender marriage is illegal in this state, and asked why this bill was necessary. Rep. Itse could not provide a coherent answer. He claimed the bill was intended to keep the state out of regulating religious ceremonies, and that there should be a clear distinction between civil and religious marriage.

Many ministers and rabbis perform same gender marriages, commitment ceremonies, and civil unions. This bill was intended to prevent them from doing so. Despite Itse’s protestations, he was absolutely intent on interfering with religious freedom. There were no penalties specified, so we don’t know if the passage of this bill would mean that police would invade such ceremonies and drag out the ministers in handcuffs. We don’t know if clergy who refused to obey the law would be incarcerated. We may never know. Representative Itse gave his testimony at the hearing, and bolted from the room before any other testimony was heard. Elizabeth Janeway suggested to the committee in her testimony that a law be passed requiring sponsors of the bill to listen to all of the testimony. Perhaps Representative Itse needed to race home to protect his marriage from the constant onslaught of homosexuals, desperate to break up his happy home.

Reverend Mary Edes, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Eastern Slopes in Tamworth stated in her testimony that our lawmakers had more pressing matters to attend to, such as education, health care, and our state’s economy. In my own testimony, I pointed out that we already have a law against same gender marriage, and asked how many more laws were needed to shore up existing law, before the gay-haters feel secure. As Reverend Edes said, “I believe the introduction of House Bill 69 to be motivated by homophobia, and, quite frankly, a waste of our precious time.” Apparently the committee agreed, at least about the waste, as they voted to kill it.

CACR 1, the proposed amendment to the NH Constitution will be heard before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, February 1, at 1:00 pm, in Representatives Hall, inside the State House. No matter how you feel about marriage equality, I urge you to contact your state representatives to urge them to vote against this bill. We should not write discrimination into our state constitution, nor should we use it as a weapon to hurt people with. Civil rights are an important issue. Don’t allow that issue to be perverted by those who would jump on this to create a lot of hoopla – and tie up valuable time that should be used to solve problems (can you say education funding) that are of paramount importance. At the Legislature’s website: you can look up your legislators, and how to contact them, and look up the names of the Judiciary Committee members, and how to contact them. I also encourage you to go to Concord, to attend the hearing. You can hand in your testimony, if you don’t wish to speak aloud. Have copies for everyone on the committee, which in this case means 20. Polite and concise are the watchwords when writing testimony.

I truly don’t understand what motivates those who state angrily the need to protect the sanctity of marriage. From what? Is love in such short supply that it must be rationed, and somehow we think heterosexuals need it more? Or is it that heterosexuals have done such a great job of avoiding divorce, scandal, and infidelity that we just don’t want to break their perfect record? We seldom hear the lawmakers of the far right call for stricter divorce laws, and sternly sticking to one man, one woman – for life. Pundits are already joking that amongst the current GOP presidential front runners only the Mormon has had one wife. Maybe the heterosexuals do need to corner the market on love – some of them aren’t able to muster up any for their fellow humans.

I suggest that instead of spending all this time and energy trying to legislate love and marriage, we bring that zeal to tackling the issues of ending the “war on terra,” health care, our crumbling national infrastructure, US jobs, and alternative energy. (to name but a few.) Imagine what might actually be accomplished, and how positive that would be. Instead, we remain in a pitched battle to legislate love and sex, which is a huge negative drain on our society.

“No government has the right to tell its citizens when or whom to love. The only queer people are those who don’t love anybody.” Rita Mae Brown, 1982

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Lives are Ruined

Remember Richard Jewell? He was working as a private security guard at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, in 1996, when a bomb went off. He helped many of the spectators to safety. He was called a hero, briefly. He went from hero to suspect quickly. Suddenly, the Atlanta Journal Constitution printed a story saying that the FBI regarded Jewell, the “hero guard” as a suspect. This began a media firestorm, where Jewell was portrayed as a person who decided that this was going to be his 15 minutes of fame – so he would bomb the park, then claim to be a hero. Jewell was put on surveillance by the FBI, who conducted a public search of his apartment. All of this was brought right into our living rooms, on a daily basis.

It was weeks later that the FBI finally stated that Jewell was not a suspect in the bombing. He did not receive a public apology. The media didn’t cover his vindication with the same kind of zealousness with which they went after him. It was the equivalent of a retraction printed on page 29, in tiny print. Richard Jewell’s life was ruined by false accusations and media hysteria.

In May of 2001, Chandra Levy, an attractive young intern who worked for the Bureau of Prisons, in Washington, DC disappeared. As the weeks passed, we learned that Ms. Levy had a close relationship with US Congressman Gary Condit, from California. The Congressman was married, and it seemed likely that he had an affair with Ms. Levy. That was sufficient fuel to fire a media circus that lasted for the whole summer. The Congressman was found guilty on the pages of tabloids, newspapers, magazines, and in the monologues of late night comedians. He lost his bid for re-election. About a year later, Levy’s remains were found. Her death appears to be a homicide, though the case has never been solved. Her death was much like another death of a young woman that occurred around the same time. Condit was never arrested, but that didn’t matter. His life was ruined by false accusations and media persecution. He has successfully sued several publications, and writer Dominick Dunne for slander.

Canadian Maher Arar was accused of being a terrorist, shipped to Syria by the US, where he was imprisoned and tortured. Arar is perhaps the most visible victim of the US policy of “extraordinary rendition” which is a fancy way of saying sending suspected terrorists to other countries to be tortured without court approval. Arar was on his way home to Canada from Tunisia, when he was detained at Kennedy Airport in New York, in 2002. He was sent to Syria for interrogation by the US, who suspected he was a member of al-Qaeda. He spent nearly a year in Syria, where he claims he was beaten, whipped, and held in an underground cell. For a year, his family did not know where he was, he was simply disappeared. An investigation by Canadian authorities has found that Arar has committed no offense, and is not a threat to Canadian security. His life and the lives of his family were disrupted beyond imagining by a false accusation.

In the era of big media hoopla, where celebrity gossip passes for actual news, where innuendo and accusation can ruin lives in a matter of minutes, we the people have a responsibility. It is our responsibility to hold the media accountable. It is our duty to demand a higher quality of news and information. We can subscribe to publications that provide those higher standards, while letting the purveyors of sensationalism know that we aren’t going to support them. Lives are ruined by accusation – which means we should all proceed with caution.

We’ve seen some ugly accusations about a local man hit the paper recently. We’re seeing the beginnings of a political media circus with the accusations made against Ray Buckley, a well known Democrat from Manchester. For those who will leap to accuse me of partisan defense, understand that Ray Buckley and I are not friends, to put it mildly and politely. Mr. Buckley has been accused of viewing, or possessing child pornography a number of years ago, by the man who was his roommate at the time, State Representative Steve Vallaincourt. Vallaincourt wrote a letter to make the accusations, and delivered it to Governor Lynch, who turned the letter over to the state attorney general. I’ve always thought that when one suspected a crime had been committed, one went to the police, not to the governor. In fact, one wonders why Vallaincourt waited for years to report this alleged activity, and why he never did go to the police. With the new Democratic majority in the NH legislature, Rep. Vallaincourt did not get a committee chairmanship he felt he deserved, which he was quite publicly put out about. Seeing his old nemesis, Buckley, on the verge of becoming the NH Democratic Party chairman may well have pushed this rather unstable individual over the edge. Vallaincourt appears to be enjoying his extended period of fame in that well known outlet of the liberal media, the Union Leader.

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a maxim we pay lip service to, even as we turn on the television set, or go to a blog where character assassination reigns supreme. Lives are ruined by false accusations. Let us at least wait for a guilty verdict and THEN pick up the torches and pitchforks.

“Hysteria trumps evidence.” Carol Tavris