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When Protest Becomes a Crime

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Posted on Feb 15, 2011
AP / Bret Hartman

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas speaks at a news conference last March.

By Bill Boyarsky

Is rudeness a crime, punishable by prison? Yes, says a district attorney as he pursues the prosecution of 11 Muslim students who disrupted a speech by the Israeli ambassador.

The incident on the University of California’s Irvine campus is the Arab-Israeli conflict in miniature, set in legendarily conservative suburban Orange County. The area has substantial numbers of Muslim and Jewish residents, and this episode reflects the intense enmity felt by both sides.

Most important, it raises this question: Why should a politician-law enforcement officer, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, have the power to limit free speech on a university campus?

Early this month, Rackauckas charged each of the students with one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to disrupt the meeting and another count of disturbing the meeting. If convicted, they face sentences ranging from probation with community service to six months in jail.

The incident occurred a year before, on Feb. 10, 2010. Watching a video of the event, I thought the protesters were loud and uncivil, as protesters often are.

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Soon after Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, began his speech, a student rose and shouted. Although his words were unintelligible on the video, I assume they were anti-Israel. Campus police escorted him out, and he went peacefully. Ten more students followed the same routine, rising, shouting, finger-pointing and generally making it difficult for Oren to continue. Each was escorted out by campus police. Nobody resisted. After the 11th student left, a large group of Muslim students rose and walked out of the meeting, some of them smiling or shooting pictures with their cell phones. As they left the meeting room, a man, apparently a university official, shouted at them, “You are failing your exams, you are failing.”

Nobody was hurt or resisted the police. Nothing was damaged. There was no violence. After the students left, Oren finished his speech, which, judging from the video, was an unsurprisingly one-sided defense of the Israeli government.

The university brought campus disciplinary charges against the students, and some form of punishment—confidential under privacy laws—has been handed out. For its alleged role in organizing the protest, the Muslim Students Union was given a one-year suspension, followed by probation, but later the university reduced the suspension to one academic quarter. The MSU has appealed the disciplinary action.

That should have been the end of it. Instead, District Attorney Rackauckas brought the case to the grand jury and then filed the conspiracy charges, a felony. The action was cheered by elements of the Jewish community, which had long demanded a stronger university crackdown on the MSU. The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the D.A.’s action “a watershed” and commended him.

I talked to Peter Bibring, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, who said that before the UCI case he had never heard of a prosecution of this kind. “We were not aware of [such a disturbing] charge or the conspiracy charge being levied against any nonviolent protest by any student,” he said.

He acknowledged that there’s been much argument over the Muslim students’ tactics. “Whatever position you take on that, to bring serious criminal charges against the students and force them to face prosecution, trial and possible criminal conviction is a bad thing for speech in California. … This is a troubling precedent. If students in universities across California worry about whether the D.A. thinks they have gone one step over the line in their speech, they will not speak at all. … This is not what we want for our colleges and universities. We want them to be places where they [students] are passionate and energetic about ideas and engage in vigorous debate.”

Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UCI Law School, told me that he didn’t think the case involved First Amendment free speech rights. “Nobody has the right to come into my class or go to the city council and disrupt it. It was wrong and they were punished [by the university],” he said. But he thinks that for the D.A. to elevate the case to criminal courts level is wrong. 

He put it this way in an article for The Orange County Register: “It is inexplicable why the scarce resources of the criminal justice system are being used for this especially since the students have already been punished by the university for their disruptive behavior.”

Protests are part of student life, although they were much more common in the 1960s and ’70s than today. In those days, plenty of people were arrested on campuses, 773 of them one night during a Free Speech Movement protest at UC Berkeley. But in that case they were charged with a specific criminal offense, trespassing, for refusing to leave the administration building.

The Irvine students committed no such offense. Speech was their only offense. If Ambassador Oren had been swifter on his feet, he might have turned the evening against the hecklers. I’m sure he’s seen ruder crowds in Israel.

If the university had its way, this incident would have receded in importance, taking its place among the many Jewish-Muslim arguments that are part of campus life at Irvine and other schools where Jews and Muslims come together. Instead, District Attorney Rackauckas has escalated the case, possibly extending it for months, feeding the area’s anti-Islam hysteria. 

Dean Chemerinsky thinks the case will be settled out of court.  “This case isn’t going to trial,” he said. “That’s my prediction.”

I hope so. Meanwhile, Rackauckas should watch television broadcasts from Cairo for a view of young Muslim society. It might change his attitude toward Orange County’s young Muslims, who are among the people he has sworn to protect.


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By Stuart Jasper, February 18, 2011 at 9:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The charges were not felonies.  One charge, conspiracy, could have been brought as either a felony or a misdemeanor (called a “wobbler”).  It was brought as a misdemeanor. That reflected proper prosecutorial discretion and discredits your claim of lack of such discretion.
The offenses were indeed “specific criminal offenses.”  Disrupting a meeting is such an offense. That was one of the two charges.
The protesters intended to disrupt a public meeting. They did disrupt a public meeting. After the meeting they bragged that they had disrupted the meeting.  They lied about the role of the Muslim Student Union and said that the acts were those of individuals only.
Rather than admit wrongdoing, the protesters have unfairly maligned a prosecutor doing his job in good faith.  They should plead guilty and condition their plea on probation and a small fine. That should be the end of it. The prosecution is necessary and proper as a deterrent to others not to do the same thing.  There will be no chilling effect on free speech. The only chilling effect will be on disrupting a public meeting. There is nothing wrong with that.

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By TAO Walker, February 17, 2011 at 6:55 pm Link to this comment

Squandering what little is left of their precious Human attention on such utterly make-believe CONstructs as “religion” and “nationalism” (for just two examples of such institutionalized sleight-of-hand happening to be incident to the “protest” at-issue here), whether labeled a “crime” or not, is dead-certainly just plain damned foolishness, and much-sooner-than-later fatal for the “individual”-ized captives of the “global” police-state regime who can’t see through it.  Meantime, the Natural Living Arrangement of our Mother Earth is in increasingly dire need of our undivided precious attention….which ought to be flowing from our unconditional affectionate respect.  Yet our domesticated Human Relations CONtinue obsessively with their puppet-like jerkings-off to the calculated manipulations of the “self”-selected owner/operators of the regime’s command-and-CONtrol apparatus….aided and abetted by such perhaps well-meaning paid pundits as Bill Boyarsky here.

“Free speech,” for instance, is just one more of those imaginary “rights,” supposed threats to which are intended to distract still more attention from the Natural Fact that damn little of what we really need to know can be put into mere words in-the-first-place.  This is all just more smoke-and-mirrors here, Friends, but since it’s working so well on you “self”-absorbed peoples, don’t expect the two-legged tools of the retro-viral tormenting ‘entities’ to give it up anytime soon.

On-the-other-hand, Natural Persons ORGANized as genuine Human Communities aren’t nearly so easily taken-in by all the bullshit artists’ toxic waste dumps.

ALL TOGETHER….NOW!!!!

HokaHey!

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By gerard, February 17, 2011 at 6:15 pm Link to this comment

Hear! Hear!  “She (Clinton) added: “I stressed the need to seriously engage all sectors of society in a constructive, consultative dialogue to meet the way forward in accordance with the aspirations of the people.”  She is advising Bahrain. 
  If only we could take our own advice to heart, much agony could be avoided here and way could be cleared for “a more perfect Union”—or words to that effect.

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D.R. Zing's avatar

By D.R. Zing, February 17, 2011 at 2:20 pm Link to this comment

Free speech has long been criminalized in America.  The FCC’s fines for profanity are an example.  The news should be free to report whatever it wants to report about world events and domestic events.  What we have now is censorship that starts shallow and runs deep. 

Take the word shit.  You don’t want your eight-year-old watching the news then turning around saying, “Shit, Mom!  When’s dinner gonna be already!”

The problem is in fining news organization for profanity, the FCC is actually enforcing ancient religious superstitions, namely that the mere utterance of a profanity offends the non-corporeal entity commonly referred to as God and as such the person who uttered the term should be punished.  You follow?  “You shall not use the Lord’s name in vain.”

That’s the shallow part. From there it goes much deeper. You shall not show people being killed in war. You shall not show people being shot in the streets of your country. You shall not show what the exit wound of an AK-47 to the femur looks like.  You shall now show gunshot wound victims writhing on the ground, defecating, urinating and screaming as they die. You must allow children to believe that what they see in the majority of movies—people being shot and dying quickly and quietly—is how it really happens. You shall not allow commentators on news programs who disagree with both Democrats and Republicans. 

To to original point: Eight-year-olds should not be watching the news without adult supervision. Censoring the news for kids means censoring the news for adults. Censored adults make decisions as if they were children. 

But that’s just the beginning. The corporation you work for can put up posters all over the place advising you how to live or promoting their cause. You try putting up a poster disputing their facts and see how long you keep your job. 

Likewise, the corporation you work for can spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising campaigns. Try sometime sending out an e-mail to everyone in the company pointing the actual disconnect between your company’s marketing spiel and its actual behavior.  See how long you keep your job. 

The point is this:

We desperately need a political party that creates new planks—planks beyond abortion, defense, and the other shorthand horseshit that passes for a disccussion of the issues these days.

One of those planks needs to be free speech.  And that should focus on news organaization being able to air whatever they deem is appropriate. It should focus on breaking up corporate news organizations that simultaneously generate, report and censor the news in a single swipe. And it should focus on individuals who work for corporations having the same right to express themselves about the company as the company expresses itself, even if that’s a cartoon of an employee sitting on a toilet with a caption underneath saying:  Here’s how my company allows me to express my visceral points of view.

We, my friends, are innudated with crap and when we try to speak up, we end up in the crapper. These kids at the college are just the latest example.

Again, third party, new platform.  New issues. Free speech is a good place to start.

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By bogi666, February 17, 2011 at 8:02 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What is happening at UCI is a reply of what happened at UC Berkeley in the 1960’s, to suppress the free speech of students. The result was Ronald Reagan who ran on his gubernatorial campaign to destroy the University of Calif., and State university systems, the governments anti education campaign. Reagan brought Ed Meese, the Alameda D.A. who prosecuted the students, to Wash., D.C. and made[very mafioso]him Attorney General of the USA during the Reagan administration which was the most corrupt in the 20th century, based on the number of prosecutions.

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By BR549, February 16, 2011 at 10:08 pm Link to this comment

Gerard,
“Hopefully, some of us here thinking about the future are taping Obama’s recent televised remarks about the “rights of the Egyptian people to protest .....”

Yes, Barry was all about extolling the virtues of the Egyptian military for not using force against their own population, meanwhile, as you stated, the detention camps and spy cameras are getting mounted everywhere and we still have compartmentalized members of the military and law enforcement communities who are totally oblivious to their part in all this. Well, I just found out that there were six more people on my small block, who I didn’t think even had a clue, only to find out that they’ve been “getting ready” for a while now. So, maybe there really are more people out there who are doing more than just watching mindless reality shows.

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By gerard, February 16, 2011 at 8:57 pm Link to this comment

Hopefully, some of us here thinking about the future are taping Obama’s recent televised remarks about the “rights of the Egyptian people to protest” and so on, and deploring violent reactions from police and military in those far-off countries.  With all our “surveillance” and our inability to get the attention of our government officials, we here at home are accumulating a whirlwind of “conscientious objection.”  He just might need to be reminded of his words if officialdom can’t rouse itself from its feckless insousciance.

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By clearwaters, February 16, 2011 at 8:21 pm Link to this comment

Rea:
While I haven’t been “blowing hard” on TD threads long, the truth is that, there is
very little gerard has posted that I haven’t agreed with. Don’t mean to take her for
granted. Just don’t want to clutter with repeated sentiment.

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BR549's avatar

By BR549, February 16, 2011 at 8:16 pm Link to this comment

No, Gerard makes some wonderful points.

Both our domestic and foreign policies are about as hypocritical as you can get, which makes one wonder what is it about all the politicians here who continue to support them. Could it be that the reason “they hate us” abroad is because they can see the hegemonic handwriting on the wall, while too many Americans sit lazily in their BarcoLoungers, sipping the Kool-Aid, and getting all in a sweat over American Idol or the Grammies? Could it be that the reason we so much rampant porn in this country is to keep the population sufficiently pacified while Washington is taking our jobs and our homes away?

Could it be that the reason “they hate us” abroad is because the citizens of this country haven’t yet had to feel what everyone else on the planet has been having to endure for over 100 years and that they’ve had it up to here with the lies and the bullshit from our lying legislators and prostituting politicians? I note with interest the attitude of the politicians today who, instead of having heated debates about the ethics and morality of Congress, continue with their profligate spending habits as if to ask, “Who be these peons who dare question the wisdom of our spending?”

That’s why Judge Roll was taken out, not because he was the hapless victim of a crazed nutcase, but because he dared stand up to the political mafia we have in Washington. Loughner’s lengthy disappearance and sudden reappearance are too similar to the terrorist incidents in Oregon, Virginia, the Shoe Bomber, and the Underwear Bomber, to name but a few. Why is the government trying to intentionally bring down the same country the members of which swore an oath to defend?

We know why. It’s the banking interests and the trickle down of human avarice in the face of a complete lack of moral discipline. It’s those political prostitutes, who insist we must join NAFTA, the EU, sell electricity to Mexico for a profit while we have rolling blackouts across the Southwest, become “harmonized” with Codex Alimentarius so that trade between pharmaceutical companies can proceed without restriction, not allow disclosure of GMO foods on package labels, send in SWAT teams to close down Amish farms and health food stores selling raw milk, sending SWAT teams to force nurses and clerks on the floor at gunpoint while they seize computers that suggest therapies that run afoul of the corrupt AMA, make it illegal to collect rainwater off your own roof, and try to force inspection and permitting for anyone wanting to grow vegetables in their own back yard; THESE are the IDIOTS we have elected.

So when 2012 comes around, and we each have a choice to bail out of the Democrat and Republican Parties, how many of you are going to do just as the power brokers predicted and vote for your same old “favorite” candidate who has been saying all along how hard he has been working to change things, but basically did little or nothing except manage to stay in office?

If you want that headache to go away, stop banging your head against the wall.

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RAE's avatar

By RAE, February 16, 2011 at 7:21 pm Link to this comment

Amazing how everybody’s talking and nobody’s listening on this issue.

For example, not a hint of recognition from anyone regarding gerard’s comments of the 15th.

I get the same reactions whenever I have the temerity to mention that the United States has carried out extremely serious interventions (including outright invasions and wars) into more than 70 nations between 1945 and 2010 (just Google “US Wars” for references) I get complete silence as a reaction. I guess folks were taking time out to formulate excuses and “spin” to justify every one of these uninvited incursions into other peoples’ countries. With the US it’s do as we say not as we do.

Gerard has put it politely labeling the preposterous arrogance of US hypocritical imperialism as “absurd.”

How about some of you blowhards entertaining us with some feedback on gerard’s points?

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, February 16, 2011 at 6:13 pm Link to this comment

tman:

I’m sure a lot of Zionists are “Hung.” But that’s beside the point.

I admire your tolerance- you are truly a progressive to be admired.

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By Inherit The Wind, February 16, 2011 at 5:21 pm Link to this comment

felicity, February 16 at 6:52 pm Link to this comment

rico is saying that because the protesters weren’t
shot, they should be grateful.

*****************

I dunno. Whenever I went to a protest demonstration and wasn’t shot, I was ALWAYS grateful.  Only an idiot wouldn’t be.

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By Tobysgirl, February 16, 2011 at 4:52 pm Link to this comment

Various people: Your blood pressure and heart rate will remain calm if you simply skip the posts of people you know write “juvenilia.” There are people on this site who have excellent information and ideas to share, and then there are the people who apparently have too much time on their hands!

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By tman, February 16, 2011 at 3:54 pm Link to this comment

All Zionists should be tried as war criminals and “Hung”.

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By bogi666, February 16, 2011 at 3:49 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

FYI, rico is a school boy posing as ........! Study how he writes, it’s juvenile C- quality at best.

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, February 16, 2011 at 2:59 pm Link to this comment

felicity:

Is that what I’m saying? Wow, who could have guessed besides you? Even I didn’t know.

And as for the issue at hand, since when is preventing someone from preventing someone from speaking considered an infringement of free speech?
By that logic, killing a speaker you disagree with, rather than merely interrupting him, would be the ultimate expression of free speech.

I guess in the Orwellian progressive blogosphere it could be read that way, but not in the real world where real people live, I dare say.

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By felicity, February 16, 2011 at 1:52 pm Link to this comment

rico is saying that because the protesters weren’t
shot, they should be grateful.  Just give us a few
years, or months, at the rate our civil liberties are
being infringed on, threatening to shoot, or shooting
future protesters may/will become legitimate.

We’ll all await rico’s commentary then.

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By curmudgeon99, February 16, 2011 at 12:31 pm Link to this comment

I just called the DA’s office
714-834-3600

Attendant informed me when I stated reason for my call - protest Tony’s actions, to send e-mail to

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with all comments/suggestions/observations…heh,heh

When asked, she mentioned phone is ‘ringing off the hook’ over this issue. She estimated 100 calls so far and it is only 8:30 a.m.

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By SarcastiCanuck, February 16, 2011 at 11:19 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Well,this sort of resembles what the Jews went through in 1930’s Germany when they spoke out loudly.Funny how history repeats itself in surreal ways.Punishment o.k…..Felony indictement???Smells like creeping facsism to me.The double standards are bizzare to say the least.Maybe District Attorney Rackauckas should read the constitution he is sworn to uphold again….

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By tedmurphy41, February 16, 2011 at 11:02 am Link to this comment

Whatever happened to the claim to uphold free speech within America’s borders, or does it now contain certain caveats covering Israeli diplomats from any type of inconvenience such as being heckled.

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winsome1's avatar

By winsome1, February 16, 2011 at 10:15 am Link to this comment

I’m watching it from the inside: corporate UC is systematically criminalizing
student dissent.

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By Orange County Jail, February 16, 2011 at 4:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I agree that, depending on the circumstances,
possessing a firearm may deter crime.

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By midwest hippy, February 16, 2011 at 12:50 am Link to this comment

OK lets get this straight, They will possibly have a
felony conviction for disrupting a meeting? Well for 2
years we have been hearing how the Tea Party organized
its members to interrupt town hall meetings all over
the country.

  Seems to be a bit of a double standard way to go.

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By Salome, February 15, 2011 at 10:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

How is “settled out of court” acceptable?  The students have now been ‘terrorized’ by the threat of felony records, and jail time,
out of exercising their right to free speech.
How is that acceptable?

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, February 15, 2011 at 10:11 pm Link to this comment

Big B:

“(he probably still thinks the indians and blacks and Japanese-americans had it coming) Is there no low that america cannot sink to that you Rico, are willing to apologize for?”

You just answered for me. Thanks. Indians, blacks and Japanese-Americans got hosed. You’re right.

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, February 15, 2011 at 10:08 pm Link to this comment

Big B:

“Just ask yourselves this, if jewish kids had protested an Iranian speaker, would they be facing the same charges?”

In Iran? No, they wouldn’t. They’d be shot.

In the US? No, they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t be allowed to protest an Iranian speaker. They’d be shouted down by liberal “free speech” thugs.

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By Big B, February 15, 2011 at 10:02 pm Link to this comment

once again we get to read the ravings of the pin-head rico. (he probably still thinks the indians and blacks and Japanese-americans had it coming) Is there no low that america cannot sink to that you Rico, are willing to apologize for?

Just ask yourselves this, if jewish kids had protested an Iranian speaker, would they be facing the same charges?

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, February 15, 2011 at 9:45 pm Link to this comment

“When Protest Becomes a Crime”

Let’s see- some kids are charged with a misdemeanor (!) at UCI.

Dozens are shot in the street in Cairo, and certainly, dozens will be killed in Tehran.

And Boyarsky bitches about a California DA? Whatever you do, Bill, don’t let an opportunity to bash the US go by! Oh, and do readjust your blinders.

Speaking of limiting free speech on a campus- talk to David Horowitz or Ann Coulter.

Desperate. Pathetic.

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By gerard, February 15, 2011 at 9:05 pm Link to this comment

Ecusse the double post.  My dsl is too slow!

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By gerard, February 15, 2011 at 6:28 pm Link to this comment

Doesn’t it strike you how absurd American attitudes toward the Middle East are?
  1.  We support Israel’s wars against Palestine with weapons.
  2.  We support Palestinians with economic aid.
  3.  We oppost some Palestinians because they take a militant stand toward Israel’s oppression.  Yet we say we oppose oppression.
  4. We sell enormous weapons to Saudi Arabia, which oppresses its own people
  5. We spend billions killing Afghanis because we oppose Muslim “fundamentalists” but more than half our government supports Christian “fundamentalists”
and pays chaplains to preach it to our troops there.
  6. We spent billions destroying Iraq and now we are spending billions to try to rebuild what we destroyed.
  7. We supported Mubarek’s regime in Egypt for decades with military aid, some of which he spent to oppress his own people.
  8. We say we are fighting to establish democracy in the Middle East (whether they want it or not) but our repressive domestic “surveillance” policies kill democracy and keep Americans cowed.  Yet we say “They hate (or envy) us for our freedom.”
  9. We are afraid of Iran making nuclear weapons, yet we have more such weapons than any other place in the world and want everybody in the world to fear us.
  That’s just the cream skimmed off the top.

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By gerard, February 15, 2011 at 6:28 pm Link to this comment

Doesn’t it strike you how absurd American attitudes toward the Middle East are?
  1.  We support Israel’s wars against Palestine with weapons.
  2.  We support Palestinians with economic aid.
  3.  We oppost some Palestinians because they take a militant stand toward Israel’s oppression.  Yet we say we oppose oppression.
  4. We sell enormous weapons to Saudi Arabia, which oppresses its own people
  5. We spend billions killing Afghanis because we oppose Muslim “fundamentalists” but more than half our government supports Christian “fundamentalists”
and pays chaplains to preach it to our troops there.
  6. We spent billions destroying Iraq and now we are spending billions to try to rebuild what we destroyed.
  7. We supported Mubarek’s regime in Egypt for decades with military aid, some of which he spent to oppress his own people.
  8. We say we are fighting to establish democracy in the Middle East (whether they want it or not) but our repressive domestic “surveillance” policies kill democracy and keep Americans cowed.  Yet we say “They hate (or envy) us for our freedom.”
  9. We are afraid of Iran making nuclear weapons, yet we have more such weapons than any other place in the world and want everybody in the world to fear us.
  That’s just the cream skimmed off the top.

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