Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sanford cops botched investigation of Trayvon Martin's death

By DeWayne Wickham

SANFORD, Fla. -- The most revealing thing about the investigation into the killing of Trayvon Martin is a blank page on the police department’s website. The heading atop it says simply, “Sanford’s Most Wanted.”

The empty space beneath those words is a metaphor for the botched response to the killing of the black 17-year-old, whose assailant the police refuse to arrest.
That’s because George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer whose father is white and mother is Hispanic, claims he was acting in self-defense when he killed Martin with a single shot to the chest. Zimmerman, to keep from being tried, is relying on Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows a person to use deadly force when he feels threatened. But Zimmerman didn’t stand his ground; he pursued his prey.

Suspicious of Martin as the teenager walked inside the gated community he was patrolling on Feb. 26, Zimmerman followed him in his SUV. He called 911 to say Martin, who was walking in the rain to the home of his father’s fiance, looked as if he was up to no good because he had pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head. The 911 operator told Zimmerman to stop following Martin and await the arrival of police. Zimmerman ignored that order.

At some point, he got out of his SUV and shot Martin. Zimmerman claims he used deadly force only after being attacked by the teen. Phone records show Martin was talking to his girlfriend seconds before he was shot. The unnamed 16-year-old says Martin told her someone was following him. Then she heard a man demand to know what Martin was doing in that neighborhood before the cellphone went dead.

The police investigation looks like the work of Keystone Kops at best. At worst, it smacks of something much more disturbing. Martin’s body wasn’t identified until the next day when police, responding to his father’s missing person report, showed him a picture of the young man’s body.

Despite this, the corpse remained in the morgue three days, classified only as “John Doe.” It took that long for the cops to send the medical examiner the required paperwork that officially identified the remains and authorized the family to retrieve it for burial, Benjamin Crump, the Martin family’s attorney, told me.

Martin’s body was tested for drugs and alcohol. Neither was found. Zimmerman, the guy who killed him, was not tested. Zimmerman’s blood-stained clothes weren’t taken for analysis; the contents of his SUV weren’t checked, Crump said. Zimmerman was set free after a brief police interrogation. Even after police chief Bill Lee “temporarily” resigned amid growing protests over his department’s handling of this case, cops cling to the position that evidence -- what little they bothered to collect -- supports Zimmerman’s self-defense claim.

That assertion should be tested by the special prosecutor appointed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott to take over the investigation. Martin was armed only with his cellphone, a can of iced tea and bag of Skittles candy when he encountered the gun-toting Zimmerman.

This mismatch, and the racial slur Zimmerman appears to utter on the 911 tape shortly before he leaves his vehicle for his deadly confrontation with Martin, should force him to have to account for his actions in a court of law. “It was wrong that Zimmerman profiled Trayvon. But it was tragic that the police did it, too,” Crump said.

He’s right. Justice won’t be served until Zimmerman and the Sanford police are made to answer for their actions in the case of Trayvon Martin.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Afghan mass murderer deserves justice, not pity

By DeWayne Wickham

Even before the identity of the Army staff sergeant believed to have massacred 16 people in an Afghanistan village became known, excuses for his ghoulish acts of terror started popping up in the news media, diminishing the likelihood that justice will prevail in this case.

In one account, an unnamed military official said the suspect who has since been identified as 38-yearold Robert Bales — had been drinking alcohol the night of the murderous rampage. Another official said he was distraught over an incident in which a fellow soldier’s leg was blown off.

There were reports that Bales might have had marital and financial problems, and a story that he suffered a head wound during the last of his three deployments to Iraq. In some “chronic cases,” that sort of injury “can lead to cognitive problems, personality changes and a loss of impulse control,” The New York Times reported after Bales was named as the lone suspect.

What we know for certain is that nine children, three women and four men were killed. These innocent victims were attacked as they slept in villages that were supposed to be protected by soldiers on Bales’ nearby base. The bodies of some of the victims were set on fire. That’s the work of a murderous madman. But don’t expect Bales to be treated like one if he’s convicted of the late-night killing spree. History suggests otherwise.

Not one of the eight Marines charged in the 2005 massacre of 24 people in Iraq, including women, children and a man in a wheelchair, was imprisoned. One was acquitted, the charges against six others were dropped. The sergeant who admitted ordering his men to “shoot first and ask questions later” was given a plea bargain, serving no time behind bars.

And though William Calley, the Army lieutenant who ordered the 1968 attack that killed 500 unarmed people in the Vietnamese village of My Lai, was found guilty of personally killing 22 people, he served just three-and-a-half years of house arrest before President Nixon commuted his sentence.

In each case, public opinion among war-weary Americans opposed harsh punishment for these mass murderers, who were seen more as victims of unpopular wars — men who were driven over the brink by the bad decision-making of their superiors or of Washington policymakers.

Such shortsightedness damages more than the American concept of justice. It also does great injury to the democratic ideals we use to justify the continued presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. And when an American soldier who commits a crime gets off with little or no punishment, it devalues the lives of their foreign victims and creates tensions that put at risk the lives of other U.S. servicemembers who get targeted for retribution.

Of course, war can take a heavy emotional and psychological toll on those who are sent into battle. But that’s no excuse for the brutal slaughter Bales is suspected of committing. Unfortunately, many news media organizations appear to suggest otherwise by putting more effort into looking for explanations for Bales’ alleged bad acts than in trying to uncover the details of those heartless crimes.

To imply that a U.S. soldier who goes on a killing spree in a foreign land is less culpable because of the pressures of war slanders the incredibly good conduct of the millions of U.S. men and women who have served honorably in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The person who massacred the Afghan villagers deserves the contempt of this nation — and the unyielding judgment of its criminal justice system.

Monday, March 12, 2012

"Kony 2012" puts focuson wrong story

By DeWayne Wickham

Filmmaker Jason Russell says the goal of his searing video about Joseph Kony, which got more than 70 million YouTube hits within a week, is to make the guerrilla leader famous. By that, I think he really means he wants to use the 30-minute documentary to make Kony infamous in cyberspace.

Kony has long been a pretty notorious guy. Over the past two decades he’s kidnapped tens of thousands of children. The boys are forced to fight in his army. The girls become sex slaves. In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Kony. Last year, the African Union labeled his group a terrorist organization.

Shortly before leaving office, President George W. Bush sent 17 counterterrorism advisers to help capture Kony, who was hiding in a Congo national park. He got away.

In October, the Obama administration ordered 100 U.S. military advisers into central Africa to train the military forces trying to track down Kony. But so far he remains elusive.

Russell hopes his documentary, Kony 2012, will help bring the international fugitive to justice. “Its only purpose is to stop the rebel group, LRA, and their leader, Joseph Kony,” Russell says in the video’s opening sequence.

His plan to do this is simplistic, if not naive. Russell encouraged the video’s millions of Internet viewers to send messages via Twitter to 20 “culturemakers” and 12 “policymakers” — people he believes can pressure the Obama administration to keep the U.S. military advisers in central Africa until Kony is apprehended.

His list of policymakers includes two people who need no introduction — former presidents Bush and Bill Clinton — and at least two others — Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, R-Fla. — who are far from household names and pack little clout with the Democrat in the Oval Office. Among the “culturemakers” Russell wants people to inundate with tweets calling for no end to U.S. military support of the search for Kony until he is captured is Oprah Winfrey, Bill O’Reilly, Taylor Swift and Rush Limbaugh.

That’s right, Limbaugh.

Back in October, the conservative talk show host berated President Obama for sending the military advisers to central Africa. The “Lord’s Resistance Army are Christians,” Limbaugh said at the time. “They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan. And Obama has sent troops, United States troops to…kill them.”

Alright, so maybe Russell’s plan is even more naive than simplistic. Even so, that’s not likely to stop large numbers of people from taking up his cause. Sure the world will be a far better place without Kony trolling about central Africa unleashing his violence on defenseless people. But the commitment from this country to bring him to justice, despite the message of the video, is both longstanding and surprisingly bipartisan. So there’s no need to cajole the president and congressional leaders.

“The documentary is guilty of promoting the sins of the old media,” Charles Stith, a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania said. His point is that like mainstream media organizations, it focuses too much on what is wrong with Africa and not enough on the changes taking place in Africa that have helped make Kony a pariah.

“Ten years ago there were only 11 democratically elected leaders of African countries,” said Sthti, who now heads the African Presidential Archives & Research Center at Boston University. “Today there are 33.”

It’s this change that is “tightening the noose around Kony’s neck,” he said. And it is the good news story of Africa that continues to be largely ignored.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Israeli leader should embrace Obama, not undermine him

By DeWayne Wickham

After publicly backing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criticism of U.S. efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., offered up this bit of doublespeak.

“It’s not just about the Jewish vote and (the) 2012 (presidential election),” The New York Times reported Graham as saying in defense of his actions. “It’s about reassuring people who want to avoid war that the United States will do what’s necessary.”

No, I think it really is about election year politics. Republicans have been trying desperately to find a foreign policy issue on which to attack President Obama, whose success in killing Osama bin Laden and a long list of other terrorist leaders has made him no easy target on this front. More than Israel’s special relationship with the U.S. , it is the influence of Jewish voters in presidential elections that has turned Graham and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also in the meeting, into sedan chair carriers for Netanyahu’s concerns.

By using Graham and McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Obama, as his key U.S. mouthpiece, Netanyahu has inserted himself squarely in the middle of the presidential race. By associating himself with their attacks on Obama’s foreign policy, Netanyahu becomes an interloper in U.S. election politics.

On Monday, Netanyahu met at the White House with Obama. While those talks were private, it seems what the Israeli leader wants is not simply Obama’s support in the showdown with Iran , but also his compliance. Netanyahu wants the U.S. president to do what he demands — and that’s not going to happen.

Obama has repeatedly said that he will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. Last week, using the language of the tough streets he once worked as a community organizer, Obama told The Atlantic magazine that he’s not bluffing when he says he won’t allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. Then, in an address Sunday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Obama offered an even stronger guarantee: There shouldn’t be any doubt that “when the chips are down, I have Israel ’s back,” he said.

Netanyahu isn’t convinced of that. So he threatens to go it alone in launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran . But that would be a war Israel probably couldn’t win without massive American military and financial aid.

Understandably, Netanyahu is jittery over the prospect of Iran getting a nuclear bomb. After all, he bears a great responsibility for safeguarding his country. But Netanyahu should neither doubt the public assurances Obama has given Israel , nor try to use the president’s political adversaries to pressure him into letting Israel dictate when the U.S. sends its servicemembers to war.

“If during this political season you hear some questions regarding my administration’s support for Israel , remember that it’s not backed up by the facts. And remember that the U.S.-Israel relationship is simply too important to be distorted by partisan politics,” Obama said in his AIPAC speech. That’s a message that should not be lost on Netanyahu.

Obama has given the Israeli leader a strong, unequivocal public commitment to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power — an action that will be taken on the president’s terms. Netanyahu makes a big mistake when he tries to get Obama to do otherwise, or uses those who are trying to unseat the president to champion his concerns.