Bernd Debusmann

Debt, dogma, and dents in US image

Bernd Debusmann
Jul 29, 2011 14:37 UTC

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

No matter how the wrangling over America’s national debt is resolved, it will leave lasting dents in the international image of a country that prides itself on its can-do spirit and its competence. “The entire whole world is watching,” as President Barack Obama put it, and parts of it are dismayed by a monumental display of dysfunction.

Not to speak of an equally impressive display of rigid dogmatic thinking by anti-tax zealots more befitting Afghanistan’s Taliban than legislators of the Republican Party, a mainstay of America’s democracy for more than 150 years. An outspoken British cabinet minister, Vince Cable, described Tea Party-backed Republicans as “right-wing nutters” posing a threat to the world financial system.

Elsewhere in Europe, less sharp-tongued commentators saw the deadlock in Washington over raising the debt ceiling and avoiding default as a sign of America’s decline.

“The United States must fundamentally renew itself,” columnist Ansgar Graw wrote in the conservative German newspaper Die Welt. “This means that both parties must place the common good above gains in electoral campaigns.”
Failing to do so, he said, could result in turning “the American 21st-century crisis into the demise of the dominant power of the 20th century.”

One of the most striking depictions of the gap between long-held perceptions of the United States as a model of democratic competence and the new reality of politicians risking financial havoc for the sake of the purity of anti-tax dogma came not from abroad but in a political cartoon in the New Jersey Record newspaper. Cartoonist Jimmy Margulies portrayed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai standing together looking at a paper marked “U.S. default.”

Desmond Tutu, Israel and U.S. pensions

Bernd Debusmann
Jul 22, 2011 16:28 UTC

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

What’s the connection between a South African Nobel Peace Prize winner, Israel, and one of America’s biggest pension funds? An international campaign for economic, cultural and academic boycotts of Israel and Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

The South African in question is retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose role in the fight against apartheid in the 1980s gained him the Peace Prize and world-wide fame. The pension fund is the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund, better known as TIAA-CREF. The connecting link is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, BDS for short, launched by Palestinians in 2005.

In an op-ed article in the Charlotte Observer, timed to coincide with TIAA-CREF’s annual shareholders meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, on July 19, the archbishop rebuked the pension fund for having refused to allow a vote on a resolution questioning its holdings in companies that profit from operating in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In U.S., time to end the death penalty?

Bernd Debusmann
Jul 15, 2011 16:02 UTC

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

America’s system of meting out death sentences is unfair and arbitrary. Race, money and politics play major roles. Since society’s ultimate punishment cannot be applied fairly, it should not be applied at all.

So says a report timed to coincide with the re-instatement of capital punishment in the United States 35 years ago this July, after a four-year suspension prompted by a Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty was being administered so arbitrarily and capriciously that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, many states rewrote their laws and when the Supreme Court returned to the issue in 1976, it said the new statutes had taken the randomness out of the system. Did they?

Not according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based non-profit organization which has been keeping track of capital punishment for more than two decades. Its report concludes that the death penalty, post-1976, “has proven to be a failed experiment. The theory that with proper guidance to juries the death penalty could be administered fairly has not worked in practice. Thirty-five years of experience have taught the futility of trying to fix this system.”

America’s problematic remote control wars

Bernd Debusmann
Jul 8, 2011 16:19 UTC

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The United States is deploying missile-laden remotely piloted aircraft to kill enemies in six countries, scientists are working on ever more sophisticated military robots, and there are a host of unanswered questions on the future of warfare. Some of the more intriguing ones are asked abroad.

Such as: “Is the Reaper operator walking the streets of his home town after a shift a legitimate target as a combatant? Would an attack (on him) by a Taliban sympathizer be an act of war under international law or murder under the statutes of the home state? Does the person who has the right to kill as a combatant while in the control station cease to be a combatant on his way home?”

This comes from a study by Britain’s Ministry of Defence and refers to the air war waged by U.S. pilots who operate, from bases in the United States, heavily-armed drones flying over Afghanistan or Pakistan 7,500 miles away. The Reaper is the workhorse of the drone fleet, which has grown from around 50 a decade ago to more than 7,000 today. It is increasing at a fast clip, unaffected by defense spending cuts in other areas.

The U.S. drug war and racial disparities

Bernd Debusmann
Jul 1, 2011 15:31 UTC

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The numbers tell the story of a criminal justice system blighted by racial disparities in drug law enforcement: African-Americans make up around 12 percent of the U.S. population, account for 33.6 percent of drug arrests and 37 percent of state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses.

The figures come from Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog which complains in its 2011 report about “overwhelming racial disparities” in drug incarcerations despite the fact that blacks and whites engage in drug offenses at equivalent rates. The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group which has tracked disparities in the criminal justice system for the past 25 years, says the black-white gap cannot be explained by disproportionate criminal behavior.

While African-Americans are the minority most affected by racial disparities, they are not the only one, according to Human Rights Watch: “Black non-Hispanic males are incarcerated at a rate more than six times that of white non-Hispanic males and 2.6 times that of Hispanic males. One in 10 black males aged 25-29 were in prison or jail in 2009; for Hispanic males the figure was 1 in 25; for white males only 1 in 64.”