Excerpts of recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New England newspapers:
The Providence Journal (R.I.), July 23, 2015
The most essential guarantee of our freedom is the First Amendment, which bars the government from using its power against citizens for speaking out.
It is especially important that politicians refrain from training the Internal Revenue Service against citizens and groups that espouse views challenging those of government officials. Unfortunately, this basic understanding of the importance of protecting speech seems to have been lost on some in Washington in recent years.
The ostensibly nonpartisan IRS, we learned years ago, subjected especially conservative nonprofits to scrutiny and harassment in 2010 when they applied for tax-exempt status. When the news of this first came out, President Obama denounced it, properly noting: “It should not matter what political stripe you’re from. The fact of the matter is, the IRS has to operate with absolute integrity.” But his Justice Department assigned one of President Obama’s campaign contributors to investigate the matter, and nothing came of it. Complicating matters was the IRS’s destruction of the emails of Lois Lerner, the official responsible.
All this seemed a frightening assault on the First Amendment, but recent developments suggest a wider campaign against speech.
Judicial Watch, a nonpartisan educational foundation, recently obtained information showing that the IRS wanted to go even further than thwarting the activities of conservative groups: some in the agency appear to have wanted to criminalize them.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., at a public hearing, had raised the idea of going after groups that gain tax-exempt status improperly. According to newly released documents from the Department of Justice and the IRS, in October 2010, representatives from those agencies met to discuss pursuing criminal charges against conservative groups that were said to be “posing” as tax-exempt social welfare organizations.
According to a memo recounting the meeting, revealed through a Freedom of Information Act request by Judicial Watch, the participants tried to come up with “several possible theories to bring criminal charges under FEC (Federal Election Commission) law.” That is to say, the IRS (and Justice Department), it appears, were not content to merely gum up the works when groups tried to obtain the tax-exempt status; they actually hoped to put the groups’ leaders in jail.
Certainly, citizens must heed campaign finance and tax laws or face the consequences. But those in government must be careful not train their power against citizens simply for advancing ideas they oppose.
The documents reveal that the IRS transferred the supposedly confidential tax returns of some 113,000 conservative nonprofits to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. According to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., former chair of the House Oversight Committee, “This revelation likely means that the IRS . violated federal tax law by transmitting this information to the Justice Department,” which prohibits such blanket transfers.
The Republican (Mass.), July 22, 2015
Get smaller, or get stronger. That’s the choice the Federal Reserve is giving the nation’s biggest banks with a wise new set of rules it instituted on July 20.
If a bank grows to be so large that it cannot be allowed to fail, it would be best to see that it is standing on a rock solid foundation. Or, the bank could decide to shrink so that its failure would not imperil the whole of the intricate and interconnected financial system.
The new rules, simply stated, would seek to head off the sort of problems that crippled much of the overall economy in the summer of 2008. Fed chief Janet Yellen and her colleagues deserve praise for acting now - instead of scrambling to try to react after another crisis.
The new rules will require the nation’s largest banks - including JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America - to maintain larger capital reserves that would allow them to ride out a future storm. The amounts would vary depending on several factors, including the size of the institution and the degree of risk contained in its investments. Banks could also decide to downsize, to get out of some arenas, to refrain from certain behaviors.
To remember, even in outline form, what happened in the summer of 2008 is to relive the terrifying days of economic collapse. The gears of the financial world seized up. For a time, there was effectively no lending, no real economic activity. When financial giant Lehman Brothers turned to vapor overnight, there was real reason to wonder if we were at the start of a collapse that would be even more dire than the Great Depression.
While we were able to avoid that terrible fate, no one would wish to come so perilously close to the edge again. Ever. This is the reason for the new regulations.
The rules are based on sound thinking, seeing banks as distinctly different from those high-flying investment houses with their exotic and esoteric methods of making money out of the thinnest air imaginable. Effectively, a bank can make a choice: have more money at the ready, or shrink. The former would help head off disaster in case of an emergency; the latter would reduce the number of potential crises.
The Telegraph of Nashua (N.H.), July 22, 2015
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took aim at Congress on Monday in a speech in which he said lawmakers should be docked for missed votes and banned from working as lobbyists for six years after they leave office.
He may be onto something.
Congress is an easy target, after all, what with its public approval rating only 15 percent, according to the website Real Clear Politics. That figure is undoubtedly higher among members of Congress, but heck, even they routinely campaign against their own institution when they seek reelection. They know an easy ground ball when they see one.
House members and senior staffers who leave office are now prohibited from lobbying for at least a year under the so-called “revolving door” law. Former senators have to wait at least two years before they can get paid to influence their former colleagues.
The problem is that the law contains so many exemptions that it is widely regarded as a joke. One popular loophole allows a congressional aide to leave a job on Friday and go to work on Monday as a lobbyist, so long as the pay in the new position is below a certain six-figure threshold.
The idea to ban members of Congress from lobbying for six years after they leave office may have merit, but it has little chance of passing Congress.
It is worth noting that Bush did not address the issue of fixing the campaign finance system that many have likened to legalized bribery, where candidates take money from wealthy special interests whose donations buy access and, some say, undue influence. Then again, as the recipient of more than $100 million in contributions to his presidential campaign and political action committee, Bush is hardly in a position to champion that issue, and he’s not the only one.
The best idea Bush laid out on Monday may be one that involves nothing more dramatic than mere transparency: require members of Congress to publish weekly reports on their websites detailing the lobbyists with whom they meet. Expanding that to the White House wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.
In fact, there’s nothing to stop members of Congress from doing that now if they wanted. We’d love to see New Hampshire’s congressional delegation take the lead by doing it preemptively, but people shouldn’t hold their breath.
Such transparency could even be expanded to the governor’s office, legislative leaders and state agency heads.
If we can’t stop the flow of money from tainting the political system, then let’s at least make the governing process more open to give the public a clearer look at who’s coming and going.
The Hartford Courant (Conn.), July 21, 2015
It is breathtakingly sad. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, who grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, a Purple Heart recipient of sterling reputation who served two tours of duty in Iraq, was killed last week on what should have been safe duty, as a Stateside military recruiter.
Gunnery Sgt. Sullivan, 40, was one of five U.S. servicemen - four Marines and a sailor - killed in a shooting rampage Thursday in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Little changed when Connecticut schoolchildren were victims of mass shootings. Will the deaths of members of the military make a difference?
This was the fourth domestic attack of U.S. military personnel since 2009, attacks which took nearly three dozen lives. Members of the military are vulnerable in part because they properly control their own weapons. Weapons are inspected to make sure they aren’t loaded, are accounted for and are stored in armories. The only troops with weapons are those on police or security duty. It now appears security must be improved, hopefully without arming every soldier in camp or in a recruiting station.
Officials don’t know why Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, whom police killed in a gun battle, started killing. He did his fellow Muslims no favor; members of the local Islamic community were appalled at the shootings.
The portrait emerging of Mr. Abdulazeez is that of a young man troubled by depression and drugs, with thoughts of suicide or martyrdom. He shouldn’t have had a gun; he had four. How many killings will it take for Congress to stand up to the gun lobby and pass a simple and sensible rule requiring universal background checks?
Three clergymen, writing in The New York Times, proposed that President Obama use the government’s purchasing power as the country’s leading buyer of guns and ammunition to encourage gun manufacturers to make safer weapons and ensure their legal distribution.
That would be a start.
Brattleboro Reformer (Vt.), July 22, 2015
If you haven’t seen the video yet of the traffic stop that resulted in the arrest of Sandra Bland, it’s easy to criticize her for not following the commands of the Texas State Trooper who stopped her for failing to use her turn signal on July 10.
After all, we have been told time and time again to obey authority and follow the orders of a police officer. How dare she not listen to the trooper and put her cigarette out and get out of the vehicle as he demanded? And if you are black in America, you have been told time and time again, just do whatever the officer tells you, otherwise you might end up hurt … or worse. It’s just a fact of life for black Americans.
But watch the video. Sandra Bland was pulled over after she switched lanes because the trooper came up behind her rather quickly. Bland told the officer her first thought was to get out of his way in case he was in a hurry to get somewhere else. It turns out the trooper may have profiled Bland, who was a black woman driving a car with out-of-state plates in a small town in Waller County.
He wrote up a ticket and was giving it to her when he asked her to put out her cigarette, which she refused to do. The traffic stop quickly escalated at this point until Bland was arrested and cited with assaulting a police officer. It would be easy, if you have not viewed the video, to conclude that Bland became obstinate and combative and her arrest was a result of her own behavior. But if you do look at the video, you will be stunned by the complete control she has over her emotions. You will also sympathize with her, because what right does the trooper have demanding that she snuff out her cigarette? And then demanding that she exit her vehicle because she will not comply with his demand? Bland was well within her rights to keep puffing away if she so desired and was also well within her rights to remain within her car until the officer informed her exactly for what legal reason he was asking her to get out. Instead, the trooper starts yelling at her and at one point even threatens to “light you up” with a stun gun, pointing it directly at her face, before pulling her out of the vehicle.
Very simply: This trooper was out of control and reacted very poorly to a woman who was exercising her Fourth Amendment right, guaranteeing “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures …”
Ian Millhiser, writing for Think Progress, notes that the Supreme Court would most likely conclude that the trooper did violate Bland’s rights. “Rodriguez v. United States held that police could not extend the length of a routine traffic stop, even for just a few minutes, absent a safety related concern or reasonable suspicion to believe that the driver may have committed an additional crime.”
We are not pleased when we get a whiff of cigarette smoke, but we’re not sure it constitutes a “safety related concern” or reasonable suspicion that someone is committing a crime. “Had the officer not decided to extend the length of the stop over the argument about the cigarette, it is likely that Bland would have been sent on her way very shortly after she declined to extinguish her cigarette,” wrote Millhiser.
Instead, Sandra Bland is dead, with the initial report indicating she killed herself with a trash bag after three days in a jail cell. The trooper is on administrative leave and again, America must confront the systemic racism that seethes inches below the surface of our everyday lives.
Most of us know plenty of law enforcement personnel who are respectful and would never treat another human being - black or white - the way this Texas state trooper treated Bland. He is a stain on the reputations of officers who work hard, put their lives on the line and are likely to put up with a ration of guff every time they pull someone over for a traffic infraction. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they just shrug and laugh it off, hand the person a ticket and walk away. We commend those 99 percent. Unfortunately for Bland, she had a confrontation with a member of the 1 percent, and now she is dead.
The Boston Globe (Mass.), July 25, 2015
A year ago, a Globe investigation exposed in stark detail the lack of an established process for families of relatives who have disappeared while attempting to cross the US-Mexico border illegally. But little progress has been made since then, and many of the missing are never found, or end up buried anonymously in public graves.
The lack of recourse for families of the hundreds who have died after crossing the border begs for a humane solution. Federal authorities must strengthen policies to mandate consistent identification of the dead. To allow anonymous mass graves on American soil is cruel to families and denies the basic human right that every individual deserves a degree of dignity - no matter where they come from or how they died.
The growing body count of migrants underscores the treacherous journey of crossing the border into the United States. Chief Deputy Sheriff Benny Martinez of Brooks County, Texas, testified before Congress earlier this year that his department has recovered bodies of those who crossed illegally at a rate of about six per month over the past six-and-a-half years.
The humanitarian dilemma has not gone unnoticed, but it still demands new rules and federal assistance to create a reliable identification system. A consortium of forensic experts formed the Reuniting Families Project (RFP) to assist in efforts to identify bodies of migrants, some of whom had been buried by the county in public cemeteries without having a DNA sample taken as required by law. The group has been unearthing public graves of migrants near the border since 2003. Since 2013, RFP has exhumed more than 120 bodies of unidentified border crossers.
Many law enforcement officers and ranch owners in Brooks County have repeatedly called for increased awareness and more resources to manage the sickening status quo, insisting it is not about the politics of immigration, but essentially a human rights issue. “If dead human beings don’t catch your attention, what the hell else is going to? We’re just trying to be human about it,” a local rancher told the Associated Press.
Humanity toward deceased unidentified migrant border-crossers needs to be codified in law enforcement circles, as the Globe’s report made clear. East Boston resident Maria Interiano’s brother went missing two summers ago as he crossed the border illegally into Texas. It was a heartbreaking tale of dead ends as Maria tried to find out what happened to him - she didn’t even know there is a federal database, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, where her brother’s DNA profile could be found. Local law enforcement agencies are also sometimes reluctant to investigate when it’s unclear if the disappearance occurred in their jurisdiction.
Migrants should never be buried in US soil without consistent, codified efforts to identify them. The ongoing pressure at the US-Mexico border - along with beefed-up security - guarantees that there will be more extreme and dangerous efforts to cross into the United States, and certainly more tragic deaths. Federal and local authorities must work together to stop unnecessary suffering for families in the aftermath.
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