Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Psalms of Peace

For people who experienced war or grew up in times of war, imagining peace is hard to do. “Growing up, war was a playground/and my friends and I played in it,” Yasmin Elmi writes in a poem about his native Somalia, which appears in a new poetry and art collection called Waging Peace. The multi-media anthology, which includes one of my recent poems, is published online by Voices Education Project in Seattle, Washington.

Many contributors, from students like Yasmin to older folks, vividly recall wars in Africa, the Middle East, Central America, Southeast Asia, Europe and other violence-torn places in recent decades. Their dreams of peace are eclipsed by nightmarish war images. Others struggle to engage peace on its own terms.

For instance, here’s the beginning passage and the ending of Tristan Alving’s poem, “As Long As: A Psalm of Peace”:

As long as we fight
There will be no peace
As long as we hate
There will be no peace
When we stop fighting
When we stop hating
Then peace shall flourish

And as long as the wall between
Israel and Palestine stays up
Then fight will break its bonds
And hate will escape its prison
And then chaos will endure

A middle school student in Seattle, Tristan was stumped trying to imagine peace taking root in the war-prone Middle East. A big problem in promoting peace is that there are far more images linked with war, says Barbara Kaufman, a long-time peace activist, in a poem titled “Could Use a Little Help Here, Humanity!”

War veteran Jack McLean marshals imagines from both camps to float a thought-provoking idea:

Create a village as strong as a war
To pick the maggots off my skin
And burnish the gold that lies within
This will renew the strength of my sacred core.
Can we create a village as strong as a war?

Storyteller Joe Bruchac invokes the Native American tradition of the Tree of Peace. Judyth Hill, a poet living on a farm in Mexico, proposes that people create the conditions of peace by avidly living peaceful lives:

Wage peace.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious:
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Celebrate today.

Song writer Susan Salidor suggests, in a finger-snapping You Tube performance, that peace is a choice of what we do with our hands. Musician Michael Valeri argues in his song “Change the World!” that the path to peace is for crowds of people to raise their voices in a united movement. My own contribution is a poem, “Make a New History,” that encourages people to make better use of our minds.

Make a New History

In harsh, benighted lands
Child soldiers learn early
How to kill each other
With little skills
But gory practice

In modern, enlightened lands
Gentlemen go to elite schools
To learn how to bomb cities
And whole nations into oblivion
With the latest high-tech devices

Modern sons and daughters
Are carefully educated
In how to dispatch, eliminate—
But not call it murder;
Torment, but not call it torture

Let’s make a new history,
One where war is banished,
Outlawed, like slavery;
One where disputes are resolved,
Not used as violent excuses

--Jan Barry

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Traveling Through America

After enduring travel in an army convoy that rattled over rutted roads for two months navigating from coast to coast in 1919, Dwight Eisenhower’s dream was a national network of paved highways. As president, Ike signed an order in 1956 to build a system of superhighways. Little did he know how that would turn out.

A drive across the USA recently in interstate summer traffic drew intense longing for relief from multiple lanes of hard-charging motorists. One incredible highway scene after another loomed up and disappeared into the rearview mirror. Traffic slowed only for severe congestion, lanes closed for road repairs, and accidents. On a California freeway, the Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend, a beleaguered-looking military convoy crept along the breakdown lane, the helmet-clad troops warily watching a relentless, churning river of cars, vans, SUVs, motorcycles, campers, pickup trucks, utility trucks, garbage trucks, car carriers, rental trucks, 16-wheeler trailer-trucks whooshing past inches from their machinegun mounts.

Squeezed amid careening caravans of double-trailer, long-haul truckers and family campers towed by pickup trucks racing in packs lunging for lead position at 70 miles-per-hour-plus, I was drawn to old-fashioned roadside attractions to preserve some sanity. Lot of roadside crosses in Indiana, for instance. Either there’s a great revival of evangelical Christianity or a horrendous toll of traffic fatalities. But I was driving too fast to stay out of the path of a herd of trucks to figure it out.

It was intriguing to find out that Jesse James hid out in a cave in Missouri. Roadside signs touting that piece of history flashed past, as my speedometer and the trucks hammering on my back bumper topped 80 miles per hour. Didn’t catch the name of the cave. Signs for kayaking in the Ozarks similarly flashed past. Just so with the first sight of a cattle ranch in Oklahoma, an old oil well in Texas, the Petrified Forest in Arizona.

I barely remember New Mexico on the first pass. I drove across the entire state amid a stampede of trucks and campers tearing up the interstate at a breakneck clip, mileposts zipping past in the blink of an eye. Out of the corners of my frazzled eyes, picturesque mesas peeked up in the distance.

But a sight in Arizona made me slam on the brakes and grab the camera. Fortunately, there wasn’t a truck on my bumper, a rarer occurrence on the two-lane old road to the less-visited north side of the Grand Canyon. What caught my attention was a sign on the edge of a remote village. Next to a painted silhouette of soldiers were these words in red letters: “BRING THEM HOME.” Nearby was an older sign that set the scene: “Echo Cliffs Veterans Memorial Park, Cedar Ridge, Arizona.”

After that, I looked for every opportunity to get off the interstate and take an old road to where I was going for the day. And in traveling from coast to coast and back, I saw a lot more of America—golden meadows of mountain wildflowers, fascinating small town landmarks, kayakers in a Colorado River gorge—the further I got off the highway.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Scamming America

It’s one of the biggest scams in the USA , according to the Federal Trade Commission. Yet chances are that most Americans don’t know much about it. In a bizarre twist on our nation’s traditions of justice, victims of this financial ripoff are treated like criminals, forced to pay for someone else’s fraud—and, in some cases, arrested for being taken in by widespread, professionally run counterfeit check and money order operations.

"It’s usually the elderly who get scammed," says a detective assigned to financial crime cases in a Los Angeles suburb. But not always. Younger people using the Internet to look for a roommate, sell an item or answer an ad for making money doing online work have also been hooked by sophisticated hustlers. "I investigated a case where a woman thought she was doing work online for medical billing. She went to the bank and got arrested for depositing a counterfeit check," the Glendale , California detective added.

Glendale police are currently investigating a case where a 29-year-old local man, a relative of mine, got entangled in a check scam while seeking a roommate to share rent, through an ad placed on craigslist. While such fraudulent financial schemes—involving interstate email communications and transfers of money via UPS and Western Union —are a federal crime, the local detective holds out little hope of anyone being convicted in this type of scam. "I guarantee that the federal government isn’t going to do much," he said. Yet, "only they have the resources" to investigate and shut down these operations.

The problem from a local police perspective, said Detective Jason Ross, is that "it can take two to three weeks to get access to investigate the IPO address" of the party who responded to the roommate ad and arranged for a check to be sent—to cover a month’s rent and pay a bill from a shipper for the new roomie’s things—that turns out after it’s been cashed to be counterfeit. And then it could turn out that the emails were sent from Eastern Europe or Nigeria , outside of American legal jurisdiction.

Tracing the cash sent by the unwitting Glendale man to a shipping company in Arkansas can be just as frustrating, the detective added. "The money goes to a Western Union office, but it can be diverted along the way to another office" and picked up by an unknown party. "It’s impossible to track down."

The key piece of this scam that allows the operators of these financial crimes to get off scot-free is that they are manipulating a loophole provision in American banking procedures. That provision holds that the person who cashes a check is responsible for knowing whether it is a valid check. "The banks typically aren’t held responsible for this," the detective said.

That means the victims are stuck with repaying the bank for a counterfeit check or money order that the bank accepted and paid cash on. And so these financial scams have mushroomed like Madoff’s international investment Ponzi schemes. "The only way to prevent them is to educate people about scams," the detective concluded.

Yet, there is much more to this story than the need for more press releases from police on the latest scam. For one thing, this form of fraud is so pervasive it has its own category on the Federal Trade Commission website, its own entry on Wikipedia and a dedicated website devoted to trying to stop this particular form of fleecing Americans. It is also descibed in an "avoid scams & fraud" section posted on the craigslist website. Information on how this fiscal ripoff works, however, clearly did not come to the attention of people who were victimized. One reason is that the warnings are provided in the equivalent of the fine print in credit card documents.

Federal and state agencies, including banking regulators, appear to be dozing on these cases. A call to the FBI about the Glendale man’s case resulted in being referred to the Glendale police department. An email contact with the federal Internet Fraud Complaint Center was not responded to. An email to the California Attorney General’s Office of Victim Services got no response.

As for the bank that cashed the dubious check for the Glendale man, it seems to have multiple procedures regarding checks. Another branch of the same bank refused to cash a second check sent to the victim, even though it was drawn on another prominent bank and was purportedly from a legitimate company. So why was the first check readily accepted and cashed at the young man's neighborhood bank branch?

A Congressional hearing, with witnesses testifying under oath, could get to the bottom of why banks and law enforcement agencies seem unable to stop a wide-scale scam of bank clients that may rival Bernie Madoff’s wholesale victimization of investment clients.

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A former detective in Houston, Texas, Brian Bagent, provided more information on these types of fraud, in a reply to a version of this article posted on opinion-forum.com:

Jan, a giant part of this problem is that there is almost nobody investigating it. I spent my last two years in the Forgery Detail of the Houston Police Department investigating exactly this kind of crime.

We had about 15 detectives in our unit, out of a total of about 5200 sworn personnel, allocated to investigate these things (serving a population of 2 million). The Harris County Sheriff’s Department had less than we did (serving a population of 1.1 or 1.2 million). The United States Secret Service’s Houston field office had maybe 10 or a dozen agents assigned to this sort of thing. The FBI’s Houston field office had 7 or 8 agents dedicated to this. We all (the various agencies) concerted our efforts whenever the opportunity arose because most of these rings operated across jurisdictions, as your essay suggests. I spent about a half of each month working cross-jurisdictional cases.

And we were absolutely inundated with financial crimes. Most investigators in HPD (Burglary and Theft, Robbery, Homicide, Vice, etc) were assigned about 25 – 30 cases a month. We were assigned 100 to 125 cases a month. There was no way to even read that many cases, let alone work all of them, so I cherry-picked the ones with losses in excess of $20K, and still had more than I could do anything about. While testifying at a federal trial in Corpus Christi, Texas, my case load came out in the trial. It was embarrassing, to say the least.

It gets worse. Even when we got convictions, sentencing was light – usually no more than 2 or 3 years for thefts that exceeded $100K.

Granted, this was 10 years ago, but I don’t expect much has changed except that it has probably gotten even worse.