In the wake of Judge Richard Goldstone's op-ed in the Washington Post "reconsidering" one part of the United Nations report on the Gaza conflict that he co-authored, many have tried to write the obituary for the Goldstone Report. The truth is that the Report is more alive than ever. The ferocious debate ignited by Judge Goldstone's op-ed has demonstrated that the world refuses to forget those 22 days in the winter of 2008-2009, when Israel pummeled the Gaza Strip, killing more than 1,300 people, including over 300 children. And it has shown that the 450 pages of the report have lost none of their power to shock and galvanize.
“The court of world opinion has accepted that the Report is credible and that the events it described occurred,” Desmond Travers, a member of the Gaza fact-finding mission along with Goldstone, and a retired colonel in the Irish army, told us yesterday. “People saw on their TV screens that unacceptable levels of terror were brought down on a defenseless city. And then a report came out and confirmed that understanding.”
As many others have pointed out, Goldstone's op-ed does not stand as a recantation of the Goldstone Report. Even if one accepts Judge Goldstone’s claim that Israel did not intentionally target civilians during Operation Cast Lead – a position that the U.N. Committee of Experts, the official body charged with monitoring Israeli and Palestinian investigations into Cast Lead, does not support – the vast majority of the report stands as written. As Judge Goldstone has said himself in an interview with the Associated Press, "I have no reason to believe any part of the report needs to be reconsidered at this time."
This means that Judge Goldstone still believes that Israel and the Palestinian authorities committed war crimes during the conflict, that Israel intentionally targeted Gaza's civilian infrastructure and used "deliberately disproportionate force designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize the civilian population." These are the damning charges that remain unchallenged and that demand international action.
Beyond the specific charges leveled by Goldstone’s fact-finding mission, perhaps the true legacy of the Report is the way it reconfigured the world's understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Goldstone Report helped “to reframe the Israeli-Palestinian debate around the world,” the LA Times editorialized. Instead of a superficial political debate about a stagnant peace process, the Goldstone Report introduced the concepts of international law and human rights into the discourse. It gave us a new language with which to describe the atrocities of Operation Cast Lead – and not just Operation Cast Lead, but the decades of Israeli occupation – and in giving us this language, it held out a solution to the “crisis of human dignity” that has perpetuated violence in the region for so long.
As Naomi Klein writes in the introduction to The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict: "The Goldstone Report, with its uncompromising moral consistency, has revived the old-fashioned principle of universal human rights and international law—a system which, flawed as it is, remains our best protection against barbarism. When we rally around Goldstone, insisting that this report be read and acted upon, it is this system that we are defending."
This is a cause that was taken up around the world following the original publication of the Goldstone Report, and it remains today in the outrage and confusion surrounding Judge Goldstone's op-ed.
As editors of The Goldstone Report, we recognize and honor the work that Judge Goldstone has done to help bring the report to fruition. But we also believe that now the report stands apart from him. It is no longer his report, or even the UN's report, but it is our report.
“Richard and I ceased to have any connection to the report when we turned it in and it was accepted by the Human Rights Council,” Colonel Travers says. International civil society has seized the call for justice and transformed the Goldstone Report from a simple document to a powerful tool for truth-telling and accountability.
No doubt there will be many people who will attempt to exploit this moment to bury the report once and for all. The Israeli government has been working overtime to press the United Nations into voiding, or at least qualifying, the original document, while longtime Goldstone Report critics have been gleefully pressing the line that the whole report is now mortally flawed. But the process the report started can’t be so easily undone. It has permanently transformed the landscape of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will not be unraveled by a single op-ed.
In January 2009, during a lull in the bombing of Israel's "Cast Lead" operation against Gaza, I spoke by telephone with an old family friend, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, from his home on Gaza's Salah al-Din Street. In a voice etched with panic, he told me about his family's dwindling water supply, his children's terror, his dream of escaping. He asked if I could help find a way for him and his family to leave the Gaza Strip. I made some genuine efforts to solicit help from friends with more connections than I, people who might actually be able to do something, but it pains me to this day that I did not do more. The next time we spoke, it was about the death of his three daughters.
On January 16, 2009, three of Dr. Abuelaish's eight children -- Bessan, 21, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 14 -- were killed when Israeli soldiers trained the nozzle of their tank on the Abuelaish house and fired. Twice. The blasts killed all three girls immediately, as well as their cousin Noor, and it wounded their sister, Shatha, another cousin and an uncle. Dr. Abuelaish himself was unharmed, but in a harrowing turn of events that is now well and painfully known, he phoned Israeli newscaster Shlomi Eldar and, in a frantic tangle of Hebrew and Arabic, begged for help on Israel's nightly news. "Oh God, oh my God, my daughters have been killed. They've killed my children," he cried. "Could somebody please come to us?" The phone call, which was broadcast live throughout Israel, sounds like a shriek out of hell. It is almost impossible to listen to.
In the wake of this tragedy, Dr. Abuelaish, a well-known peace activist, remained resolutely, even stubbornly, committed to reconciliation and understanding. He did not want revenge. He just wanted accountability. "They were my beloved girls, very beautiful, very kind. Why were they killed?" he asked in a phone conversation shortly after his daughters' deaths. "I don't ask for anything, just [for the Israeli military] to admit and say sorry."
"Take responsibility," he begged.
Now, two years have passed, and Dr. Abuelaish is suing the state of Israel. He is asking for the apology he never got and for damages, which, he said, would go to the foundation he started in memory of his daughters. He did not want to sue. He still believes in peace and rapprochement. But he wrote in an e-mail, "I was forced to go to the court as I did not find any open minds, ears, or hearts from the Israeli government. I did my best for about two years to settle it peacefully. Unfortunately [I] did not succeed."
That Dr. Abuelaish did not succeed should distress anyone with the slightest bit of empathy. And it should disturb anyone who cares seriously about human rights, peace and basic justice. Because if Dr. Abuelaish can't find open minds, ears or hearts in the Israeli government -- Dr. Abuelaish, who has continued to look for the best in Israel even after his daughters' deaths, who has both prominent connections and international stature, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace prize -- then who can? What about all the other victims whose stories are not as famous but are no less harrowing?
Certainly there are plenty of them: parents like Khaled and Kawthar Abed Rabbo, who watched a soldier gun down their daughters, Souad and Amal, ages 7 and 2, as they left their house, white flags waving; or women like Abir Mohammed Hajji, who lost her husband, young daughter and unborn baby during a days' long odyssey to find refuge during the invasion. More than 300 Palestinian children died during those twenty-two days, and hundreds of adult civilians lost their lives. Another 5,300 Palestinians were seriously wounded.
In the wake of Cast Lead, there have been efforts to bring some kind of justice to bear for these victims. The Goldstone Report, the convulsive United Nations document that found that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes during the Gaza conflict, provided mechanisms for aiding and acknowledging the many civilians who lost lives, relatives, limbs and livelihoods in the war. These mechanisms included prosecution of perpetrators and compensation for victims -- and helped earn the report the unmitigated condemnation of the Israeli government. And yet, while the Goldstone Report has been vehemently denounced by the likes of Alan Dershowitz and Benjamin Netanyahu as an attack on Israel's legitimacy, its mission is far more simple and nowhere as sinister: it is to induce Israel, as well as Hamas, to take accountability, claim responsibility, for the many, many people who lost their lives in a torrent of disproportionate force -- all in the hopes of preventing that disproportionate force in the future. Call it a roadmap to end impunity.
Dr. Abuelaish himself has often dreamed aloud that his daughters' deaths would help bring an end to the blood-letting. "If I could know that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I would accept their loss," he writes in his powerful, just-released book, I Shall Not Hate. But if the prospect of peace is measured in a government's willingness to take responsibility, even apologize, the odds do not look promising.
A statement issued by the Israeli Defense Ministry's legal adviser in response to Dr. Abuelaish's lawsuit suggests just how far the government is from acknowledging responsibility. "Despite the severe outcome, from a legal standpoint our stance is that the operation during which Dr. Abuelaish's family members were hurt was an operation of war," the legal adviser, Ahaz Ben-Ari, told the press. "The State of Israel does not carry the responsibility for the damage it caused."
And yet this "damage" that Ben-Ari refers to so casually wasn't a car or a house or a television set. It was Bessan, Mayar and Aya, three young girls who were killed in an attack that has become famous as a symbol of the brutal excesses of Israeli military might. And, sadly, they have not been the last. Earlier this month, a 36-year-old woman, Jawaher Abu Rahma, died after soldiers doused her and others with excessive quantities of tear gas at a nonviolent protest in the West Bank town of Bil'in. She is but one of the most recent.
As I write this, I can't help but think of the happy-heartbreaking day in February 2000 when I first visited Gaza with Dr. Abuelaish. He and my mother had become friendly several years earlier and would often meet when they were on each other's side of the globe. He would visit when he was in the United States, as he did when he joined us in sitting shiva for my grandmother in 2004; and she would cross into Gaza when she was in Israel, as she and I both did on that crystalline day in 2000. On this particular visit, we had made our way down from Jerusalem to Be'er Sheva, where Dr. Abuelaish was practicing medicine at the time, and he then escorted us through the corrugated fortress of the Erez checkpoint and on to his home in the Jabalya refugee camp. Dr. Abuelaish was born and raised in the camp (his parents had originally lived in a town called Huj, later a kibbutz in Israel, until they were expelled in 1948), and he made a voluble guide as he drove us into that walled-off world of Gaza. This world was one that many Jews don't go to see, but that, if they did, would (or should) shatter their hearts. It's a place where open sewers run in the dusty streets, where concrete homes stand half-open to the elements, where electricity flickers feebly and where the tourniquet of the occupation chokes almost everything but poverty.
And yet, it is also a place where, ten years ago, doe-eyed children played cheerfully in the courtyard of a United Nations school, where generous hosts presented feasts of chicken and hummus to almost-strangers, and where a doctor's young daughters proudly showed off their artwork. At the end of the day, in a scene that somehow conjured Chagall in its beauty and absurdity, Dr. Abuelaish treated my mother and me to a trip to a strawberry patch where we munched lush strawberries pulled straight from the impossible, brown dirt.
Now, of course, much of that world is gone. The strawberry patches. The schools. The Abuelaish girls.
So, two years later, I echo Dr. Abuelaish's plea: admit and say sorry.
Deloris Wright has been a nanny for twenty-one years. In the strange class warp of Manhattan's Upper East and West Sides, this places her squarely among the ranks of the invisible, a ministering ghost who is rarely seen and never heard. And yet, there she was on a startling spring Saturday, a 54-year-old Jamaican domestic worker standing at the edge of Central Park, demanding her rights.
"We take care of your children. We take them to school, to French classes, we clean your homes, do your laundry, and we care for your aging parents, right here in this neighborhood," she shouted into a microphone. "Now, with the economic crisis, we are thrown out into the street with no notice and no severance pay, no unemployment, no safety net, no nothing.... Some of our employers treat their pets with more humanity than they would treat us."
Before her, a crowd of several hundred supporters whooped and hollered. They were union leaders, young activists, sympathetic employers and, of course, domestic workers--women from a UN's worth of countries who understood Wright all too well. Patricia Francois, 50, a Trinidadian nanny, had recently been forced to leave her job after her male employer--a documentary filmmaker who lives opposite Carnegie Hall--allegedly punched, slapped and verbally abused her. Mona Lunot, a Filipina domestic worker, had spent her first nine months in the United States all but indentured to an employer who took her passport and denied her a single day off--a situation she endured until she finally escaped in the middle of the night.
Like many domestic workers, these women toiled in underpaid drudgery even during the best of times, members of a profession so devalued it is still excluded from many of the nation's labor laws. But as the economy collapsed, their lot grew even harder. So they headed to the Upper East Side--epicenter of the domestic trade, playground of Wall Street's bailout chiefs--to press their case for their own government rescue plan: the first ever Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights.
This bill, which has been battling its way through the New York State legislature for five years, aims to provide basic protections to many of the estimated 200,000 nannies, housekeepers and eldercare-givers who labor in New York State. Backed by a diverse coalition of labor and religious groups and even employers, it calls for severance and overtime pay, advance notice of termination, one day off a week, holidays, healthcare and annual cost of living increases, among other fundamental rights. By most accounts, it should have passed in June, but an epic power struggle in the State Senate halted all business for a month. Now domestic workers are hoping their bill will pass in September.
"We are fighting for the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights, for respect, for recognition, for justice," declared Wright, rousing the crowd before sending it marching past the pre-war palaces of Wall Street honchos like Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Morgan Stanley co-president Walid Chammah and former Treasury Secretary and ex-Citigroup director Robert Rubin. On normal days some of these women might have turned in to one of these buildings, unseen and uncounted, the real invisible hands of the market. But on this day they sang and chanted: "We're fired up! We won't take it no more!"
Throughout the long history of American domestic work, women have come together to demand rights, respect, a livable wage and, literally, a room of their own (domestic workers have all too frequently been banished to basements, laundry rooms and couches). In 1881, for instance, members of an Atlanta group called the Washing Society successfully organized washerwomen to strike for higher wages. The twentieth century saw at least two extended organizing episodes--one in the '30s and one led by the Household Technicians of America in the '70s--as Eileen Boris and Premilla Nadasen explained in the December 2008 issue of WorkingUSA.
As the fight for the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights suggests, a new movement is rising, with ambitions to take a mortal thwack at the industry's injustices. "We are looking to change the law, we are looking to make history, we are looking to get fair labor standards," says Francois, now a movement leader.
This latest domestic-worker uprising extends well beyond New York, though the Bill of Rights campaign is its most visible expression. In fact, throughout the past decade, nannies, housekeepers and eldercare-givers have been coming together in Florida, Texas, California and beyond--first a few women, then a few more in a rare kind of political parthenogenesis. Together, these women forged a movement that spans ten cities, several thousand members, dozens of nationalities and ever more groups. In 2007 thirteen of these formed the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a multiethnic, multilingual coalition; now it has eighteen member groups. Though they are all still evolving, their efforts have already garnered ecstatic praise.
"It is really a multiracial, multiethnic form of feminism that we haven't seen very often in US history," says Nadasen, a professor of history at Queens College. "Through their activism they are expanding our notion of what feminism means." Ed Ott, former director of the New York City Central Labor Council, adds that the campaign represents "a model project for people who are working under the most brutal conditions."
Others, meanwhile, praise the women for weaving three of our era's most important movements into one: a women's movement, striking out at the stigma against household labor as women's labor and therefore not really labor at all; a workers' movement, defying notions about what kinds of workers can and should be organized; and an immigrants' movement, melding the struggle for rights here with the struggle for rights abroad.
This new movement began stirring in immigrant enclaves during the Clinton years, as the country's rising appetite for domestic labor began increasingly to be satisfied by poor women from far-flung lands. "This generation of domestic-worker organizing really started in the mid-'90s out of the changes in the political economy," explains Ai-jen Poo, 35, the whip-smart lead organizer of New York's Domestic Workers United (DWU). "On the one hand," Poo says, "you had globalization pushing people out of their home countries in search of a means to support their families. And then you had global cities like New York that needed a workforce of low-wage service workers who would meet the day-to-day needs of the sort of white-collar workers who were operating the global economy."
If this sounds theoretical, it has nonetheless had very real implications for the country's growing domestic labor force (estimated at around 2 million). The ranks of domestic-worker activists are filled with globalization's refugees--with women like DWU member Barbara Young, 61, who lost her job as a bus conductor in Barbados in 1992 after the IMF pushed the government to downsize its transit force; and Linda Abad, 57, a Filipina domestic worker and organizer who opted to "join the global surplus labor" supply, as she put it, because the structurally adjusted Filipino economy made survival (and her kids' education) increasingly difficult.
Abad is a taut, quick woman whose story is instructive. When she left her family to find work in this country, she didn't expect a rosy transition, but she didn't expect the "discrimination" and "alienation" either: the New Jersey employer who refused to help with medical treatment after she injured her back on the job; the Park Avenue beauty magazine editor (married to a Goldman Sachs executive) whose building required Abad to ride the service elevator; the editor's frequent screaming episodes, which inspired one of the kids to do the same while hitting her and pulling her hair. "Because they have the economic power," she says, "they think they can do anything with their workers inside their homes." So she joined with other domestic workers to found the Damayan Migrant Workers Association.
Certainly there are instances of benevolence, but the women interviewed for this article cited a breathtaking range of abuses, from denial of minimum wage, days off, holidays and overtime pay to wage theft, verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment, even slavery. Poo still gets teary when she remembers one of the first women who sought her help, a Jamaican housekeeper and nanny who was brought to this country by an electronics executive and his family at age 15 and held in latter-day servitude. For fifteen years, she raised their three kids and never received a salary because she was told that her mother was getting her checks. But the checks were never sent, and her employers gradually cut off her communication with her family. "Ultimately the way she escaped was that the kids she took care of saved their piggy bank money and gave it to her to run away," recalls Poo. "And she didn't want to press criminal charges because she didn't want to take the parents away from the kids."
Poo and her colleagues managed to win the woman a $125,000 settlement. For several years after that, DWU and other groups focused on the plight of individuals. But before long, domestic-worker activists recognized that if they really wanted to change the industry, they had to organize--an awareness that seems to have happened almost simultaneously across the movement. The members realized that "for every single case that our legal department might be able to resolve, there's always going to be another one or another ten coming through," recalls Alexis de Simone, 27, the former women's organizer at CASA de Maryland, a Latin American immigrants' rights group.
Put differently, they realized that they had to begin attacking the roots of domestic-worker exploitation, which extend at least as far back as slavery--in many ways the structural antecedent of modern domestic work--and touch on everything from the devaluation of women's work to the ravages of neocolonialism to the very institution that's supposed to protect people's rights. "The government is in this, very much so," says Abad.
The government has been an active player in the exploitation of domestic workers for years, but the cardinal example belongs to the 1930s: that's when the architects of the New Deal, when doling out labor rights, explicitly excluded domestic and agricultural workers (both predominantly African-American) from such landmark laws as the National Labor Relations Act. Arguments around the government's right to regulate the private sphere played a role in the decision, but skin color was clearly the defining factor. "It was an exclusion premised primarily around the issue of race, that Southerners would continue to have control over the labor force of the South," explains Nadasen.
Seventy years later, some of these wrongs have been partially righted--thanks largely to the last great domestic-worker movement, which managed to win federal minimum wage and other protections in 1974. But enormous gaps remain. "Casual" workers like baby sitters and "companions" for the elderly are still barred from minimum wage protections, and all domestic workers remain excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees the right to organize, as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Act. And because most domestic workers labor in environments with fewer than fifteen employees, they are also excluded from such key civil rights legislation as the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Title VII, which bars most kinds of employment discrimination. Add to this the difficulty of enforcing even the few protections that do exist--particularly for undocumented workers--and for many domestic workers it's still 1934.
All of which raises some weighty questions. How do you begin to undo all these decades of exploitation, particularly without the right to organize? How do you build power where there's been none before?
One increasingly popular answer has been to push for legislation creating rights for household workers. In 2003 New York City domestic workers persuaded the City Council to pass a bill requiring placement agencies to obtain signed promises from employers to respect minimum wage, overtime and Social Security obligations. Five years later, the women of CASA de Maryland led a successful campaign for a bill requiring employers in Montgomery County to provide workers with written wage and benefits contracts. More recently, a number of the groups have gone international, working with domestic-worker unions in South Africa, Trinidad, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Their current goal is to persuade the International Labor Organization to pass a convention protecting the rights of domestic workers by 2011.
Still, by far the biggest effort has been the battle for the Bill of Rights in New York--a campaign that is being closely watched by domestic workers across the country, though particularly in California, where groups have already begun plotting their own 2010 push for a bill. (In 2006 they nearly passed similar, if more modest, legislation, but it was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.) "We know that if it gets passed in New York, it's going to help legislative efforts across the country," said Beatriz Hererra, an organizer with People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) in San Francisco.
On a sparkling afternoon, four domestic workers sat in the basement offices of Adhikaar, a women-led Nepali rights group in Queens, discussing the Bill of Rights. Escapees of Nepal's civil strife, they were mostly middle-aged and older, and their tales ranged from nasty, name-calling employers, to seventeen-hour workdays for $4 an hour, to one woman's four-year nightmare toiling for a family that refused to pay her or let her leave. These women know that the Bill of Rights won't solve all their problems; for that they'll need even greater transformations in women's rights, immigrants' rights and global economic policy. But when asked what the bill could mean, they shouted enthusiastically.
"We have to work seventeen hours a day, and hopefully with this we'll have to work less," declared a woman named Basanta. "It will be better than now!" added another named Brinda. "We can get our leave!" "Christmas Day, New Year!" "Minimum wage!" shouted others.
By most accounts, the quest for the Bill of Rights began out of discussions like this--specifically, out of the dreams of some 250 domestic workers who gathered in 2003 to discuss what it would take for them "to feel respect and recognition on the job," according to Poo. The resulting legislative odyssey hasn't always been easy. Even in the absence of any vocal opposition, some legislators (in particular, those whose constituents tend to be employers) have balked at some of the bill's most basic demands, like health benefits and severance pay.
Nonetheless, this past spring, the legislative gears finally began to turn, and after years of lobbying and forging alliances with labor unions, religious leaders and sympathetic employers, a Bill of Rights is close to becoming reality. Governor David Paterson supports the bill and has promised to sign it. On June 23 the State Assembly passed a modified version, a so-called Inclusion Bill that guarantees important rights like overtime, a day of rest per week and inclusion in state human rights and collective bargaining laws (though it leaves out important others). Now all that remains is for the State Senate to pass its version, which organizers hope will strengthen the Assembly version.
"At the end we're going to have what we all hope is protection for domestic workers, with some dignity in their work life, a real degree of enforcement for them, and a change in the discussion of how domestic workers should be treated," says State Senator Diane Savino, the Senate bill's lead sponsor, who has been pushing for a stronger version.
Will it be the dream Bill of Rights? Certainly it will be a powerful initial step, the first time a state has guaranteed domestic workers some of the rights and respect they have been denied for so long. But don't expect domestic worker activists to stop there. "The work has just begun," says Christine Lewis, a Trinidadian nanny and DWU activist. "To say that when the Bill of Rights comes through, that it's going to be a walk in the park--the work will just begin."
Earline Verdin has seen storms. After 68 years on Louisiana's coast, she has survived some of the worst of them -- hurricanes like Betsy, Andrew and Rita, which are as much part of the local lore as alligators and ÃƒÂ©touffÃƒÂ©. But as she drove through Pointe-aux-Chenes last month, surveying the wreckage left by this year's evil twins, Gustav and Ike, even she couldn't help gasping at the carnage: her own home larded with mud and marsh grass, the back porch ripped from the house; her neighbors' homes flooded, tossed on their sides, their innards vomited onto the side of the road; and, just a few minutes away, the Isle de Jean Charles blitzed into a state of Ninth Ward-like smithereens.
"Rita was bad, but to me this is the worst," said Verdin, a mother of six whose eldest son is the chief of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe. "Yeah, this is the worst."
All up and down Louisiana's coast, bayou towns and villages are still staggering from the double blows of Gustav and Ike, tag-team storms that arrived in nasty succession on Sept. 1 and 13. Most people don't actually realize that parts of Louisiana got strafed; after New Orleans "dodged" Gustav's bullet, the media skedaddled, and most news outlets never even bothered with Louisiana after Galveston got flattened. But while TV cameras were busy doing their business elsewhere -- in New Orleans' French Quarter, Houston's downtown, Sarah Palin's beehive -- something strange was happening in Louisiana's Bayou Country: It was filling up with water, flooding under a surge that, in some places, surpassed the records set by 2005's tidal monsters, Katrina and Rita. (All in all, however, the cumulative effect of this year's storms was smaller.)
For many bayou dwellers, this is devastation they can't afford; after all, they had barely finished gluing the scattered fragments of their lives back together from Katrina and Rita. But it is also devastation that shouldn't have happened -- particularly in the case of the flooding. The wind damage was one thing, because Gustav did rake itself directly over Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, peeling the corrugated sides from trailers as if they were sardine cans. But the water, which came mostly from Ike, was a different matter; Ike never even hit the Louisiana coast.
"Ike should not have had the impact that he did on our communities," said Brenda Dardar Robichaux, principal chief of the United Houma Nation, whose members suffered extensive damage -- and the death of a 16-year-old boy -- from the combined whammies of this year's storms. "But there's nothing left. There's nothing left to protect us."
By "nothing left," Robichaux was referring to the wetlands and barrier islands that once formed the southern fringe of Louisiana but have since vanished: 1,900 square miles since the 1930s, an area the size of Delaware, all gone. And it's getting worse. These days the Louisiana coast -- one of the most productive in the country -- is among the fastest-disappearing regions on Earth, dissolving into the Gulf of Mexico at the terrifying rate of 25 to 35 square miles a year.
This is extremely serious, particularly for the Cajun, French-Indian and other coastal communities that have been shrinking alongside the coast. But it is also deeply unnatural, the handiwork of all kinds of efforts to extract as much as possible from the region. The oil companies bear much of the blame since they were the ones that spent the last eight or so decades drilling and dredging the life out of the coast. But the levees and dams that tamed the Mississippi River -- and rerouted the silt that once sustained the coast -- also deserve credit. Together they have left the coast in such tattered shape that storms that might have caused minimal flooding several decades ago became surge-spewing bruisers.
"There's no question that the impacts from Ike that we saw were directly related to coastal land loss," said Kerry St. PÃƒÂ©, program director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, an environmental group charged with restoring and protecting some of Louisiana's most vulnerable wetlands. "From Ike we experienced flooding in areas that have never been flooded before ... and that would have never occurred with our coastal landscape intact."
St. PÃƒÂ© is one of the growing chorus of experts who have been watching the coastline slip away for years, trying to draw attention to the unsettling changes: the strange saltwater fish that have begun popping up in freshwater bayous, the cow pastures that have shrunk to the size of cow patties, and, of course, the mythic flooding from storms. Once upon a time, he said, serious storm surge was a relatively rare event, even if hurricanes were not. But no longer.
When Rita smashed ashore in 2005, Terrebonne Parish was flooded at a rate that was "unprecedented in history," even though the actual eye of the storm landed 150 miles to the west of the parish. And now, with Ike, a storm that landed 200 miles to the west, the water surged even deeper into some of the wetlands (though this is not true everywhere). Who knows how far it will travel next time?
This doesn't have to be southern Louisiana's destiny, however. As St. PÃƒÂ©, academics and other experts will attest, there are ways to patch the holes in the wetlands -- solutions like diverting rivers, and harvesting sediment and redistributing it across the ragged edges of the barrier islands and coast. But all of this requires the kind of massive, coordinated government effort -- and money -- that has yet to materialize. And unless this happens soon, unless government gets serious within the next eight or nine years, "it will be too late," St. PÃƒÂ© warned. "It's already too late for many communities."
The tiny Isle de Jean Charles is one of these communities on the brink. Nestled on a narrow strip of eroding land, Jean Charles has been home to a small band of Biloxi-Chitimacha tribal members for some 130 years. But after Gustav and Ike blasted through, smashing up the place like Bruce Banner on a bender, people have begun to debate how -- and whether -- the island community can continue to exist. Some people are determined to stay; but in a sign of just how serious the situation has become, the chief, Albert Naquin, has begun pushing a plan to relocate the island's 100 or so residents. The idea, he said, is to keep tribal members together, even if this means leaving their longtime home, because otherwise "it's just a matter of time before everybody's scattered."
And yet, for all this, many people aren't ready to write the bayou's obituary. In the weeks since the storm, in Cajun neighborhoods and tribal communities, in hard-hit towns like Jean Lafitte, there has been plenty of frustration and despair, but also defiance and even determination to keep fighting for coastal justice. And, of course, there have been vows to rebuild.
Ten days after the storm, Janie Verret Luster, 56, stood on the porch of her house in Dularge, a small working-class bayou neighborhood, staring out over the yard filled with the soaked essentials of her life: mattress, washing machine, couch cushions, family photographs drying in the sun. She had barely finished recovering from Rita and now this. But, she said, "We will pick up and build again." And then, with a wry smile, she added: "At least my vacuum cleaner survived."
There are certain grand historical fights that you think are over, tucked into the quaint Snoopy lunchbox of the past like a Capri Sun or bologna sandwich. Remember the Dalkon Shield I.U.D. uproar of the 1970's, with its controversial whiff of scientific profit over women's safety? Or what about the silicone-breast-implant scandals of the early 1990's? When silicone-boob-makers were all but run out of town as woman after woman came forward with ghoulish tales of ruptured implants and strange autoimmune-style ailments? Those were crazy days.
But sometimes the merry-go-round of culture swoops back around, depositing the old controversies right back in front of you like a stomping, pouty kid. Time slips back, and despite all other indications of social or at least temporal progress, the disgraced, buried past returns. Like Dick Cheney. Or creationism. Or, yes, silicone-boob jobs.
Throughout the last few months, rumors have been whipping through the breast-augmentation world that the Food and Drug Administration is on the verge of returning silicone implants to the open market after a 14-year partial ban on the gel-filled bosom enhancers. The ban, which came down in 1992, had never fully eradicated silicone -- women who had endured mastectomies or had a breast "deformity" or agreed to participate in a study could still opt for the gel -- but the average Pamela Anderson groupie, the cosmetic breast enhancer, was out of luck. She had to make do with saline.
But last summer, the F.D.A. sent word to two competing implant manufacturers, Inamed and the Mentor Corporation, that their applications to sell a new generation of silicone-filled sacs were "approvable with conditions." And since then, whispers of an imminent F.D.A. decision date -- the most recent centered on July 4 -- have regularly sifted through the country's plastic-surgery capitals, from the C-cup-loving streets of New York to the D-cup-worshipping beaches of California and Texas. (Implant size is, apparently, the one area where New Yorkers are more conservative than Texans.)
In a sign of just how confident the manufacturers are in the F.D.A.'s intentions, both Inamed and Mentor have included revenue from silicone implants in their 2006 earnings projections, CNNMoney.com reported.
"We believe that silicone will be approved," said Dr. Mark Jewell, an Oregon-based plastic surgeon and president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. "I can't tell you when, but I think it will be soon."
A spokesperson for the F.D.A. declined to comment on the rumors, saying only that the applications "are still being reviewed."
Like the return of all thorny cultural controversies, the news of a potential silicone resurgence has resurrected not just the specter of the gooey sacs, but the old debate around them. And it is as toxic as ever. (And we should emphasize: This is a debate about cosmetic enhancement, not reconstructive surgery.)
In one corner -- the corner of the nip-tuckers and implant-makers -- the return of silicone has been hailed as everything from the triumph of science over "emotion" to, paradoxically, a victory for women. Cloaking themselves in the velvet mantle of women's defenders, they have touted silicone not only as safe, but, frequently, as a better product for women than saline: better-looking, better-feeling, the difference between "a zip-lock bag of Jell-o versus a zip-lock bag of water," said Dr. Jewell.
"I think that we're the advocates of women who want this operation," he continued. "These devices should be ... available for patients as choice. This is choice."
That this language skates suspiciously close to the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement makes the whole thing all the more surreal.
And enraging to women's-rights advocates.
The news of a potential silicone comeback has not gone over well among its historic opponents in the women's movement. Sounding the old battle hymns feminist, they have grabbed their signs and science Ph.D.'s and argued that, surgeons' and silicone-makers' claims to the contrary, silicone has not been proved safe. It wasn't safe years ago, it isn't now, and the F.D.A. should not overturn its ban, they say. (Some have also accused the pro-implant warriors of spreading rumors that approval is imminent to create a climate where approval is a done deal.)
"We feel like there are enough warning signs and unanswered questions that women deserve better," said National Women's Heath Network director Cynthia Pearson. "This is a disputed product and a disputed body of [scientific] information."
It is also a deeply symbolic product, one that hovers not just at the intersection of health and sexuality -- always a pungent brew -- but of women's health and women's sexuality.
In today's America, free-to-be-you-and-me has long since given way to lipo, face-lifts and an ever-wider array of injectables: Botox for the brows, Gore-Tex for the lips, and restylane for those pesky wrinkles around the nose and mouth. In 2005, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported nine million cosmetic-surgery procedures on women, up 38 percent from 2000. And while most people acknowledge that you can shave, wax, laser or strut about in pasties and still be a feminist, it's also no wonder that women's groups are freaked. Silicone is the stalwart flag of last retreat.
THE HISTORY OF THE BOOB JOB IS LONG and puckered, a Wild West-style tale of experimentation, complications and little regulation. The story begins with a Viennese doctor (of course) who tried injecting paraffin into women's breasts in the 1890's, and it continues with tales seedy and strange of doctors experimenting with everything from synthetic sponges to glass balls to industrial-grade silicone (think transformer fluid) injected directly into Vegas showgirls' breasts, according to Elizabeth Haiken's Venus Envy. That many of these experiments ended in less than happy results -- cysts, gangrene, a few deaths -- didn't stop doctors from experimenting anyway.
The silicone-filled breast implant arrived on the bust-enhancing scene in 1962, to excitement from doctors and enthusiasm from the press. With its handy little protective pouch, this device was to be the solution to all those hapless decades of trial and error, to say nothing of the cruel disease of bustlessness. Once again, however, the big promises went largely unquestioned and unregulated.
But in the late 1980's, the decades of scientific complacency gave way to scandal. After several critical magazine articles and an F.D.A. study linking silicone gel to cancer in rats, women began coming forward with tales of woe: ruptured implants, free-sloshing silicone (silicone in their breast cavities, their bloodstream, their lymph nodes), and symptoms that ranged from generalized aches, pains and exhaustion to arthritis and lupus.
"[I] was at a rally in Washington, D.C., where women from all over the country came together ... and literally every woman had the same story," recalled Carol Ciancutti-Leyva, whose mother believes that she became ill from ruptured implants, and who is now making a documentary about the subject. "Every woman had the same symptoms."
Within short order, lawsuits were filed, the media pounced and a debate erupted. Surgeons called the allegations "junk science" -- and launched a $2 million counter-campaign -- but in 1992, after hemming, hawing and holding three days of hearings, the F.D.A. declared that manufacturers hadn't done their safety homework and removed the implants from the general-use market. When Dow Corning, the country's major silicone-implant maker, went bankrupt in 1995, the disgraced polymer seemed officially banished from the cosmetic-implant market.
In fact, it was only in temporary exile.
On Dec. 31, 2002, Inamed filed an application with the F.D.A. to begin marketing a new generation of silicone implants to mammary-challenged Americans -- a move that was followed several months later by Mentor. The companies had been emboldened by a series of studies that found no clear link between silicone and serious autoimmune disease, but their move still sparked controversy -- nearly three years of it, in fact, including several heated F.D.A. hearings, two rounds of applications (the F.D.A. turned down Inamed's first attempt) and some serious lobbying (Mentor spent $850,000 on lobbying in 2005 alone).
Such back-and-forth has done little to clarify the burning question of implant safety in the public's mind.
To listen to its boosters, silicone gel is a decidedly harmless, inert substance, the wonder material behind countless medical innovations, from testicular implants to neurosurgical shunts. "Silicone is everywhere," said Dr. Helen Colen, a Park Avenue plastic surgeon who supports the return of silicone, though she generally prefers saline. "Your IV lines are silicone, your syringes are silicone. Everything is silicone. And yet only the breast got the raw deal?"
Beyond ubiquity, surgeons and supporters point to a pool of studies, including the much-touted 1999 Institute of Medicine Study, which did not find "statistically significant" links between silicone implants and systemic autoimmune diseases. That some of these studies also warned about an increased incidence of painful or disfiguring local complications -- like infection, rupture and a nasty-sounding condition called "capsular contracture" -- tends to get less airtime.
"Certainly, there are some local problems. Silicone gel implants got ruptured, and silicone got in the tissues, and that could produce lumps and bumps," said Dr. Sherrell Aston, the celebrated celebrity plastic surgeon. (Many plastic surgeons dismiss rupture as a minor concern, saying it generally does not lead to serious silicone leakage these days because of sturdier implant shells and gooier silicone gels.) "But the real question is whether they produce any systemic disease, and there's no evidence in the literature to support that."
Silicone opponents beg to differ. Not only do they warn that rupture remains a potential problem in today's new implants -- one that can lead to additional surgeries and complications -- but, they say, the literature offers a number of noteworthy examples of downright unhealthy silicone side effects, some of the scariest of which are presented in an ongoing National Cancer Institute study. Among its findings: Women with implants were two to three times as likely to die from brain cancer and respiratory cancers, and four times as likely to commit suicide, compared to other plastic-surgery patients.
As for those nasty connective-tissue ailments and autoimmune disorders about which so many women complained, implant opponents aren't convinced that silicone is innocent there, either. While a number of studies found no observable tie to these diseases, implant critics say the studies are not entirely conclusive or trustworthy. In many cases, the sample size was too small; in other cases, the studies were too short; and frequently they were funded by the implant industry -- charges that the groups have also lobbed against Inamed's and Mentor's trials of their cohesive-gel implants.
"A lot of this is a data-quality issue," said Susan Wood, former director of the F.D.A.'s Office of Women's Health, who resigned last year after the agency refused to approve Plan B despite evidence showing that it was safe. (The agency finally approved it last month.) "I think there needs to be a stand for high-quality data from the companies that has enough people over a long enough period of time .... Because, from what I know of what's been presented, the studies don't demonstrate that these products are safe enough for approval."
THE F.D.A. HAS REMAINED STUBBORNLY MUM on its plans to approve, or not approve, silicone-gel implants, and the reality is that it could as easily give (or deny) its blessing tomorrow as it could over Thanksgiving, after the confirmation of the new F.D.A. commissioner, or during the next eclipse. But one thing is certain: If and when silicone plops back onto the cosmetic-implant market, it will find a ready home in American bosoms.
Between 1992 and 2005, the number of women getting breast augmentation for breast augmentation's sake bounced an eye-popping 756 percent, from less than 33,000 to more than 279,000, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. If this trend continues, the number of lady augmentees should climb a hefty heap higher next year. And should silicone get the government go-ahead, a good chunk of these women can be expected to choose the gel-filled sacs over saline -- in spite of the higher cost, in spite of the hullabaloo. Already, some women have opted to hold off on their Betty Boop dreams until silicone returns, several doctors said.
"I'm trying to find on the Internet what the newest rules on silicone are, and if/when they will be laxer," one woman wrote on the popular implant message board, BreastImplants411. "I'm looking into a ba" -- shorthand for breast augmentation, not Bachelor of Arts -- "and only want silicone .... "
The impulse that drives some women to plump their breasts with silicone or saline -- and again, we're not talking about women who've had mastectomies -- has long been a source of inter-lady conflict. During the years of hearings, anti-implant crusaders frequently rubbed up against enhancement buffs who accused them of condescension and, yes, suppressing their right to choice -- consumer choice, that is.
"I don't understand the hatred for these products," said Arlene Nicole Cummings, an implant veteran who runs a Web site, Implantinfo.com, that she said gets more than one million hits a day. "It's almost like some women feel like you betrayed them, like you have ... given in to what society thinks women should look like."
Ms. Cummings denied that such pesky impulses had anything to do with her desire to boost her bust. "It was not that way at all," she insisted, pointing instead to an operation she had when younger to remove a breast tumor that left one breast small and underdeveloped, as well as to the vagaries of breast-feeding. "They just felt empty and saggy," she recalled of her post-baby breasts. Her husband didn't mind, but she "hated" them.
"For me, it was so much deeper -- I just did not feel complete," she said. "So when I filled them out, I was like, 'This is great ....' I could buy clothes; I fit into everything. It just completed me."
But to one mother, acting student and saline-implant owner, that need for completeness is just the problem. On a recent Thursday, this woman, who gave her name as Foxy, sat perched on a vinyl barstool at Ten's World-Class Cabaret, where she works evenings to pay her tuition, talking about the decision she now regrets.
"The big deal is men ... because you want to be acceptable," she said of the decision she made six years earlier, when she was just 23. "Unfortunately, in North America, big boobs seem to be a huge factor in our makeup of society these days -- to get through doors, or get things open, or get paid, really.
"It's an American thing," she concluded with a quick, wry smile. "It's the American dream -- or at least it gets you one."
Annette Baptiste* still cries when she thinks about what the United States did to her ten years ago on its Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba. Sitting in her Brooklyn apartment, she recalls how the United States detained her and 276 fellow Haitians in the Alcatraz of refugee camps, imprisoning them for some eighteen months simply because they, or their loved ones, had HIV. "I relive Guantanamo every day," she says in Creole. "It's all in my head."
Guantanamo is also in Pierre Avril's* head, say the friends who looked after him in the United States. Avril was just 14 when he arrived at Guantanamo, and the trauma of the experience -- the fear, the uncertainty, the stigma -- left permanent damage. Today he is once again in detention, this time in a psychiatric correctional facility in upstate New York.
Joel Saintil* never even had the luxury of post-traumatic stress. He died just days after he was freed from the camp, at the age of 26. For months, human rights attorneys had begged the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to send Saintil and other gravely ill Haitians for treatment in the United States, but the agency had refused until a federal district court judge ordered the sickest released. Saintil was flown to his father's house in Florida, but it was already too late. He became one of the camp's first casualties.
This June marked the tenth anniversary of the closing of the Guantanamo HIV Camp, one of the world's first, and only, detention centers for people with HIV/AIDS. Today the story is all but forgotten, but at the time it captured people's conscience, and its demise made headlines.
On June 8, 1993, US District Court Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. declared the camp unconstitutional in a scathing opinion. "The Haitians' plight is a tragedy of immense proportion, and their continued detainment is totally unacceptable to this court," he wrote. It was a David-beats-Goliath victory -- the culmination of a legal and grassroots battle waged by refugees, human rights attorneys and a coalition of Haitian immigrants and AIDS activists -- and its impact was immediate. By June 18, the last of the refugees had arrived in New York and Miami to cheers and champagne.
Ten years later, however, few people remember this victory -- or recognize that the complicated legacy of Guantanamo lives on. "The process has not been easy," says Dr. Marie Carmel Pierre-Louis, the director of the HIV/AIDS program of the Haitian Centers Council, who has been working with the refugees since their arrival. "A few people were able to pull their lives together. [But] a lot of them are still struggling."
At the same time, the INS continues to detain fleeing Haitian refugees -- these days in detention centers in Florida and Pennsylvania -- and the law that bars HIV-positive immigrants from coming to the United States is still in force. As for the naval base, it's back in use as a detention center, this time for alleged "enemy combatants" from the US terror wars. Today, some 680 men and boys languish on Guantanamo, detained in such dismal conditions and with so much uncertainty about their fate -- the Bush Administration says it can hold these prisoners indefinitely, and rumors have begun to circulate of plans to build an execution chamber -- that eighteen have attempted suicide, according to recent news reports.
The White House's decision to keep "enemy combatants" on Guantanamo, not far from where the Haitians were once detained, is hardly a coincidence. As the Justice Department argued in both cases, Guantanamo lies outside the jurisdiction of the United States and is, therefore, beyond the reach of the US Constitution. This is exactly the point. "The parallel between the Guantanamo HIV Camp and the current situation is that the United States wanted to have people in a place where they would not have any constitutional rights," says attorney Michael Ratner, who represented the Haitians in 1993 and represents several of the camp's current residents.
The grim irony, of course, is that "constitutional rights" were exactly what the Haitians were seeking when they wound up on Guantanamo. These people were political refugees, activists seeking freedom and safety who had fled Haiti in boats after a military regime overthrew the country's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But before their boats could each Cuba, the Caribbean, or Florida -- any port that would take them -- they were plucked from the high seas by the US Coast Guard and forced to a large refugee-processing camp on Guantanamo Bay.
By right and precedent, the refugees should have been flown to the United States to apply for asylum, since they had all proved they had "credible fear of persecution" in Haiti. But before they were allowed into this country, the INS did something unprecedented: It tested them for HIV/AIDS and, under a 1987 statute barring HIV-positive immigrants, denied those found afflicted entry to the United States. Without even explaining why, it flung them and their relatives into a new refugee camp designed specifically for people with HIV/AIDS.
The new camp was "hell," to quote the refugees, a barren plot surrounded by heavily armed Marines and a wall of barbed wire. The conditions were squalid, and despite the Haitians' immune-compromised systems, they were cramped into makeshift barracks that provided neither protection nor privacy. The Assistant Secretary for Health and Human Services, James Mason, and the Centers for Disease Control both warned the INS of a potential public health disaster, and even the military cautioned that there could be "a serious medical problem if any type of infectious disease hits the camp."
But the INS ignored these warnings and refused to close the camp or to airlift the sickest refugees, like Joel Saintil, to hospitals in the United States. When asked by reporters why it ignored the refugees' medical plight, an INS spokesman, Duane "Duke" Austin, responded with unrepentant candor: "They're going to die anyway, aren't they?"
Such brutal disregard typified the refugees' treatment at Guantanamo, the sub-human status the INS and Marines accorded them. Under their watch, and at their insistence, the refugees endured hunger and humiliation, and a strict curfew, and were manpipulated into Depo-Provera injections (a form of female birth control with potentially serious side-effects). At least four of the refugees attempted suicide. Others organized protests. Drawing on their activist roots, the refugees launched demonstrations and strikes, which the Marines met with attack dogs, batons and tanks.
"I have lost in the struggle for life," wrote Elsa Fils in a letter that was smuggled to her family in Haiti on the eve of a six-week hunger strike. "There is nothing left for me. Take care of my children, so they have strength to continue my struggle..... I have lost hope. I am alone in my distress."
This distress was pervasive, and it followed many of the refugees to the United States, as they settled, largely, in New York and Miami. And with little trauma counseling, rage, depression and domestic violence ran rampant, says Sabine Albert, who worked with the refugees at the Haitian Women's Center.
So did denial. Because of the way the Haitians had learned they had HIV -- they were never shown their test results but simply "informed" of them one day over a loudspeaker -- many refugees had difficulty believing they had the virus. Others accepted the diagnosis but rejected treatment all the same because they didn't trust US doctors (after all, it was US doctors who had plied them with Depo-Provera and other suspect medications). The result was that many refugees died too quickly, according to Betty Williams, an AIDS and housing activist who became a foster mother to two children in the camp. "There were a huge number of unnecessarily early deaths," she laments.
Today, approximately half the refugees are dead, Williams estimates. Of those who remain, a number have managed to build new lives for themselves. But a good number still struggle -- like Avril, who whiles away his days in a psychiatric institution; or Raoul Surpris, who struggles with drug addiction and is homeless.
Then there are the refugees still in immigration limbo. All the children who were born on Guantanamo are effectively stateless, since the camp authorities would not give them US birth certificates and Haiti has not extended citizenship rights to them either. "Their status is still hanging in the air," says Pierre-Louis.
As for the adults, many are still waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, still waiting to find out if they can live in the United States or will be sent back to Haiti. And while the asylum process can drag on for any applicant, many refugees see their wait as more evidence of discrimination. "So many bad people have a place, but I'm not official," says Fils, who applied for asylum in 1994 and whose HIV-negative sons and parents have already gained refugee and permanent-resident status. One son even joined the Marines. "Why I give my son to fight for this country and I can't have a place here?"
Ten years later, questions like these remain unanswered, and the hard lessons of Guantanamo have yet to be learned, while many of the old mistakes are being repeated.
*Some of the names of refugees have been changed for their protection.
Lizzy Ratneris a freelance writer based in New York City.