Friday, February 23, 2007
The writer's block: Should news groups air Taliban threats?
A British soldier stands guard at a ceremony in Kabul.
We heard from the Taliban today, vowing to launch a massive offensive against U.S. forces and other foreign troops in Afghanistan beginning this spring. According to Reuters, one Taliban commander said this year will be the bloodiest yet.
That's disturbing, but really nothing new from the Taliban and other extremists. Their threats stream across the Internet and into our newsroom on a regular basis.
Tonight, we're going to take a closer look at the Taliban warning and what it may mean for the thousands of American troops in Afghanistan. We're also going to have new video of what is purported to be an al Qaeda attack filmed by the militants themselves.
As we discussed how to tell these stories, the following questions were raised: Are we giving the Taliban and other radical groups a venue to air their propaganda? Or are these newsworthy topics involving the war on terror -- and American lives -- that must be told?
Putting a human face on prison statistics
Approximately 2.2 million Americans are behind bars, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than in any other country in the world. My assignment from CNN was to put a human face on this number so we can better understand the implications of putting so many people in prison. The result is a three-part series that aired on "360" this week:
* Youth behind bars
* Stopping the revolving door
* Women in prison
As I dug into these stories, I came across some shocking numbers: Half of inner-city boys drop out of high school and 6 in 10 will spend some time in prison during their lives, according to the New York Times; also, of the hundreds of thousands of prisoners released every year roughly 50 percent can be expected to return within three years, according to a Department of Justice study. But perhaps most shocking are the numbers concerning women and prison:
* The women's prison population has grown 757 percent from 1977 through 2005, according to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice
* 70 percent the women in prison or under correctional supervision are mothers, according to the Department of Justice
* 1.3 million children are affected, according to the Department of Justice
I'm not sure what I expected for a story about women in prison, but I have to say right off the bat that I had no idea it would be about mothers and their children. I was surprised to find that the majority of women behind bars are mothers who are very often the primary caretaker for their children. I hadn't thought so many children would be affected. I also had no idea that, according to the Women's Prison Association, 5,000-10,000 women enter prison already pregnant each year. Pregnant women are just not the visual that comes to mind when thinking about women behind bars.
One prison we visited, the Nebraska prison for women, is trying to address these issues head-on. When we arrived, the warden, John Dahm, escorted us inside the property. The first thing I noticed is that once we got past the gates and security the prison looked like a school campus. Within its confines, the minimum-security inmates are allowed to come and go to their scheduled classes and counseling programs. You can sense that the inmates are here, as the warden puts it, "As punishment, not for punishment." In other words, he focuses not just on retribution, but rehabilitation.
The prison also has a nursery. Seeing this, I had to keep reminding myself we were in a prison; at times, it seemed more like a halfway house or communal living situation for mothers and their newborns. The prison also has a flexible visitation policy for mothers with older children.
Deseray, an inmate in the general prison population, told us her 5-year-old son thought he was being punished because she was locked-up. She had to explain to him that, "No, mommy had done something wrong."
For those concerned about the future of Deseray's son, here's another disturbing statistic: According to Oregon's Correctional Department, a child with an incarcerated parent is five-to-six times more likely than other children to spend time in prison at some point in their lives.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Amanda Baggs answers your questions
BURLINGTON, Vermont (CNN) -- Amanda Baggs, a 26-year-old woman with autism, became a bit of an Internet sensation after she posted videos she made about how someone with autism experiences reality.
Amanda, who has been featured on "Anderson Cooper 360" and in a story on CNN.com, graciously offered to take questions from the audience.
Below you will find her answers to a selection of the approximately 1,000 e-mails we received.
Q: I watched you on TV last night and you are amazing. I teach students with autism. I am working with a third grader and a fourth grader right now. What is the best way to teach someone with autism? It seems that my students have a hard time focusing on one thing. What can I do to help them learn in the classroom? How did you learn best in elementary school?
Lori Blaire, Elizabethtown, Kentucky
AMANDA BAGGS: I don't have a lot of good advice about schools, because even when I could pass tests and stuff I did not learn well in school. I learned from continuing exposure to a lot of experiences and books, outside of the classroom. School taught me more about sociology than it did about the classroom subjects. I'm not every autistic person, but I don't learn well, not in a retainable way, when you try to hammer things into me in a conscious symbolic way.
The best way I learn is to absorb the information without necessarily knowing it's being absorbed, and then have the information triggered later by something else. Nothing else has been reliable, things I learn by abstract thinking fade away when my mind puts the abstractions away, and must be re-learned over and over. Things I learn in the deeper but slower and harder to control way stick better, but can't be pulled out on demand, only in response to a situation.
Q: There are three persons with autism in my family. How do you think an island, populated only by autistic persons such as yourself, would function?
Lawrence Decker, Floyd, Virginia
BAGGS: I don't know. I don't think I would want to live on an island with people of only one neurological configuration, no matter what it was.
Read more of Amanda's answer to your questionsAlso visit Amanda's Web site
Guilty in 46 minutes; free after a decade
James Waller is a mellow guy. That kind of surprises me, considering what this 50-year-old Dallas man has been through.
James has spent half his life in prison and on parole as a convicted rapist. But a Texas judge recently determined a horrible mistake was made. DNA testing has proven James could not have committed the rape of a 12-year-old boy in 1982.
James' conviction was largely the result of the victim's identification of the rapist. The child told police his perpetrator was about 5'8" tall. James Waller is 6'4". The 12-year-old also testified the rapist was a black man and that he spotted him at a neighborhood 7-11. James Waller was one of the only black people who lived in the neighborhood.
The jury took 46 minutes to find Waller guilty. He then spent more than a decade in prison. Now, after the judge's decision to clear him, the new district attorney in Dallas County has apologized to Waller and has also acknowledged his innocence. The real rapist has never been apprehended.
In addition to all his legal struggles, James has had to deal with the fact his wife and unborn daughter were killed in a car crash while he was out on parole and trying to prove his innocence. James remains devastated over that loss, and says he almost gave up on everything after their deaths in 2001.
James has become the 12th person since 2001 exonerated in Dallas County, Texas. That is more exonerations than any other county in the United States. Why so many in this one county?
The general consensus among people we interviewed seems to be a combination of inappropriately aggressive prosecutions and the fact that Dallas County does a better job saving old DNA evidence than many other jurisdictions. Waller's battle was championed by the New York City-based Innocence Project, which takes up similar cases throughout the country.
Today, Waller has a job, a college degree that he obtained while in prison, and helps feed the homeless on his own time. But he still doesn't officially have his name back. That's because under Texas law, the governor has to sign off on the exoneration to make it official. Six weeks have gone by since the judge's declaration of innocence, and there is no timetable yet from Governor Rick Perry's office.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Perry says, "There is no time frame in which the governor has to act."
So while Waller waits and wonders why the governor is taking so long, he is planning for the future. He hopes to leave Texas (he's not allowed to leave now because he is still on parole) and wants to remarry and have a child someday. He says if he has a girl he'll name her Grace, which was going to be the name of his baby daughter. If it's a boy, James Waller says he will name him Mercy.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Why we should listen to 'unusual' voices
Editor's note: Amanda Baggs is a 26-year-old woman with autism. A video she posted recently on the Internet describes how she experiences the world. She is featured on Wednesday night's "360" and blogs here about why she made her video, "In My Language."
Amanda Baggs, who is autistic, says she never thought very many people would watch her video.
I'd been planning on doing something like it for some time to counterract the idea that there is only one kind of real language, real communication, real person. It was not meant to be about autism, and I was not expecting many people to watch it.
My viewpoint in the video is that of an autistic person. But the message is far broader than autistic people. It is about what kinds of communication and language and people we consider real and which ones we do not. It applies to people with severe cognitive or physical disabilities, autistic people, signing deaf people, the kid in school who finds she is not taken seriously as a student because she does not know a lot of English, and even the cat who gets treated like a living stuffed animal and not a creature with her own thoughts to communicate. It applies to anybody who gets written off because their communication is too unusual. (Watch Amanda's video, "In My Language")
It was not specifically about me, but about the many people who have no way of translating from their own language to English, the many people I have known and heard of who have put enormous effort into the communication process only to have their communication and even their status as people dismissed. I already have a voice in the dominant language of my country. Many people don't. I'm not trying to be their voice, because they have voices of their own and would all say different things from me and from each other. But I am trying to point out that everyone does have a voice and we need to learn how to listen to the more unusual ones.
The dedication was to two groups of people. One is people who still aren't considered communicative or real people because they do not speak or write English in a way others understand or are willing to understand. The other is people who write our behavior and communication attempts off as meaningless and pointless. The first group already implicitly knows the message of the video, and the second group really needs to hear it.
One of my favorite responses to the video came from a man who'd been in rehab for brain injury and had been told sternly and explicitly, along with his fellow patients, that nobody would care what he had to say unless he used words. Their other means of communication were ignored. He immediately understood what I was talking about. We did not need to have the same condition in order to understand this common experience. Another of my favorite responses was not about disability at all, but a discussion among several people about the experience of growing up Spanish-speaking in a country that values English.
What I appreciated about these responses was they took the ideas in my video and applied them to their own worlds. That's what the video was intended for. It was not intended to give specific insight into autism, or into another world that I am thought to live in. It was meant to be about the world we all live in, autistic and non-autistic, disabled and non-disabled, from all different cultures and backgrounds, and all communication methods. It is about which of those we recognize and value, and which of those we don't, and why. And it is about why we shouldn't have categories of people whose language, communication, and personhood are not considered as real as someone else's.
Ask Amanda what it's like to live with autism
Video reveals world of autistic woman
In the video linked above, Amanda Baggs, an autistic woman, gives us some insight into what it's like to live with autism. Although you may not understand it upon first sight, Amanda is a brilliant young woman. She produced her own video to communicate what living with autism is like for her, posted it on YouTube, and we're streaming part of it here for you. The video communicates from Amanda's perspective how she perceives and interacts with the rest of the world around her. We'll bring you more of Amanda's story on tonight's show. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the piece she produced.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Does homeland security matter?
I'll 'fess up. Before I read Stephen Flynn's new book, "Edge of Disaster," I never gave much thought to the issue of homeland security. For me, this issue was all about long lines at the airport, color-coded alerts and forfeited moisturizer. I've always felt safe in America, even after 9/11. And if something's going happen, it's going to happen, right? Nothing I can do about it. Nothing any of us can, I thought, not even the government.
What Flynn's book showed me (and what tonight's "360" special "Edge of Disaster: Are You Prepared?" will hopefully show you) is that there are simple, concrete things we, as a society, can do to make ourselves safer. The scary thing is, Flynn says we're not doing them. In fact, he says, we actually seem to be making ourselves more vulnerable with each passing year, and not just to terrorism, but to natural disasters of Katrina-like proportions.
About a month ago, we embarked on a cross-country journey to see for ourselves what Stephen Flynn was talking about. Among our stops: Philadelphia, Boston, Rhode Island and California. What we found was startling.
From coast to coast, the inter-connected foundations of our nation are crumbling: levees, waterways, the electrical power grid that keeps our lights on. Flynn says they could tumble like dominoes in the face of a natural disaster or a terrorist assault. By allowing them to deteriorate, we have made ourselves vulnerable, Flynn says, but he thinks a renewed push to invest in the United States' infrastructure would go a long way toward making all of us safer.
This book is bad bedtime reading
New NOLA home has escape hatch in roof
More on CNN TV: Find out how the U.S. may be living on "The Edge of Disaster." A special report on "Anderson Cooper 360," 10 p.m. Tuesday ET.
The sound of hammers and the smell of freshly cut lumber filled the air as Josephine Butler proudly took me on a room-by-room tour of her new house.
She has lived in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans since 1949 and has twice been flooded out by failed levees and hurricanes. After Katrina, her old house floated off with all her belongings and came to rest in her neighbor's yard.
So as I looked at the new spacious kitchen, the high, lofty ceilings and the clean shiny bathrooms, I had to ask the obvious questions.
Why is she back? Why is she rebuilding in the same old spot below sea level? And why is she willing to take the same old risk of being hit by a new flood all over again?
Her answer was simple: This is her home and the risk of natural disaster is everywhere.
You can't really blame Ms. Butler and thousands of others like her. The pull of home on the heart is strong and you have to admire the courage it takes to want to come back and make a go of it.
Her new house is more resilient. The roof and the pilings underneath are reinforced to resist high winds. The new house is also five feet higher off ground than the old one which puts her all of 3.5 feet above sea level.
Everyone here seems to understand the situation; more storms will come and so will floods. And being five feet off the ground isn't much help when you consider Katrina covered the neighborhood with more than 10 feet of water. Maybe that's why the contractor built an escape hatch into Ms. Butler's new roof; if flood waters rise again she won't be trapped and risk drowning in her attic.
Josephine Butler chooses to live in a high risk area, and she is just one of millions of people who are doing the same thing across the country. In some places, the threat is from natural disaster, but in others it is terrorism.
The threats we'll examine in an hour-long special tonight have two big things in common: 1) they can kill a lot of people and 2) they are somewhat preventable. What you may not be happy to hear is how little is being done to prevent them.