When, in October 2016, I wrote “[d]eath row inmates in Alabama are human guinea pigs” because the state’s capital punishment regime — specifically its barbaric, often bungled lethal injection protocol — is already so dark, so depraved, so outrageously cloaked in lies and officious secrecy, I never could have predicted the situation could get worse. But it has.
In glaring contrast to the heavily circulated, smiling picture of exonerated former Alabama death row inmate Anthony Ray Hinton, ebullient after voting for the first time in a midterm election since being freed in 2015, after a hellacious 30 years on Alabama’s death row, it’s important to understand: the death penalty in Alabama has gotten far worse since Mr. Hinton’s release — not better.
First, because of the cynically named “Fair Justice Act,” convoluted legislation hacksawing fundamental constitutional rights of (overwhelmingly indigent) death-sentenced defendants, signed into law last year — over the varied, vociferous, published objections of the ACLU, a highly respected Harvard Law School professor,defense attorneys in the state, myself, and even Mr. Hinton — it is far easier under current Alabama law, for an innocent person like Mr. Hinton, to be convicted and sentenced to death.
Second, despite a fairly recent slew of patently botched lethal injections, including that of Ronald Bert Smith,Torrey McNabb, and Christopher Brooks — as well as the bloody, horrific, and failed execution attempt of Doyle Hamm, during which, among other atrocities, state executioners repeatedly (and futilely) jabbed multiple needles into Hamm’s groin and pelvis — Alabama has coldly, inhumanely, and, as I wrote elsewhere in June, steadfastly continued “its odious tradition of ducking and dodging transparency and accountability in how the state puts its prisoners to death.” I’d presaged this discomfiting conclusion several months earlier, in October 2017, in a piecefor USA Today, after McNabb’s shameful, gruesome torture; in it, I dubbed the Commissioner of Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) “‘Baghdad Bob’ of Alabama’s death row.”
Pouring accelerant on this already demoralizing and distasteful dumpster fire, a just-released report by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), “Behind the Curtain: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States,” observes: “Alabama has one of the most restrictive secrecy policies in the nation, consistently maintaining that all documents associated with an execution are confidential.” (While he wasn’t focusing on the modern death penalty, in reviewing W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s new book “Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition” for the L.A. Times, author Colin Dickey recently and insightfully wrote: “The work of American torture has always been twofold: not just the violence itself, but the complex legal and rhetorical strategies that obfuscate it away to maintain a myth of America as a civilized place without cruel and unusual punishment.”)
And now, as if this wasn’t all ghastly enough — this undeniable fact Alabama has been torturing poor people for a long time, and that it shows no sign of stopping — the Montgomery Advertiser’s Bryan Lyman wrote on November 23rd that the state is planning to augment the barbarism involved in its executions to even greater and more unseemly dimensions; Lyman reports that plans are now underway for Alabama to develop a protocol to execute death row prisoners with nitrogen gas.
But, Lyman notes, because “[n]itrogen asphyxiation has never been used in capital punishment before,” Alabama “finds itself inventing a method of execution.” Soberly and pointedly, Lyman observes: “The American Medical Association authorizes the use of the method in animal euthanasia, though only for birds and small animals.” Relatedly, in March, Robert Dunham, Executive Director of DPIC, tweeted: “The World Society for the Protection of Animals lists nitrogen inhalation as ‘not acceptable’ for animal euthanasia because loss of consciousness is not instantaneous, and dogs euthanized by nitrogen gas have been observed convulsing and yelping after ‘falling unconscious.’”
Also in March, following Alabama’s vengeful killing of an 83-year-old man, I urged that during such dreary, desolate days for death penalty abolitionists, unusually sage insight, and perhaps also, the solace of understanding, can be gleaned from the words of writer James Baldwin. The same is true today as more and more developments emerge about the prospective state-sanctioned killing of human beings with nitrogen gas in Alabama — and even more depressingly, in other states like Oklahoma and Mississippi (which have approved the procedure), too.
In his essay “What Price Freedom,” Baldwin postulated: “I still believe when a country has lost all human feeling, you can do anything to anybody and justify it, and we do know in this country we have done just that.” Borrowing from Baldwin further, and speaking directly to Alabama’s Attorney General’s Office and the ADOC, Baldwin concluded, in yet another one of his piercing essays “The Uses of the Blues,” that “[i]n evading [death row prisoners’s] humanity, you have done something to your own humanity.”
But, last time when I wrote how James Baldwin’s writing helps us to understand the continued dastardly use of the death penalty, I also wrote about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, I let Baldwin get the last word; this time, it’s with the power of Dr. King that I’ll close. Because it was Dr. King who, from his humble pulpit on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama, began a nonviolent movement in this country — a movement for justice, for equality, for humanity, a movement for the betterment of all mankind — a movement that continues to this day.
In his book “Why We Can’t Wait,” Dr. King wrote these hallowed words, words that all Alabamians, and indeed all Americans, still have not fully internalized, accepted, and allowed to become part of our baseline morality: “Man was born into barbarism when killing his fellow man was a normal condition of existence. He became endowed with a conscience. And he has now reached a day when violence toward another human being must become as abhorrent as eating another’s flesh.”
With the prolonged picking and poking of condemned prisoners with needles, the “choice” of electrocution, and now, perhaps, also nitrogen gassing, we’re not there yet. Not even close.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq
Opinion | COVID-19: Living in a state of alert
We will resort to our survival mode and exhibit moods and behaviors that are very much like those of individuals who have experienced trauma such as battle or extreme loss.
Borrowing a phrase from a recent communication by the National Council for Behavioral Health: as a result of COVID-19 everyone is living in a “state of alert.” The effect of that on human beings is that we will resort to our survival mode and exhibit moods and behaviors that are very much like those of individuals who have experienced trauma such as battle or extreme loss.
Indeed, individuals on the Gulf coast and the west coast have experienced recent extreme losses of property, lives and livelihood due to Hurricane Sally and rampant fires, further compounding the impact on them of the COVID pandemic. In short, many in our state and country are in the midst of a mental health crisis. This is not a personality defect or sign of weakness. It does not just affect one type of person. We all can experience mental and emotional health issues.
So, what can we do? First, recognize that everyone is having these experiences to some degree. What we have learned about a major crisis is there are predictable emotional highs and lows as our state, country and the world move through the six stages of a disaster: pre-disaster, impact, heroic, honeymoon, disillusionment and reconstruction. If there is any good news about this situation it is that critical conversations are taking place in homes and workplaces. Individuals from all walks of life feel freer to share their feelings and fears, to listen to each other and to act decisively.
On the other hand, we know millions of Americans and Alabamians are suffering tremendously. According to a June 2020 Centers for Disease Control poll, forty percent of adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use issues since March. For frontline healthcare workers and first responders, the impact of COVID-19 and the resulting increasedcritical care workload, is immense. Providing those levels of care has led to stress, anxiety, fear, substance use, suicidal thoughts and other mental health issues that for many individuals has resulted in a state of PTSD. This is true for individuals and families, regardless of direct care-giving involvement.
How can we improve mental health for ourselves, our family, coworkers and friends?
First, start the conversation. Everyone needs to feel they are “seen” and fully informed of options. Don’t hide your own feelings or genuine concern for those of others. Look for common experiences, while sharing useful and accurate information. In the work environment, a buddy system could be a vital strategy to ensure that no one is further isolated.
Warmlines, such as Wings Across Alabama’s phone line [1-844-999-4647] are there for anyone to call. Peer support is offered through dozens of organizations by trained peer specialists who have been successful in recovery. They help others to stay engaged in the recovery process and reduce the likelihood of relapse.
Alabama’s nineteen local mental health authorities and other mental health related organizations around the state offer direct services. Providers have implemented innovative ways to serve individuals through telehealth therapy, virtual group meetings, and drive-throughs for medication or information.
What can we do today is to turn our worries into action? Do not wait to seek help or help someone else. Create a mental health safety plan for yourself or family and friends about whom you may be concerned. Take breaks from social media but stayhealthily connected with friends and family.
To further expand accessibility to care, Alabama is transforming the approach to prevention and early intervention regarding mental health. From initiatives like the First Episode Psychosis program, the School-Based Mental Health Collaborative and ourIndividual Placement and Support-Supported Employmentprogram, to the Stepping Up Initiative’s goal to reduce the number of individuals with mental illness in jails, the Alabama Department of Mental Health is creating preventive and restorative programs for recovery.
Remember that behavioral health is essential health. Prevention works. Treatment is effective, And, people can and do recover from mental and/or substance use disorders. Most of all, we must be kind to each other; it is good for our own mental health.
To find resources and assistance for mental health services visit: www.mh.alabama.gov
Opinion | Air superiority then, space superiority now: the Battle of Britain 80 years hence
The United States and her friends cannot allow a country that is utterly opposed to freedom to control space.
Eighty years ago this week, hurricane season ended when the Royal Air Force won the Battle of Britain by stopping the Nazi war machine at the edge of the English Channel. Before the summer of 1940, Hitler had derided Great Britain as a nation of shopkeepers. Göring’s seemingly superior Luftwaffe pilots were outdone by the young British RAF, aided by friendly forces—not the least of which was a squadron of Polish pilots. They had shown the world that the Nazi juggernaut could be countered through perseverance, aided by the novel design of quick and lethal airplanes: the spitfire and hurricane.
Churchill named this battle when he declared after Dunkirk that with the conclusion of the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain would begin. Unlike past battles, the critical objective was as amorphous as it was strategic: the achievement of air superiority. It was a testament to the fact that warfare had changed forever, tilting the scales in favor of technology over brute strength.
Even Hitler and his retinue of yes-men knew that subjugating Britain would require a risky and complex invasion. The English Channel, though relatively narrow at some points, served as a giant moat that required amphibious landings on slow-moving vessels, which would be vulnerable to attack from above. Nazi control of the air would be the key to a successful invasion. With proper preparations for a seaborne invasion many months out, Göring pushed for an air campaign, and Hitler approved.
The Luftwaffe’s first objective was to destroy RAF airfields, but Luftwaffe planes were not designed for this mission, and their pilots—though experienced—were no match for the RAF’s pilots in spitfires and hurricanes. These planes had unmatched maneuverability, and home-field advantage played an equally important role. The British had a superior early warning radar system that enabled them to plot the likely flight path of incoming enemies and to scramble their gassed and fully loaded planes efficiently. Over Britain, each downed German represented not only a lost airplane but also a lost pilot. Maintaining air superiority was a fight for survival, and the British pilots knew that the fate of freedom for their island, and perhaps for civilization, rested on their shoulders. They turned the tide of the war in fighting, as Churchill noted, “undaunted by the odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger.”
While the concept of air superiority was initially academic, the Battle of Britain proved it critical to modern military success. Since then, the need for air superiority has remained unquestioned. A country might not win with air superiority, but failure was guaranteed without it. The use of airpower to master the skies has been the first order of business in every major conflict since World War II. Even today, with the development of defensive missile shields and the capability of intercepting incoming aircraft and missiles, air superiority is and will remain a critical objective in any conflict. But air superiority is starting to give way to space superiority.
As we become more and more dependent on satellites, and as human activity in space becomes less of a novelty, controlling space will be critical not only for commercial and economic success, but also for global stability and the defense of our nation. The nation that controls space will control the destiny of the entire world. To be dominant in space is to be dominant period, and the dominating nation will have the final say over many aspects of our lives.
Those who would object to the militarization of space do not understand, or refuse to see, today’s reality. The activities of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in space are similar to those of the nations who sought to control the sea in the 19th century and the air in the 20th century. At present, these activities are largely unchecked by other nations and international organizations.
There was a time when the United Nations was capable of limiting space to peaceful means. Similar to the control of nuclear weapons, the United Nations provided a means of achieving an international consensus that limiting weapons in space was beneficial for all nations. But, as with any large organization attempting to achieve consensus among diverse groups, the only real agreement among nations became the lowest common denominator. Thus, UN limits on the militarization of space are limited, weak, and ineffective.
This void of international leadership is being filled by a resurgent Communist China, intent on achieving world domination—a long-term national goal. With few international limitations, the CCP is seeking space superiority to impose its ideas on the world and thereby supplant civilization’s shared liberal principles. The UN has been aggressively helpless or simply unable to check China’s dreams of space superiority. While the CCP has yet to obtain the domination it seeks, it is clearly on track with covert military missions, like developing its own GPS system that would aid in obtaining space superiority.
The United States cannot let this happen. Students of history know that many of the great and terrible military conflicts could have been prevented or mitigated with proper foresight and preparation. Unless the United States acts soon to check CCP aggression in space, we may have extremely limited choices in the future.
Our new Space Force must explain the seriousness of this threat and develop strategic plans to protect space from the domination of any one country. This grand effort will require allies who not only understand the threat, but who are financially able to join with the United States to dominate space for peaceful purposes. The free world’s shared cultural and civic traditions could form the basis for ensuring that space can never be dominated by one country.
During World War I and in the following decades, Churchill stressed the importance of developing radar, the tank, and the airplane. Without these developments, the Battle of Britain would have ended much differently. As we celebrate the 80th anniversary of victory at the Battle of Britain, and as we understand the strategic necessity of air superiority in protecting the island nation from foreign invasion, we should recognize the strategic necessity of space superiority today.
The United States and her friends cannot allow a country that is utterly opposed to freedom to control space and, in turn, Earth. The free world must develop space first and create enforceable laws to allow space to be an extension of the liberty we currently enjoy. In order to do that, we must overhaul our outdated legal regime concerning the development and deployment of space technologies, support the private development of space properly, and remove the bureaucratic barriers hindering important breakthroughs. We must not surrender space to totalitarians who would use it to subjugate free peoples around the globe. If we heed the call to action and engage in this new endeavor, we can ensure that the limitless possibilities of space are secured for future generations.
Opinion | Changing lanes on the Alabama Workforce Superhighway
As we come out of the pandemic we have a new view of the world and with our innovative hats on, we now look at workforce issues through a new and different lens.
Hello friends and welcome back to the Alabama Workforce Superhighway! Our last stop was the AlabamaWorks Virtual Workforce Conference in September. The conference gave us a lot to think about on the drive ahead. It was great to be among workforce professionals again to share and discuss where we are as a state and, just from a mental perspective, I needed it!
We have so many opportunities staring us in the face that we did not have pre-COVID. The work we have all been doing is more important now than ever before. Did our previous challenges go away due to COVID? Absolutely not!
Our workforce issues may have been “timed out,” or perhaps they were on a break, but those issues continue to be our challenges. So, not only should we remain focused on our Success Plus goal of adding 500,000 workers in our workforce with credentials of value by 2025, we must also help our companies get back to work and work with their current and future employees.
We need to make sure they are technically ready for the impending automated world and assist them with all the tech-savvy tools that are being developed as part of Industry 4.0 and the ever developing “Smart Factory” concepts.
Alabama is rapidly moving in this direction, and we must have the workforce to meet the demands. This is one of the foundations for Gov. Kay Ivey’s Success Plus plan. In almost every speech and presentation Ivey delivers, she mentions how absolutely critical our workforce is and that they must be ready for the work we are recruiting into Alabama.
To say 2020 has been strange, would be a colossal understatement and it keeps on giving! 2020 started as a typical year when many were planning and working with high hopes for a productive legislative session, school year or university semester, or simply hoping for a beautiful spring. Little did we know COVID-19 would turn us all inside out and literally stop the world in its tracks.
But, not in Alabama. Yes, it was a kick in the gut and our hearts go out to the many who have suffered or lost loved ones due to the pandemic. But as Alabama usually does, we are fighting back. With good solid leadership by Ivey, an extraordinary Governor’s Office staff, a host of very smart cabinet officers and their respective department staffs, and most importantly, some very focused business leaders making good and sound business decisions, we are leading the nation in many aspects of our recovery.
In addition, as we come out of the pandemic we have a new view of the world and with our innovative hats on, we now look at workforce issues through a new and different lens. Yes, the drivers on the Alabama Workforce Superhighway are focused and determined with many great examples of courageous initiatives to assist our customers, overcome the issues and not only get back to pre-COVID productivity, but be even stronger.
So, what new opportunities has 2020 brought us when it comes to our workforce? Although the pandemic has brought many challenges it has also given us access to many people we did not have access to before. Who are these people? There are thousands who lost jobs that were vulnerable to the pandemic. Retail employees, hospitality and restaurant workers who in some cases were working two and three jobs to make ends meet, now have an opportunity to be trained for a less vulnerable job. Alabama has many jobs available as the world wakes back up. We NEED these people and our Alabama Workforce Stabilization Program is laser focused on these folks.
In the recent AlabamaWorks Virtual Workforce Conference we discussed the need for flexibility in order to adapt to change. To be successful in this “new normal” we must prepare our workforce by:
- Creating new digital models for education and training
- Upskilling (expand capabilities)
- Re-skilling (acquire a new or improved skill)
- Strengthening and enforcing safety measures
- Reinforcing partnerships and pooling resources
- Focusing on higher wage jobs
Yes, the world has changed, but we in Alabama were already moving in the right direction.
There are many people to thank for our progress and to name just a few: Governor Ivey and her staff set us on a course to meet those needs with the “Strong Start, Strong Finish” education initiative and gave us a strategy for success through the Success Plus plan. Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth, his staff and the Senate Leadership are very engaged as is the House Leadership with Speaker Mac McCutcheon, budget chairs and other many strong Representatives and Senators across the state. They get it!
Yes, we got this! But, we are nowhere near done and as you already know this work can never stop. To borrow some words from a great song, “we can check out anytime, but we can never leave.” We can want to exit the highway, but we can never stop our drive on the Alabama Workforce Superhighway!
Opinion | Former Sen. Brewbaker supports Montgomery tax referendum
If we want Montgomery to change for the better, we are all going to have to start living in our community rather than off of it.
I am in full support of the property tax referendum on the ballot this November. That may surprise some people because I have been critical of the performance of the Montgomery County Public School System in the past.
Until recently, student performance has generally been poor, financial management has been historically problematic, and there have been real and persistent problems with transparency. New Board leadership has worked hard to address these issues in a real way, but there is still work to be done.
However, whether we are talking about cars or public education, there is such a thing as trying to buy too cheap. Montgomery has been paying the legal minimum in property tax support for decades. It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone that our schools’ quality reflects our financial commitment to them.
Yes, it’s true that more money isn’t always the answer, but it’s also true that money is part of the answer. Sometimes the bare minimum isn’t enough, and this is one of those times.
Most people who vote on this referendum will not have children currently attending MPS. If you are one of those people, vote yes anyway.
Our public school population is declining because many young couples with children are leaving our city because they know their children can get a better education elsewhere.
This loss of young parents will eventually kill this city. We have got to turn the schools around before Montgomery’s tax base is eroded beyond repair. Whether you have kids in the system or not, if you care about your local tax burden or the value of your property, it’s time to vote ‘yes.’
Need another reason to vote yes? Ok, here’s one: Montgomery will eventually lose both our USAF bases if we don’t show the Air Force we are serious about improving our failing schools. Already less than half of the airmen stationed in Montgomery bring their families with them.
Many military families view MPS as so low quality that they won’t subject their children to them. If we don’t fix our schools, sooner or later we will lose Maxwell and Gunter. If you don’t believe that would be an economic nightmare for our city, ask around.
At the end of the day, passing this referendum is not only a vote to help children succeed, but also a vote to save the city in which we all live. It’s ok to be hopeful, it’s ok to be optimistic even about the future of Montgomery and its schools.
If we want Montgomery to change for the better, we are all going to have to start living in our community rather than off of it.