Friday, January 25, 2019

Plot to destroy upstate Mosque shows islamophobia is alive and well

Because of the “see something, say something” diligence of students at Greece Odyssey Academy in Monroe County a dastardly plot was uncovered by Greece Police. They discovered that 4 young men, ages 16 to 20, were planning to attack a Muslim community in Delaware County. During the investigation, police found that the men were deadly serious and in possession of 3 homemade explosive devices and 23 firearms.

The fact that this level of hate, which nearly manifested itself in violence, could be found in Greece – which not long ago was chosen as one of the safest places in America – proves that hate can be found anywhere. Anywhere.
Need further proof of that? Just take a cursory glance of Facebook and Twitter; how many articles, posts, comments, and memes have you seen identifying Islam as a religion of hate or calling for the elimination – and even execution – of Muslims? Sure, a majority of Americans are understanding of other faiths, but the haters are out there, and in fairly good numbers.

And people wonder where those deranged young men got their worldviews. They’re only mirroring the behavior of the adults they look up to.

All of those Islamophobes tend to paint the religion with a wide brush-stroke that makes all Muslims seem evil. Rather than attributing the work of ISIS and other militant groups --- which are incredibly small in numbers but large in impact – to a very small minority of morally-bankrupt practitioners of Islam, it’s popular to blame them all.

While many terrorists may claim to be Muslims, almost all Muslims are not terrorists. Most Muslims are like most Christians – inherently good people, believing in a peace, who try to live up to standards of morality amidst their own personal flaws. In short, they are humans as you and I are trying to be perfect in an imperfect world.

An Orleans County couple whom I admire are devout Muslims. Their love of Man far rivals that which I have seen from most Christians. They devote countless hours and dollars to improving the lot of life for the impoverished in that deeply-poor county as well as directly helping children from oppressed nations throughout the world. Their sacrifices and commitments are truly something special.

Their peers in faith are equally adept at practicing charity. One study found that Muslims were the most generous of all religious groups, contributing 38% more than Jews, 84% more than Protestants, more than twice what Catholics do, and more than 3 times what atheists give.

Those statistics magnificently show that Islam is a religion of peace, of love, of hope.

Many non-Muslims choose to believe otherwise, implying that terror organizations represent the mainstream of the religion and that it is a deadly, vindictive faith. While having never picked up the Quaran, they are quick to spout random quotes from Muhammad that say Islam must convert all non-believers and tax and/or kill those who don’t convert.

If other religions practiced such selectivity and total lack of historical context, Christians would be looked as murderous war mongers, too. After all, the God of the Old Testament had the Israelites wipe out and destroy Jericho, Heshbon, Bahsan and numerous other places, purposely killing women and children while doing so because non-believers and those associated with them needed punishment. That’s a heavy body count, one that is overlooked today due to the more just people and kinder God of the New Testament.

It’s silly to classify Christianity as evil and violent because of those bloodbaths (and those done in its name in the days after the Bible), just as it is to do the same to all of Islam. Muslim-hating Christians need to look in the mirror – and read their own doctrines – before pointing an accusatory finger at other religions. What did Jesus say about the first stone?

A lack of understanding and compassion, which leads down the path of hate, is no way to treat your fellow man, no matter what religion he practices.  

That hate almost led to the death of what could have been dozens of peaceful Muslims – men, women, and children -- right here in our own home state. While it would have been the men who pulled the trigger being guilty, the practitioners of Islamophobia would have had blood on their hands, too, because it was their spirited verbal and written attacks which inspired the impressionable young men to commit their bloodbath. 

This should serve as a wake-up call. Islamophobia is an ugly disease and one that unlike disdain for skin color or sexual orientation is often left unchecked. It’s allowed to be expressed in the open and very few stand up against it. We can’t let that happen anymore, anywhere. Bring an end to the hate, because it can become a deadly disease.

From the 28 January 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Fox squirrels – a relatively new addition to WNY forests

A good chunk of my nature library is made up of books I accumulated as a kid. For the most part, they remain accurate because animals and their behaviors really don’t change too much over the course of two or three decades. Where they do occasionally need revision, though, is in the range maps.

Take the fox squirrel, for example.

Thirty years ago, fox squirrels really weren’t a thing in Western New York. Back then, if you did see one in the Empire State, your sightings were limited to the far southwestern corner of Chautauqua County. Their traditional range had them living across the entire central US and then the eastern US from Erie, Pennsylvania southward.

Fast forward to 2019; it’s a different world.

Now, fox squirrels can be found, though still quite rarely, in many parts of Western New York.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation says they can be found along the shore of Lake Erie and along the Genesee River across the southern half of WNY.

As for this writer, he says they could be found in any woodlot on the Niagara Frontier. All deer season my dad and I watched a hardy specimen on our farm in Gasport in Niagara County. Then, during the Christmas break, I saw a handsome couple a half mile away from where that squirrel had made his home.

If you ever see a fox squirrel, you’ll know it because, well, they’re different.

Let’s start with the size.

Fox squirrels are massive by the standards set by other WNY squirrels. They come in at 12 to 15 inches long in the body, 10 to 14 inches long in the tail, and they can weigh from one-and-a-half to a whopping 3 pounds as adults. That’s twice the total length of a red squirrel, and anywhere from 2 to 6 times their weight. As for the larger grey squirrels with which foxes are often confused, greys are still a third to a half shorter and smaller in length and weight. Those are huge differences.

You’ll see that in their gait.

Whereas red squirrels seem constantly frantic and grey squirrels have a lot of bounce, the fatter fox squirrels are lumbering. Their rather slow, seemingly defenseless posture is intriguing, because the reds and greys tend to stay next to or on trees while fox squirrels will walk throughout the forest, often many yards away from trees. On that forest floor they slowly search for nuts, acorns, fungi, plant material and, if they’re lucky enough, bird eggs.

If those two characteristics don’t nail identification, consider their coloring.

The best way to put it – imagine if a red squirrel and a grey squirrel had a giant freak baby…that would be a fox squirrel. Many have a grayish primary to their fur which is covered with vast swaths of chestnut hues on the underbelly and on the limbs (like the one my dad and I routinely saw). Sometimes, fox squirrels might even be entirely rusty in appearance (like the two I saw around the holidays). You never know what to expect with their fur. 

All of that makes them a sight to see.

And, hopefully, it’s a sight that stays with us.

Fox squirrels have a ravenous appetite for nuts and acorns, more so than other squirrels do. As all of the beech trees die off across WNY the fox squirrels’ home turf will be limited to stands of oak trees -- and hickories if you have them. With those beeches going the way of the dinosaur, it’s kind of a bad time for fox squirrels to make their advance across the region – it will really impede their progress or even cause them to retreat.

So, if you see one of these giant rodents, count yourself as lucky. They’re hard to find on the Niagara Frontier, a relatively new addition to our already impressive roster of mammals.

From the 24 January 2019 All WNY News

Friday, January 18, 2019

New Yorkers need more opportunities for voting access

As you can imagine, I religiously vote in the November elections.

I did miss the opportunity to do so about 12 years ago, though. That day, a customer came to town and it turned into a late evening of work. I didn’t return to Gasport until after the polls closed.

My lack of participation in that election really bothered me. To ensure that would never happen again, I have applied for, received, and utilized absentee ballots in every general election since. While it’s not guaranteed that I would be absent from my district on election day I’ve always noted on my application that the nature of my job can lead to that – I might have to travel out-of-state to see a customer with little notice.

State law and local election commissioners have accommodated me, and I really appreciate it.

But, that can’t work for everyone. The only two factors the New York Constitution addresses as permissible for absentee ballots are absence from the county on Election Day or a disability. It doesn’t afford flexibility for the general busy-ness of life.

When you’re in a position of responsibility uncertainty of your schedule is a certainty. You don’t have to be running a business to meet that criteria -- if you’re a parent or a volunteer you know exactly what I’m talking about. You can be absent from the polls with ease, even though you never left the county. Your kids have school, clubs, and events – and you still have to cook dinner and get those rugrats to bed. If you give of yourself to the community as a coach or scout leader, you know that some evenings can be long. If you’re a volunteer firefighter it’s well known that fires, accidents, and medical events don’t give a hoot about your personal schedule.

A lot of people are busy, doing what they can as moms, dads, entrepreneurs, and volunteers to make the world a better place. We shouldn’t disallow their participation in the polls just because life got in the way. Giving them only a small window of morning hours or evening hours one day each year doesn’t cut it in this modern world. And, really, it never did: A lot of farmers, laborers, and residents of outlying areas skipped on voting before faster transportation came to be (cars instead of horses). A lack of electoral participation has plagued America since Day One. 

More people would vote if they had more time -- or more ways -- to do so. It’s good to see that the New York State Assembly took that up as a charge for 2019.

Already in this young legislative session they introduced and passed bill A07623 which allows for a change of the language of the New York State Constitution, eliminating the requirement for the only two aforementioned barriers for voting (absence, disability). The revised law would allow non-excuse absentee voting, meaning anyone could apply for and receive an absentee ballot, regardless of the reason. This would allow them to fill out the ballot at home without having to fret about finding time to make it to the polls. That’s a winner for so many people.

To make that so there are still two obstacles to overcome.

One is the Senate. Their version of the bill (S0084) has yet to be presented this session as it has languished in their judiciary committee for review since early 2017. Hopefully this is the year – on the heels of the changes in leadership and party control -- that the Senate finally moves on it since the formerly GOP-led version had little interest in it.  

Even if they do pass it, any change can’t happen immediately. It would have to be passed yet again by both houses in the 2020 session before going to the general population to vote on the amendment.

Another proposal passed by the Assembly was A09608B which allows for early voting, a practice already enjoyed by 33 states. Their bill would establish a seven-day early voting period for registered voters to vote in person prior to any election. Each county would be required to provide a set amount of early voting hours, but would have the flexibility to offer hours and polling stations that best meet the needs of its residents.

There is currently not a Senate bill to accompany the Assembly’s, but with this being emphasized not only by the Assembly but also Governor Cuomo it’s safe to say one will be introduced soon.

I encourage you to reach out to your Senator and ask him or her to support both non-excuse absentee ballots and early voting. While those practices are not the cure-all for what ails American civics (participation won’t magically jump to 70 percent), they do offer flexibility for busy people and they ensure that those of us trying to make a difference in the world are also given guaranteed chances to make a difference at the polls, too.

From the 21 January 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, January 11, 2019

Child abuse training should be mandated by law

The disclosure of sex abuse scandals that besieged the Buffalo Diocese and its parishioners for decades has dominated water cooler talk and reporting in Western New York for almost a year now.

The issue has hit home for a lot of people as the Diocese, under pressure, has released the names of 80 confirmed abusers and the press reports that the real number of accused priests and nuns is 111. With numbers that great, names that well-known, and abuses having taken place in communities large and small, everyone in WNY, it seems, has some sort of connection to an accuser, an accused, or a church where it happened.  

There’s been a lot of handwringing over this. Everyone has wondered the following: How did the community not know this was happening? How could trusted and beloved people and churches hide, even allow, this? How does the Church attempt to make the abused whole again?

It’s been rare, though, that I’ve heard this question posed: How do we prevent this from happening again?

The scandals should be a wakeup call not only for the Catholic Church, but every Church and every organization that serves youth -- as well the parents who entrust their sons and daughters to them. That would run the gamut from paid to volunteer, schools to day cares, little leagues to varsity sports teams, theme parks to summer camps, and music clubs to scout troops.

Every single entity that is of service to minors should ensure that standards are in place to identify, prevent, and report all forms of abuse that happens within and without their non-profits, businesses, and government agencies. They all exist to better the lives of children, and those kids look at those places as safe havens….we have to ensure they are.

Unfortunately, most of the youth-supporting enterprises in the state don’t train their employees and volunteers in that regard. If they do, it’s inadequately-done with perhaps a cursory handout and no interactive education.

That doesn’t cut it when we’re talking about the safety of minors.

The Boy Scouts of America addressed this in the 1980s when they adopted Youth Protection Training (YPT) after some conniving bad seeds infiltrated scout troops to get access to kids. Now, every staff member, volunteer, and scout is required to have some form of YPT.

Whereas the youth receive 3 Rs training (Recognize, Resist, Report) every year that could take a good 30 minutes, the adults – who also receive background checks in order to be accredited – have to receive biannual training that is incredibly in-depth, an hour-and-a-quarter of professionally-done and well-developed training that identifies the causes, symptoms, signals, means, and reporting of physical and mental abuse, sexual abuse, and bullying, while addressing the policies and procedures Scouting has in place to prevent abuse within the organization.

That form of training so critical that I took the BSA’s style of YPT and recently tailored it to outside groups, giving a nearly two-hour class to two local Lutheran churches and their youth volunteers so they could ensure that they could prevent abuse within the any outlets of the churches (Sunday School, vacation bible school, youth group) while also empowering them to identify and help kids who might be abused at home, in school, or elsewhere. Kids, like adults, see churches as a place to be safe, to go for help – you have to make sure that it is a safe place and also a venue through which they can reach out if unspeakable things are happening in their home lives.

What made that training perhaps even more effective than the BSA’s excellent module was the fact that I had a lot of horror stories to relay to the trainees, an outcome of being a member of the press and also knowing people in law enforcement and education. Those stories gave teeth to the training.

This all brings me to this point – everyone who works for and volunteers for youth needs detailed and effective Youth Protection Training. Childhood is too precious, too fleeting; every one of us as caring adults have to ensure that it is free of horrible experiences which then lead to a lifetime of nightmares, depression, insecurity, and, in some cases, that individual unleashing upon children what had happened to him. Children are, for the most part, defenseless…we have an obligation to protect them from the perverts and abusers who want to take advantage of that and do them harm.

I encourage state officials, on the heels of the Buffalo Dioceses scandal which is a tragedy and also a learning moment, to address this and work with psychologists, social workers, law enforcement, and the formerly-abused to develop a YPT system, something similar to that used by Scouting, that can be administered to all who work with minors, either by an online training module, properly educated trainers, or the local Sheriff’s office. It should be a legal requirement -- not some feel-good suggestion that’s not mandatory -- for teachers, coaches, leaders, camp counselors, and the like.

Similarly, every year, school students should be educated on what constitutes all forms of abuse and what they can do to prevent it, report it, and seek help.

Last year, as an outcome of the #MeToo movement, the state put to law that sexual harassment policies and interactive training need to be provided at all workplaces and to all employees annually. If we as a just state can do that to protect adults it only makes legal and moral sense that we can train adults to protect children, too.     

From the 14 January 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News