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Editorials Written by Mark W. Benjamin

In the fall of 2006, I started writing an Op-Ed column about America's freedoms for our local paper, Isanti County News. Here they are.
Note: This column first appeared in the Isanti County News on September 28, 2006:

Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!

Watched the news on TV with my dad the other night. No fun for me, mind you. Not with his tut-tutting, head shaking and clucking about the world going to heck. Nope, no fun for his long-suffering criminal defense attorney son.
Because we're watching the file photo of a young, blonde college girl and then the video of her alleged killer, in shackles, shuffling into the courthouse with three burly deputies. "He's guilty. He should be shot", says my dad. A pause, a sigh … and then, "How in the heck do you represent those people?"
"Those people"? I don't blame my dad. Criminals are "those people" because (for most of us) we've never been on the receiving end of the criminal justice system – we've never been caught. I ask my students if they have any stolen property at home for which they might go to jail. They're shocked (shocked!) and say no. Then I ask how many illegally-downloaded movies or music they have on their computers.
"Those people"? I don't blame my dad. Criminals are "those people" because (for most of us) we've never been on the receiving end of the criminal justice system – we've never been caught. I ask my students if they have any stolen property at home for which they might go to jail. They're shocked (shocked!) and say no. Then I ask how many illegally-downloaded movies or music they have on their computers.

Uncomfortable silence follows.
We've never been caught. Yesterday, it might have been underage alcohol use or marijuana. Today, it might be football gambling or cheating on taxes. Each of us could – if we were honest – produce a long list of uncharged offenses. But we've never been caught. So shouldn't we have more empathy (not sympathy, empathy) for criminal defendants who have been caught? And if not, why not?
Well … because we don't want to identify with criminal defendants. We want to set ourselves apart from "those people" and rationalize that our transgressions are minor, don't hurt anyone or just about anything else. I've heard a lot of excuses – excuses, not legal defenses – in my time.
Yeah, well … what's that got to do with the kidnapping murderer you and your dad saw on television? Why shouldn't we just shoot him? He doesn't deserve mercy. What mercy did he show his victim?

I understand. I understand the anger. I also understand our pride of belonging to a nation of laws. I understand our Founding Fathers' dream of creating a judicial system that is the envy of the world.
And I understand that this system has been protected by our troops with their blood, sweat and lives for over two hundred years. Did you know that each young man and woman, during their induction ceremony, swears an oath to protect and defend the Constitution – not the country, not the people, the Constitution – from all enemies, foreign and domestic? That is their sworn mission.
So if you support the troops, then you also support the Constitution they defend – and all of our liberties (including, yes, our criminal defense rights) therein.

So it's really not a question about me – about how can I represent "those people". The question is, "How can we support the mission of our troops? How can we support the freedoms contained in our Constitution?" This is not about the prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys and judges. This is about us – about what makes us proud to be Americans.
I have hopes for this column. I hope that we talk about our rights, our freedoms and our liberties. I hope that we recognize that we all love America – even if we disagree. And at the end of the day, I hope we appreciate why we Americans are proud to live in the "land of the free".

I was going to say all of this to my dad, but then Leno came on.

Mark W. Benjamin is your friendly, neighborhood criminal defense attorney who loves America.
Note: This column ran in The Isanti County News on November 9, 2006. My hope was to illustrate how Americans love America in different ways. Obviously, it does not help political discourse to accuse someone of "hating America". We ALL love America -- but some of us, like good parents, have high expectations. We can love America and -- at the same time -- push for greater liberties and justice for all.

Liberals are from Mars, Conservatives are from Venus

My friend Paul thinks I hate America. He told me he supports a constitutional amendment prohibiting flag burning. So I opened my big mouth and said, "You love the flag but don't give a flying funnel cake for what it represents." So he got all "you liberals hate America" on me and I got all "nuh uhhhhh, we liberals LOVE America" on him. And, like children, we shouted at each other: "Do NOT love America", "Do TO", "Do NOT", Do TO". Grown men with college degrees. My friend Paul thinks I hate America.
Okay, the flag represents America -- fine -- but as it is? Or as it promises to be?

America once enslaved Blacks, denied women the vote and ethnic cleansed Native Americans from "our" lands. Children worked in coal mines, monopolies destroyed small businesses and union organizers were murdered.

The flag no longer represents an America of such unfulfilled dreams and undelivered promises. Why is that?
Well, like President Bush says, people around the world yearn to be free. And Americans rock when it comes to fighting for freedom. Just look at the Women's Suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement and, today, the Gay Rights movement. What's the deal? Why are Americans never satisfied with the freedoms they got?
Ha! Because it's written into our DNA, baby! It's what America's all about. Americans' passion for freedom is unquenchable and will always irritate the champagne-sipping fat cats and cramp the clueless power mongers. America has more freedom today because Americans always want more freedom – not less.
So that's why illegal aliens march for citizenship, gay couples sue to marry and cancer patients demand medicinal marijuana.

God bless 'em! These people are fighting for their freedom. They love America but not just as it is. They also desperately, passionately love America for what it promises to be. They just want more freedom – not less.
When we teach our children about the Revolutionary War, we forget that many Americans – "Tories" – preferred British rule and were just plain fat and happy with the country as it was. They were afraid of freedom. Samuel Adams had little sympathy for them:
"If you love wealth more than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, depart from us in peace. We ask not your counsel nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you. May your chains rest lightly upon you and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen."

Do we want more freedom in America? Or are we just plain fat and happy with the way things are?

Not all of us. We still have lots of passionate, freedom-loving people marching, chanting and shouting in the streets – fighting for America to deliver on its UN-delivered promises.

So … as you slouch in your Barcalounger, beer in hand, watching these people on FOX news, do you grumble that they hate America? If so, ask yourself if you love America just as it is. Ask yourself if these people love America for what it promises to be. Could this be a Mars-Venus thing? Isn't it likely that we all love America – but in different ways?
Why not finish your beer, get up, go outside and talk with these people?

Listen to them. Find out what they're about. Try to understand.

'Cause that's what I'm gonna do with my friend Paul. He thinks I hate America, you know

Mark W. Benjamin is your friendly, neighborhood criminal defense attorney who loves America.

Note: This column ran in the 10/5 edition of The Isanti County News. Alas, my call to arms came too late as the Senate sent legislation to President Bush last week that authorized: "torture", the loss of habeas corpus (meaning that "enemy combatants" cannot challenge their detention in a federal court) and more. And all that stuff regarding their rights at trial? That's only if they get a trial. Under the legislation, they can be held indefinitely and there's nothing anybody can do about it. Sleep well, America!

Let's Torture Criminals Too!

Against my better judgment, I watched the news with my dad again. Amidst his harrumphing and tsk tsking, brow furrowed and arms crossed, came a news item that President Bush wanted legislation to define torture so terrorists would sing and our country would be safer. "Hey", my dad says, "our country would be safer if we tortured crooks too." My Coke sprayed across the room and I was about to respond when I thought … the Old Man just might have something there.
I mean, really, terrorists don't threaten America as much as our home-grown, low-life, pond-scum criminals – not by a country mile. In the same year that the towers fell, criminal punks murdered over sixteen thousand of us and raped over ninety thousand more – and they keep doing it every year. You want to talk about terrorists lurking, scheming and waiting to kill us again? Fine, but criminals don't wait. They kill and rape us every day. Terrorists are rank amateurs compared to criminals.
So forget about the War on Terror. How goes our War on Crime?

The War on Crime was Richard Nixon's presidential campaign issue after the U.S. Supreme Court released several guilty-as-heck criminal thugs because their confessions were "coerced". Crime rates went through the roof.

My dad's right. Criminals pose a greater threat to us. President Bush should ask Congress to authorize "alternative methods" – his term – to interrogate criminals too. He wants America to be safe? Fine. Let's go whole hog and torture criminals too. Let's make America really safe.

Like, if a getaway driver knows where his buddies are planning their next drive-by shooting, wouldn't torturing him save lives and catch more criminals? Other countries torture their criminals – and guess what? Their streets are safer than ours. So how about a little torture in the good ol' U.S. of A? Who's going to complain? Terrorists? Crooks? Liberal weenies? Ha! Who cares about them?
Well, okay, take a deep cleansing breath now and listen carefully. I'm not being serious. I'm joking. I'm using irony to make a point.

America doesn't torture because King George tortured Americans. Our Founding Fathers documented it in our Declaration of Independence, part of which reads:

"He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation."

King George's cruelty inspired our Founding Fathers to write the Eighth Amendment which reads:

"Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

But we're told "the world changed after 9/11".
Really? By how much? Hasn't our country survived much greater threats without seeking Congressional authorization to torture people? Okay, the occasional cop or soldier has tortured criminals and POW's, but this country has never sought to institutionalize torture as an authorized and proper method for making war or fighting crime. In fact, for decades, we've fought against torture, using America's moral force to restrict and eliminate it around the world.
And now we're gonna let a motley ragtag group of misguided cave dwellers scare us into torturing people? Our Founding Fathers would be so ashamed of us.

Will we define torture? Or will torture define us? Please … speak up people.

I was going to say all of this to my dad, but he was on his knees scrubbing the carpet.

Mark W. Benjamin is your friendly, neighborhood criminal defense attorney who loves America.
Note: With the awful healthcare our returning soldiers have received and their never-ending extensions, callups, stop-loss orders and worse, I thought it appropriate to ask my readers to care a little bit more for them. Frankly, our troops are more of an idea than a reality. We tend to talk about them in abstract terms. I thought that we might care a little bit more about them if we got a bit more involved in their situations. And if we care more for them, we just might ask some difficult questions about why they are where they are. This column appeared in The Isanti County News on March 21, 2007.

My Little Green Army Men

As a kid, I loved to play with my little green army men. Remember them? I bought them by the boxful and set them up in the back yard. Then I started my glorious little war.

Enemy mortars launched croquet balls over the picnic table into their ranks (Ba-Roooom!), rubber band snipers picked 'em off from the sandbox (Pa-Ching!) and low-flying jets dropped flaming globs of rubber cement from the sky. Death from above! Aiiiieeee!!!!
Today you might think I was a disturbed child in need of heavy medication. But in the anything-goes '60's this was considered good, clean boys-will-be-boys fun. My neighbors watched and laughed from their Astroturf decks as they sipped highballs.
My little green army men instantly obeyed my orders, never worried about coming home and bravely carried out any mission – no matter how stupid – like taking up wide-open recon positions on the bird feeder. Then, predictably, enemy crabapple grenades and Wiffle Ball RPG's hit them and they fell to their doom.
Didn't matter. I had a never-ending supply of little green army men. If they got damaged, I tossed them aside and reached into the box for more. No need to amputate little green arms or legs, listen to little green screams of pain or mop up little green pools of blood. No need to write condolence letters to little green mothers or answer questions from little green reporters or testify to the little green Senate Armed Services Committee.

No need because … nobody cared. My glorious little war had no plan and my smiling neighbors didn't care about my little green army men.
Sometimes I think we care for our troops today about as much as my neighbors cared for my little green army men. We smile and thank them for their sacrifice and then go back to our highballs. We don't care enough to ask our leaders the hard questions that directly affect them.

Here's what Virginia Senator James Webb – former Marine, former Republican – thought about our leaders as he slogged through the rice paddies of Vietnam:
We trusted the judgment of our national leaders. We hoped that they would be right, that they would measure with accuracy the value of our lives against the enormity of the national interest that might call upon us to go into harm¹s way. We owed them our loyalty, as Americans, and we gave it. But they owed us — sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it.
Our troops deserve real support with sound judgment and clear thinking, not bumper stickers and yellow ribbons. Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, let's care enough to question the president's plans.

He might sweat a little at that prospect. But, hey, we have 2,600 Minnesota National Guard troops sweating every day in Iraq. Remember them? They were supposed to come home to us in March. But Bush extended them there until this summer. You know, "the Surge".

Look, let's not treat the troops like my little green army men. Let's really support them. Check out these excellent websites:
Log on, plug in and help out. Make it a class, church or family project. Believe me; you'll care a lot more about the troops if you do.
Note: In October 2006, one of our older Isanti County residents, 74-year-old Ken Englund, confronted a young man and woman with an unloaded shotgun when he discovered them stealing gasoline out of his neighbor's car. He was on his cell phone with 911. The man and woman left the scene and Ken pursued. The man and woman pulled off the road and Ken waited until the deputies arrived. He laid his gun down, it was confiscated, the man was ticketed and Ken was told to go home. About a month and a half later, he got a Felony Summons and Complaint to appear in district court and answer to the charge of 2nd Degree Assault with a Deadly Weapon, the maximum penalty for which is a seven year sentence in prison. The case received national attention and everybody had an opinion on what should happen. The charge was reduced by the prosecutor to a misdemeanor and, just before the revised case was to go to court, all charges were dismissed.
This column ran a week later. As indicated in the column, the legal case may be over but the emotional case lives on ... and on. Worse, we have residents in this county who believe that what Kenny did was appropriate, if not heroic, and who may emulate him. I've stated my hopes in this column that we address our hurt feelings and our incorrect street legal knowledge.

Goodbye to The Kenny Case

This column ran a week later. As indicated in the column, the legal case may be over but the emotional case lives on ... and on. Worse, we have residents in this county who believe that what Kenny did was appropriate, if not heroic, and who may emulate him. I've stated my hopes in this column that we address our hurt feelings and our incorrect street legal knowledge.
We're normally a tepid and lackluster bunch, really. Not like the tabloid denizens of Tinseltown who air their dirty laundry for all to see. We read about them and tsk tsk and tut tut about their sordid and sinful lives. That's not us, we brag. No need for the paparazzi to barge into our town with their klieg lights and blow-combed hair, wildly thrusting microphones into our surprised faces and breathlessly asking for our opinions, our thoughts or (good gracious!) our feelings. Nope. No need because, well, nothing much happens up here. We like it like that.
But then The Kenny Case came. The cameras and the crews and the blow-combs rushed into our quiet community and riled us up to the point where we started attacking each other. People went around red-faced and ranting, "The govmint is gonna take away my gunz!" or "Hair-trigger nuts are gonna be packin' heat!" Really people, we all went a little crazy.
That's not who we are. We live here because we enjoy visiting each other on the sidewalk, in the café or at the game. But look what we've said about each other or, good golly, what we've written in letters to the editor. We've said and written ugly and mean things – and we all have some hurt feelings.
That's not who we are. We live here because we enjoy visiting each other on the sidewalk, in the café or at the game. But look what we've said about each other or, good golly, what we've written in letters to the editor. We've said and written ugly and mean things – and we all have some hurt feelings.
So we have some hurt feelings and some bad legal knowledge. What shall we do about that?

I propose that our leaders hold a public forum – and soon. Let's have the County Attorney, the Sheriff, Mr. Englund and Mr. Toder sit at the table together. Each of them can say their piece. We can respectfully listen, ask questions and maybe even vent a little.

I think it would be a healthy thing. I think we all need to take a breath, look around at each other and air out our differences. The case may be over in the courtroom, but it isn't over in the café. It's time to put the emotional case to rest. We've been through a nightmare and we need to do some processing together.

I'm asking – please – do this for us. If you do, maybe we can all go back to being the tepid and lackluster people we like to be. And if we want to complain, well, there's always the weather. The weather doesn't have feelings, you know.

Mark W. Benjamin is your friendly, neighborhood criminal defense attorney who loves America.
Note: This column is based on a REAL story that I read on the Internet about Levy County, Florida. I checked it for authenticity by reading the original article from local paper. And it got me to thinking that this War on Drugs is completely out of control. My purpose in writing it was to, of course, get people talking about whether we ought to be TALKING about this stuff -- without being attacked as "soft" on the whole War on Drugs thing. Hope you like it.

Reefer Madness at the Library?

I remember when I had to prove I wasn't smoking dope.

No, not to my parents or the cops, but to the Marines. Apparently, Uncle Sam didn't want his Marines high while on duty – or off duty for that matter. So twice a year I was ordered to fill a cup with you-know-what and hand it over. I didn't mind. After all, I had the military mindset – "Yes sir! Yes sir! Three bags full sir!"

I wondered … could the same mindset embed itself into America's civilian workplace? Would Americans meekly submit to constant drug testing to keep their jobs? I journeyed to our local library and tried a little experiment.

I approached the smiling receptionist and casually asked if she had smoked any dope recently. She froze. She laughed. She spluttered. She said no.

I narrowed my eyes, slowly leaned across the counter bringing my face to hers. I whispered this was serious business. Would she be willing to prove it? She laughed again (druggies laugh a lot) and said I would just have to "trust" her.
Trust? Ha! We're way past trust in this country. The druggies are everywhere! We need documentation, surveillance records, lab results, proof of purchase and all that. Trust? That is so Jimmy Carter '70's.

Let's take some inspiration from the forward-thinking people of Levy County, Florida. Recently, their county government ordered fifty-five faithful library volunteers to drive to a lab in Gainesville and pee into a cup "within hearing distance" of a lab monitor so they could – you know – prove they weren't smoking dope, snorting coke or huffing paint.

These volunteers were between 60 and 85 years old, but that makes no never mind. America's War on Drugs can't make exceptions. There's just a chance that some ganja grandma might misfile a book. So guess what? Fifty-three grannies stomped out in their orthopedic shoes. Now there are only two volunteers left to staff five county libraries.
The county was going to pay $33 to test each volunteer – over $1,800 – money that otherwise would have been wasted on books. Of course, the libraries don't need new books just now. Their current inventory is stacking up nicely, thank you, waiting for the remaining two volunteers – certified drug free! – to hustle and get them shelved. Move it, grandma!

So … I have a question. Is our government on dope? Because it sure looks like our lawmakers have lost their senses. "Zero tolerance" also means zero discussion – and then we end up with Looney Tunes in Levy County.

So let's talk. Lawmakers argue that drug testing is a sure-fire way to guarantee safe workplaces. Right? But our lawmakers are heavily lobbied by the drug companies who want never-ending testing for everyone, everywhere and every when. Why? Because the more testing, the more money in their pockets. Drug testing in the workplace is a growth industry.
Here's the unasked question: Is drug testing about workplace safety? Or drug company profits? Ask the citizens of Levy County. Are they safer now that elderly library volunteers have to pee in a cup

I'm tired of being told that we live in a different America now, that we should all pony up a cup and prove that we are drug free. Let's take a lesson in freedom from these BlueRinse Rebels! When it came to their civil liberties, they told the county commissioners what they could do with their cup.

Mark W. Benjamin is your friendly, neighborhood criminal defense attorney who loves America.
Note: This column ran in the December 13, 2006 edition of The Isanti County News. With all of the political commentary going on about government spying on Americans, I thought it was even more alarming to learn that sophisticated surveillance technology was getting mainstreamed and marketed to everyday Americans. If we start to accept that this kind of surveillance is right and just for us to do on each other, then we will be less willing to complain when government does it to us.

Big Daddy is Watching You

I remember the first time I drove my dad's 1966 Mustang convertible. Handing me the keys he said, "Son, don't take the top down. The seats will get dusty."

Easing behind the wheel I purred, "Sure, dad". Then I drove around the corner, stopped, took the top down, slipped on my RayBans and cruised, baby, cruised down the road –sun on my face, wind in my hair, AM radio blaring, chicks smiling and waving at me. Woo hoo!

C'mon! You can't expect a 16-year-old boy, hormones raging, to drive a 1966 Mustang convertible (!) with the top up.

Years later, I confessed this nasty little secret to my dad. We both had a good laugh. He really didn't know.
But today he would. Today he could track me 24/7 as long as I had a cell phone with a GPS (global positioning system) chip. GPS would let him know where I was and – bonus! – if I was speeding, doing doughnuts or parking for inordinate lengths of time at "scenic overlooks".

Great, huh? Parents tracking kids. That's how restricting our liberties often start – in the name of "protecting our children". So now FedEx tracks drivers, retailers spy on customers, and our government … um, you really don't want to know.

How will GPS spying become acceptable and commonplace for the rest of us in the next few years? Simple. It will start with kids and cars.
Just watch for upcoming commercials of: the grieving mother at her comatose daughter's hospital bed; the sobbing father identifying his son's body at the crash site; and the parade of sheriffs, teachers and doctors asking if you are doing everything to keep your kid safe. The message? You're naïve and negligent if you don't spy on your kids.

But is spying the best way?
When I was a student, I often drove my rusty, dirty 1971 Ford Maverick home for a real meal and some laundry. Before leaving, my dad always walked me to my car. As I was getting in, he spit on his handkerchief and wiped down my headlights. In the winter, he wiped them down with snow – scooping it up with his bare hands.

That simple act told me that my dad loved me and wanted me to be safe. Cleaning my headlights was more effective than a thousand lectures. It taught me that I had responsible choices to make – choices that would affect the ones who loved me.

Having choices means making mistakes. If kids aren't free to make mistakes (and, honey, they're gonna make some doozies), parents will never have that tinkly-piano-music "teachable moment". So why not give them some space?
Uh huh. Okay, Mark, enough with the mushy, touchy-feely, kum-ba-yah column. You don't know MY kid. Where can I get that chip?

Fine. Here are a few websites: accutracking.com; advantrack.com; and – I'm not kidding – trackmykids.com.
But to those parents, who are considering spying on their kids, listen to what Ben Franklin said: "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both." I hope those parents – and we, as a nation – don't succumb to the fear mongers and marketers and abandon freedom in the name of security.

And someday I hope you meet my dad and shake his hand – the hand that used to scoop up snow. I think he found a better way.

Mark W. Benjamin is your friendly, neighborhood criminal defense attorney who loves America.
Note: What with Hillary Clinton running for president and all, I thought it would be good to write about what it used to be like in this country before the feminist movement got going and Title IX was passed. I really think that we have a long way to go in this country regarding sexism, even more so than racism. Consider the idiots yelling "Iron my shirt!" at Hillary prior to the New Hampshire primaries. The news media commented on it, of course, but there was no media firestorm against the people that did it -- or much talk about the insidiousness of sexism. Think about it. What would the media response have been if hecklers had chanted some racist slogan at Barack Obama? Simply stated, our nation is a lot more ambivalent about sexism than it is about racism. My sister knows something about this. Her professional life has been one long struggle against the "old boys' network". This story is but one example and appeared in the January 16, 2008 edition of the Isanti County News.

Revenge of the Ice Bunnies

In 1970, my sister became an Ice Bunny.

It wasn't really her preference. As a kid, Barb climbed trees, caught snakes and fought bullies. Cuts, scabs and bruises tattooed her skin. She was a fearless and ferocious little tom boy.

Later she discovered downhill skiing. She devoured ski magazines, plastered ski posters on her walls and clomped around our house in ski boots ... in the summer. While her friends were prancing on high heels, Barb was crashing slalom gates. The only diamonds she wanted were on the slopes – the double black kind.
She was good, I mean really good. So in her junior year, she got it in her silly little head to try out for the boys' downhill ski team – there was no girl's team, you see – and she made the cut easily. For the next two months she and the boys trained for their first ski meet between several schools. She was ecstatic.

But the night before, her coach called and told her that the meet's organizers had heard there was a girl on the team and they weren't going to have any of that nonsense. They said that the entire team would be disqualified if she showed up. Sorry, the coach told my sister, you'll just have to quit.

But all was not lost! He offered to pull some strings and get her on the Ice Bunnies. After all, he said, she had nice legs, pretty hair and a perky smile.
She was good, I mean really good. So in her junior year, she got it in her silly little head to try out for the boys' downhill ski team – there was no girl's team, you see – and she made the cut easily. For the next two months she and the boys trained for their first ski meet between several schools. She was ecstatic.

But the night before, her coach called and told her that the meet's organizers had heard there was a girl on the team and they weren't going to have any of that nonsense. They said that the entire team would be disqualified if she showed up. Sorry, the coach told my sister, you'll just have to quit.

But all was not lost! He offered to pull some strings and get her on the Ice Bunnies. After all, he said, she had nice legs, pretty hair and a perky smile.
In case you've never heard of the Ice Bunnies, they danced around on the ice in short skirts and white skates between the periods of the boy's hockey games. We watched Barb and the Bunnies kick up their legs to the music, do the hair flip thing and smile a lot. It was really important to smile, you know.

She graduated in 1971, just one year before Congress passed Title IX. Don't ever say that Congress can't do good stuff sometimes. Title IX guaranteed girls the same access to sports in public schools as boys.
Well duh, you say, that only makes sense. But when it comes to gender roles in this country, we don't always show a lot of sense – either now or "back in the day" when girls were actually discouraged from participating in sports. The reason? Well, because they might, um, damage their, uh, reproductive organs which were, like, their total life's purpose for walking about on God's green earth.

Yeah, I know, but that really was the kind of thinking back then.
But most of us today wouldn't dream of shoehorning young girls into cramped sexist roles. Even my conservative friends – who often sigh that this country needs to get back to "conservative values" – wouldn't want their daughters forced into becoming Ice Bunnies.
My sister is a doctor now. And her reproductive organs survived just fine, thank you very much, because she is also a proud mother. Yes, she mourns for the stolen "glory days" that might have been – the medals, trophies and friends. But she rejoices for today's girls and the opportunities they have. America is a better and stronger country for it.
And now American girls are, like, so totally awesome.

Mark W. Benjamin is your friendly, neighborhood criminal defense attorney who loves America.
Note: A couple of weeks ago, Alan Greenspan released his memoirs and wrote that the War in Iraq is largely about oil. Given our lack of connectedness to the war -- and to the troops fighting it -- I thought it would be appropriate to remind everybody that our leaders have asked us to sacrifice before. That's not happening today. So I thought it might be good to suggest a bottom-up, grass roots approach -- namely, something that might produce tangible and visible results. Ideally, I would like to see parades of cars in the right hand lane -- each car proudly displaying a "55 Pledge" magnetic yellow ribbon. Maybe our leaders will take notice and follow our lead. We'll see. This column appeared in The Isanti County News on September 26, 2007.

Fighting 'Em Over Here

I fought the terrorists on my drive home today.

There's a war on, you know, and I want to do my part. The Global War on Terror, our president says, is the "calling of our generation". Maybe – if you're wearing a uniform.

But most of us aren't and we go about our busy days with the War in Iraq and the War in Afghanistan and the War on Terror only so much background white noise competing – and losing – to the likes of Britney or O.J. or Bradjelina. It's sad. It's true.

And then this new book interrupts our reverie with an ugly little accusation – like a whiff of stale urine in a fancy restaurant – the author writing, "I'm saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows – the Iraq war is largely about oil."
Where's that kind of leadership today? Shouldn't the president and Congress get together on this? Huh? But no. Instead our leaders hand wring and finger point and shoulder shrug. What can we regular folks do?

My dad and the Greatest Generation knew what to do. During WWII he and the good citizens of Pipestone bought war bonds, rationed gas and collected scrap metal. My dad memorized the silhouettes of German warplanes and counted the days until his 18th birthday – so he could enlist, so he could fight the fascist scum. Everybody, I mean everybody, was in the fight. They all contributed. They all sacrificed.
My dad and the Greatest Generation knew what to do. During WWII he and the good citizens of Pipestone bought war bonds, rationed gas and collected scrap metal. My dad memorized the silhouettes of German warplanes and counted the days until his 18th birthday – so he could enlist, so he could fight the fascist scum. Everybody, I mean everybody, was in the fight. They all contributed. They all sacrificed.

So … if this war really is about oil, then by God, I am going to do whatever I can to contribute, to sacrifice, to fight. As long as our troops are over there, I'm taking the "55 Pledge"
Until our troops are home, I will drive 55.
Until the war is won, I will drive 55.
My contribution. My sacrifice. My fight.
I will drive 55.
We SHOULD fight them over here. Join with me in my crazy, quiet little war. Join with me as Americans united. Join with me in the right hand lane – the "Victory Lane".

Together, we might get home a little late, but our troops might get home a little early.

Mark W. Benjamin is your friendly, neighborhood criminal defense attorney who loves America.
Note: A few months ago, I was visiting with my dad who turned 80 last October. For some reason, I recalled a lovely piece that he wrote about the old guys who frequented his health club locker room in a retirement village in Arkansas. Had it ever been published? I asked. He told me no and I offered to review it, clean it up and see if he could find somebody who might like it. Turns out that Newsweek Magaznie did -- at least their online edition. They sent him a cool $500 and dad generously turned it over to me. Thanks dad! I realize that this is my blog, but I thought I should include your column in it. Here's to hoping we embark on more joint literary efforts!

My Turn: Our Gym's Aging Band of Brothers

We may not be the most beautiful sight at the gym, but my aging band of brothers still has a lot to offer.

WEB-EXCLUSIVE COMMENTARY
By Walter Benjamin
Newsweek
Updated: 1:19 p.m. CT April 26, 2007
April 26, 2007 - Like many seniors, I regularly journey to a fitness center—not a particularly enjoyable ritual but one that helps preserve whatever health I have left. I'm trying to slow the ravages of time and forestall the Grim Reaper, lest he pay an early house call with a heart attack, cancer or stroke and make me a burden to my wife. My motto is "Live as well as you can for as long as you can."

But working out on a dozen machines, water-walking and swimming can feel pointless, like Sisyphus pushing the same stone up a mountain again and again. More than 60 years ago, my physical work on a farm accomplished something. Back then, while sweating and grunting, I dreamed of growing a chest and arms that would attract giggling girls like bees to honey.
Alas, those days are long gone and reality has stubbornly settled in. Forget building muscle mass. Today, I'll settle for a modest cardiovascular workout and some range of motion in my aching joints. Yet companies hyping Viagra and incontinence products portray us seniors with full heads of hair and 34-inch waistlines. Who are these people and where are their warts, wrinkles, scars and flab? Really, these companies should pay a visit to my locker room.
When I was a teenager, my grandfather said that nine out of 10 people look better in their clothes. At the time, I thought he was just trying to dampen my raging hormones. But in the locker room at my gym, the proof is painfully before my eyes. Any beauty that remains is largely internal. We are not a pretty sight. If life is a battleground, then we naked seniors display the ugly proof. War, accidents, surgery and gravity have made sport of our once-proud bodies.
We are life's veterans, scarred by weapons of slow destruction. But we laugh at time's ravages. Unbowed and unbroken in spirit—although our bodies certainly haven't gotten the memo—we have no shame in the locker room. We are comfortable with what we have left.
Joe's lower leg lies somewhere on the battlefields of France, but he happily hobbles to the pool, removes his prosthetic foot and swims 20 laps like a seal. Tom's deep-vein thrombosis has colored his legs almost black, and his spine looks like a cobblestone path, but off he goes to the treadmill. Adam's football days have caught up to the cartilage in his shoulders and he can hardly raise his arms, but there he is on the recumbent bicycle. Sam's arms look like two sticks wrapped in leather, and his splotchy head reminds me of badly bruised fruit, but into the locker room he comes, smiling and slowly pushing his walker ahead of him. Karl, leaning on his cane, limps in behind him and gratefully accepts someone's offer to remove his socks. And then there is Tom, who six months ago suffered a massive stroke, but here he is today swinging his left arm and dragging his left leg behind him. Together, we happy few help each other and make it happen every day.
For some of us, undressing and putting on our workout clothes can take 20 pain-filled minutes. But who's counting? Our locker-room banter ricochets off the walls—from the shallow to the serious. We trade jokes, predictions on politics and the weather, sorrow over Mike's Alzheimer's and congratulations on a 50th wedding anniversary. Yes, we even still talk about sex. Some things never change in a guy's locker room. For us, our locker room is a form of sanctuary, our "happy-hour" place, where there is confession, celebration, support and renewal.
I used to think my life would be over before I got old. But my locker-room band of brothers model life's beauty every day. I wonder, can my old friends and I offer something to the youth of today? We have lived through 80 Minnesota winters, a Great Depression and several wars. Don't we have some wisdom to share? Maybe our presence might soften the abrasiveness of our world. Perhaps we can teach our troubled and cynical teenagers that life goes on in spite of tragedy and suffering. Broken and slow may we be, we still have lots to offer. My locker-room experiences make me realize that we have uncounted and unrecognized heroes among us.
Benjamin lives in Eden Prairie, Minn.
Note: I served in the Marines from 1982 to 1986 as a JAG officer. During that time, I remember Marines being processed through our Law Center for the crime of being gay. Marines who were suspected of being gay would be investigated. Their military peers would be questioned as would their friends back home. At times, polygraph (lie detector) machines were even used so that the accused Marine could "prove" that he or she was not gay. Regardless of their rank, skills or achievements, they were given Other Than Honorable discharges. In 1993, things changed slightly when the Don't Ask, Don't Tell program was enacted -- thereby giving gays and lesbians the opportunity to serve if they were discreet about their sexual orientation. In 2005, the non-partisan General Accountability Office issued a report on the impact 12 years of the DADT program has had on our military and the war effort. I thought it was worth sharing with my pro-war, anti-gay friends because, given the findings in the report, you can't have it both ways. This column appeared in the Isanti County News on June 20, 2007.

Support Our Gay Troops

Last week I had lunch with my friend Paul. He still supports President Bush and reminded me that President Truman – unpopular in 1952 – is highly regarded today. My friend supports the war in Iraq and the troops – even has yellow ribbon on his SUV. I asked, "So you support ALL the troops?" Biting into his hamburger, he nodded vigorously. I looked at him, smiled and asked, "Even the gay ones?" He stopped chewing, paused and said, "Well …."
Yes, well, I don't blame Paul. Our government certainly doesn't support our troops – at least not the gay ones. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office reported that our "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" program was deliberately undermining our troops – and the war.

Enacted in 1993, the program tolerates gays and lesbians serving – and dying – in the military as long as they don't disclose their sexual orientation. The program gives the Pentagon the comfort and appearance of a heterosexual military – as long as gay troops remain discreet.
Between 1994 and 2003 some gay troops were not discreet. So the Pentagon discharged 9,488 of them at a cost of nearly $200 million to recruit and train their presumably heterosexual replacements. Worse, the GAO reported that 757 troops held "critical" jobs such as "voice interceptor", "cryptologic linguist" and "interpreter/translator". Over 300 spoke Arabic, Farsi, or Korean, the very languages necessary to translate, analyze and evaluate terrorist threats. These skills command reenlistment bonuses up to $60,000 – unless you're gay. Then those skills are suddenly worthless. Buh bye.
In a time of war, does this make any sense? Over 3,500 dead, over 25,000 wounded and the Army has recruiting problems. What does the Pentagon do? It activates the National Guard and sends our citizen soldiers to Iraq, increases the length of their deployments, and issues "stop loss" orders to fathers and mothers who thought they were coming home.

Clearly, the Pentagon needs all the troops, talent and training it can get. But it prefers the comfort and appearance of a heterosexual military. So it bleeds our armed forces of valuable personnel, some with the critical skills needed to win this war.

Look, the Pentagon might have had the luxury to discharge gay and lesbian troops in the 90's, but not today. Not when our country's security and the war on terror are at stake. Tell me, how does the Don't Ask, Don't Tell program support our troops and help the war effort?
In December 2004, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, "You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time." Back then, he was trying to explain why our troops didn't have enough body armor. Today, his explanation should apply to the troops themselves. They are men and women, blacks and whites and … straights and gays. We should go to war with the troops we have, not the troops that the Pentagon might want or wish for.
To win the war on terror, we need more than comfort and appearances, wants or wishes. Our troops need the skills and numbers to get the job done, regardless of race, color, creed or, yes, even sexual orientation.

Back to Harry Truman. In 1948 he went against the wishes of the Pentagon and integrated Afro-Americans into the armed forces because it was "the right thing to do". If President Bush wants to compare himself to Truman, he should show similar leadership and integrate gays and lesbians into our armed forces. He – and the rest of us – should support ALL our troops, not just the straight ones.

Mark W. Benjamin is your friendly, neighborhood criminal defense attorney who loves America.
Note: The Minnesota Legislature passed a new law prohibiting cigarette smoking in bars and restaurants -- statewide. I thought it would be a good idea to explain just how far individual rights ought to extend in this country. Yes, it might be a legal product but it also has very real health ramifications for the rest of us non-smokers. Telling us to pick and choose where we are going to eat, drink or work based on whether or not smoking is allowed is a false choice. Non-smokers shouldn't have to choose to leave a job because of cigarette smoke any more than they would have to choose to leave a job because of sexual harassment, racial prejudice or safety violations. Rather, it is smokers who must circumscribe their conduct. Are we non-smokers violating their civil rights or balancing them against the rights of others. Read on. This column appeared in The Isanti County News on May 2, 2007.
Of course, I later learned that this smoking ban was having devastating economic effects on our veterans clubs and blue-collar bar owners. I changed my tune and started the Theater Night craze in February 2008. But here's the column that ran in May 2007.

Mind if I Pee in Your Pool?

In 1975, the CBS program 60 Minutes showed travelers trying to light up after arriving at the Minneapolis International Airport – only to have security guards swoop in, waylay and inform them that they couldn't smoke in the terminal. Their tired faces expressed sudden surprise, shock and then anger. What kind of stupid state was this anyway?

Minnesota had just passed the nation's first clean indoor air act.

Blessed relief! I never liked breathing cigarette smoke. But it was hard to avoid as a kid. People smoked everywhere – restaurants, hospitals, even movie theatres. I remember the projector beam struggling to the screen through the blue haze. My eyes burned and my clothes stank. I had to take a bath when I got home.

Even so, my friends and I wanted to smoke. It was so way cool back then. Our TV, movie and comic book heroes smoked. Commercials showed rugged, manly men who would "rather fight than switch" for a Kent and roped cattle in "Marlboro Country". We couldn't wait to be just like them.

Until that glorious day, we smoked candy cigarettes. We looked pretty tough in our army uniforms, cigarettes dangling from our lips, as we fought the Nazis in our neighborhood.

But nowadays it's the Nazis and criminals who smoke on TV and in the movies. Cigarettes just ain't cool anymore and smoking rates are declining. What's a cigarette industry to do?
Simple. Talk about rights. Smokers got rights! Smokers should be able to light up anywhere and anytime – and the rest of us should "lighten up". Those liberal, do-gooder, namby pamby legislators should just leave those poor smokers the heck alone. Right?

Wrong. Here's my response to the cigarette industry and to all you smokers out there. We non-smokers will leave you smokers alone when you agree to be … alone. Stop insisting on your right to spew disgusting, hazardous smoke into our air while we're trying to eat, drink and work.

Your shameless claim of a right to pollute our air is exactly why Minnesota passed the first clean indoor air act. And now legislators are poised to pass a new law prohibiting cigarettes in bars and restaurants. In response, you scream that we non-smokers are abusing your civil rights. Oh, please.

How far do your rights extend? Just so far that they don't infringe on someone else's rights. That means you can't pollute MY air and I can't pee in YOUR pool. Okay?
Want examples? One company's sulfurous stink forces Cambridge residents indoors on balmy summer evenings. 3M dumps tons of cancer-causing PFC's into the drinking water in Cottage Grove. And manufacturers discharge mercury and lead into the atmosphere, ending up in our lakes and the fish we catch. Tell me, if it's wrong for corporations to pollute, why should smokers get a free pass?

We frail humans have to worry about stuff like cancer, heart disease and emphysema – but not cigarette companies. They only worry about their green blood (money) and anybody who threatens that flow of green blood is viciously attacked. They used to argue that cigarettes weren't harmful. Now they preach about smokers' rights. And they whine – jeez, they whine – that our legislature is anti-business and anti-freedom.

But they don't – and never did – care about the health of smokers. Do they really now care about the rights of smokers? Or the never-ending flow of their precious green blood?

I'll be proud when the legislature passes the new law – and when Governor Pawlenty signs it. If he doesn't, he better not invite me over to his pool.

Mark W. Benjamin is your friendly, neighborhood criminal defense attorney who loves America.
Note: As I said, I changed my tune later. Here is my column that was published on the morning of Saturday, February 9, 2008 by the Minnesota Star Tribune. That night, we staged our first Theater Night at Barnacles Resort and Campground on the north shore of Lake Mille Lacs.
Note: As I said, I changed my tune later. Here is my column that was published on the morning of Saturday, February 9, 2008 by the Minnesota Star Tribune. That night, we staged our first Theater Night at Barnacles Resort and Campground on the north shore of Lake Mille Lacs.

The Freedom to Act Act

This spring the Legislature will review the Freedom to Breathe Act that swatted smokers out of warm Minnesota bars and onto freezing sidewalks. There smokers huddle and, hands shaking, try to light up a smoke.

Meanwhile, the hands of small bar owners are shaking for different reasons. They worry over their balance sheets, awash in red ink, and lay off their part-time help. As the nation slides into recession, things can only get worse.

It's a cliché that the backbone of our economy is the small business owner, but not in Greater Minnesota where small business might be the only employer in town. So shouldn't small business owners get a financial hardship exception if they've been hurt by the smoking ban?

That very question was asked last spring when the Legislature was lobbied to provide just such an exception. But the Legislature said no. After all, there should be no exceptions when it comes to the public health. Right?
Not quite. In fact, our legislators carved out exceptions for scientific study participants, Native Americans, tobacconists, truckers, farmers, actors and actresses and … wait! What was that last one?

That's right. When the smoking ban was debated, some theatre-going, latte-drinking, Volvo-driving legislators got their undies all in a bundle that a few performers might not be allowed to smoke cigarettes on stage. Really. They worried that performers might have to suck on straws or pencils or – you know – "act" like they were smoking. Heavens! Whatever would become of the Thee-A-Tuh?

Not to worry. Our pink-lunged legislators quietly slipped in an exception for "theatrical productions" so that actors and actresses could puff away onstage and the delicate flower of artistic expression could more fully flourish in the North Star State.

But in their haste they forgot to define where "theatrical productions" could be performed. And they forgot the words of the Bard, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players". If we have Shakespeare in the park, can't we have Shakespeare in the bar?
See, the Act prohibits smoking in a bar but not in a "theatrical production". In a bar, you get a $300 ticket but in a "theatrical production" you get applause and accolades. So if you're a bar owner and don a beret, declare your bar a stage, hand out scripts and direct your patrons – ahem – performers to fire up some heaters, then you've got a bona fide "theatrical production" going on. The acting might not be so good, but the smoking will be sheer bliss – and legal to boot. There really is no business like show business.
There's also no business like criminal defense. Any Barney Fife cop who writes a ticket against an owner/director or patron/performer will quickly find himself performing – and badly – in court. What? Will he suddenly become a theatre critic and render his opinion on the quality of the script, the pathos of the performance or the layout of the set design? Ha! That trial would be a theatrical production in itself.
Our shameless legislators favored the artistic integrity of a few theatre owners over the blue-collar work ethic of a few thousand small bar owners. But our bar owners don't have to take it any longer. If they want, they can put on their very own "Theatre Nights", set up "Acting" and "No Acting" sections, notify patrons that there will be some smoking during the performance and defy the government to define Art.
It ain't the Freedom to Breathe Act; it's the Freedom to Act Act. If you're a small bar owner, you can save your business by handing out scripts and cigs and telling your patrons to break a leg. Their performances might not win them any Tony awards, but your business will never be better. And until our legislators write a hardship exception into the smoking ban, well, they have a saying in the Performing Arts: "The show must go on."

Mark W. Benjamin, a non-smoker, is an attorney in Cambridge, Minnesota.
Note: With election season coming on, I noticed that the residents of Colorado were going to vote on a constitutional referendum to define life as beginning from the moment of conception. I thought I should write about the legal ramifications that would come out of such an amendment. Turns out that the voters in Colorado didn't want the amendment and voted it down by almost 3 to 1.

"Let My People Grow"

My friends Bob and Carol live in Colorado. They are conservative Republicans, devout Catholics, ardent pro-lifers and proud parents of seven children – well, only one really. The other six are literally on ice.

Bob and Carol had trouble getting pregnant and so several years ago they tried in vitro fertilization. With the help of their doctor, they were able to harvest and fertilize seven eggs. They implanted one and froze the rest. They say they might implant another … someday. While they dawdle, do their six fertilized eggs have any rights?

John McCain thinks so. Recently, he was asked, "At what point is a baby entitled to human rights?" With absolute certitude he responded, "At the moment of conception."
Some people in Colorado agree. They're tired of waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade – the 1973 case that legalized abortion. And so this fall voters will decide whether to amend their state constitution to define all fertilized eggs as persons entitled to "inalienable rights, equality of justice, and due process of law". Kristi Burton, the author of the amendment, is confident it will pass because "God is on our side".
Maybe so, but the devil is in the details. For instance, what should Colorado say about Bob and Carol's fertilized eggs? Under the amendment, each one would be considered a moment-of-conception human being – just as deserving of Colorado's protection as a full-term baby. Is each egg entitled to implantation? To develop? To grow?
It's not hard to imagine. Child protective services regularly files child neglect cases against parents when their children fail to develop or grow with their peers. Could my friends be charged with neglecting their other six children? Are the other six deserving of implantation – one at a time, if necessary – and the chance to live a normal life?

Colorado also intervenes when children are raised in an unsafe environment. Good parents don't expose children to alcohol, second-hand smoke or other avoidable dangers in their home. What would the new rules be for Carol's womb?
Could Carol ask her doctor to refer her for an abortion in another state? As a mandatory reporter, her doctor would have to contact the authorities that Carol was contemplating travelling across state lines to murder her unborn child. That would be true for psychologists, teachers and, yes, even ministers.

Indeed, under existing law, if Carol threatened harm to herself or others – the "other" in this case being her unborn child – she would most likely be committed to a mental health care facility until she no longer posed such a threat. Would Colorado have to lock her up until she delivered her baby? Would Bob and Carol be allowed to take their baby home after Carol considered its murder?
If Colorado voters pass this amendment, full-term babies and day-old fertilized eggs will be legally indistinguishable. Thus, these questions will be asked. The answers are not pretty, but they are entirely predictable. If this becomes national policy, then the questions and answers will be multiplied by 400,000. That's how many frozen, fertilized eggs are estimated to exist in America.
After stating that life begins at conception, Senator McCain declared, "I have a 25- year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate. And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president. And this presidency will have pro-life policies. That's my commitment. That's my commitment to you."

I wonder if Bob and Carol – and the rest of us – are ready for that kind of commitment.

Mark W. Benjamin is your friendly, neighborhood criminal defense attorney who loves America.