Eric Foner on Presidential Powers

Question: Was Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus an abuse of executive power?

Foner:    Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus a number of times during the Civil War.  And at first in 1861, he suspended it first along the railroad line between New York, Philadelphia and Washington because there were riots going on in Maryland, people trying to block troops coming down to protect Washington.  So, in a sense, at first, it was in a military district and, you know, it was part of a war, you know.  Later, the writ of habeas corpus is suspended for the whole country, and, certainly, there were abuses of civil liberties under Lincoln.  No questions about it.  People arrested who just for giving speeches criticizing the war.  There were newspapers temporarily suspended.  Now, we should not think that Lincoln was a dictator, a tyrant.  There was great criticism all through the war of him and the elections went on.  Nobody said let’s suspend the election because, you know, the war is on.  But, certainly, I think Lincoln established a dangerous precedent that the Constitution doesn’t really apply in war time.  And now, unlike our recent president, Lincoln directly addressed this question.  He went to Congress.  He said, “I may have stepped over the line here.  Here is my problem.  Here is my situation.  I was faced with this thing.  Do I abide by the law and let the whole country fall apart or do I violate this one law and therefore save the whole country?”  Well, that’s a difficult question to answer, you know, and there was no simple answer, but at least Lincoln put it on the agenda.  He said, “This is a serious problem.”  President Bush has never even admitted there’s any kind of problem.  He just [blithely] goes his own way acting as if there is no Constitution.  Now, the other thing is in the Civil War, the United States face the greatest crisis in its history and the greatest threat to its existence as a nation.  The attack of 9/11 was a tragic thing but it didn’t threaten the existence of the United States and there was no thought that Al Qaeda today is actually going to overthrow the government of the United States.  They can commit, you know, heinous acts but they are not going to take over the government.  I don’t think Osama Bin Laden will be president anytime soon.  So, we don’t face the kind of threat to our national existence that Lincoln faced.  On the other hand, history shows that almost any government conducting a war will find the Constitution an inconvenience and will try to get around it, and this has happened during World War I with the suppression of freedom of speech.  It happened in World War II with the internment of Japanese-Americans.  So, you know, what is the lesson?  It simply that we have to be very vigilant about our liberties and that, you know, to realize you can conduct a war and still respect civil liberties.

Question: Would Lincoln endorse Bush’s use of his executive mandate?

Foner:    Lincoln is saying and this is a Democratic view, if people think I have abused my power or I have not conducted the war properly or intelligently, they’ll vote me out of power.  That’s what democracy is.  It gives you a chance to [boot] the guys out.  And Lincoln ran for president, reelection in 1864, and even though he won a very large majority, we should not forget that in August, not long before the election, Lincoln and most politicians thought he was going to lose, that the war was at a stalemate.  There was a great deal of discontent.  Lincoln and the Republican Party thought he was going to lose.  In fact, there were people who came to him and said, “You’ve got to rescind the Emancipation Proclamation.”  People think that it is prolonging the war.  That if you tell the South come back and you can keep slavery, they’ll come back now.  But if you say come back and you’ve got to get rid of slavery, that is just making them fight longer.  So, rescind the Emancipation Proclamation.  Lincoln said, “I cannot do that, I would be damned in time and eternity,” or something like that.  In other words, you know, he wasn’t willing to do “anything that might be done to get reelected.”  The problem with Lincoln’s quote though is that in the midst of a war, it often is quite popular to trample on civil liberties.  You know, many of the things that President Bush has done that have popular support rounding up people with Muslim names, [chucking] them into jail with no charge, throwing away the key, holding people at Guantanamo.  You know, when people are frightened, they are willing to support serious infringements on other people’s civil liberties.  Civil liberties are not supposed to be subject to popular vote.  They are in the Constitution.  They are the protection of minorities.  The person who holds popular views, his freedom of speech is never in question.  It’s the person who is the [center] who has unpopular views.  So, you don’t put that up to unpopular vote to say, well, should this guy be able to give a speech criticizing the war.  A lot of people will say no, you shouldn’t.  So, you know, Lincoln’s view of democracy in a certain sense is right, but on the other hand, it doesn’t really reflect the fact that civil liberties are the protection of minorities against majorities, and, therefore, they can’t be just subjected to majority vote.

The author characterizes Lincoln as a president who was unafraid to


suspend some basic rights for the betterment of the union

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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

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  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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Meanwhile, Spaniards are the least likely to say their culture is superior to others.

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  • Survey by Pew Research Center shows great variation in chauvinism across Europe.
  • Eight most chauvinist countries are in the east, and include Russia.
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A 'vampire' fungus has killed millions of bats since 2006. Here's why it matters.

White-nose syndrome is nearly as lethal to bats as the Black Plague was for humans.

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  • Bats serve a crucial role in our ecosystem and economy, and white-nose syndrome is already pushing many species to the brink of extinction.
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