Hazardous tank cars still ride crowded rails
The Sun's editors commendably fight to save Amtrak from the usual Bush administration budget slashes ("Missing the train," editorial, Feb. 25).
And the editorial is right to mention Amtrak's "modest" new armed police force effort to prevent the kinds of terrorist attacks that have already happened - bombings like those that killed 52 passengers in London and 192 in Madrid.
But Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. vividly identified a few years ago the greatest single security vulnerability for Amtrak.
He rides Amtrak home nightly from Washington through Baltimore to Delaware, and says he regularly sees enormous chlorine and other poison gas and explosive tank cars traveling or parked on nearby parallel tracks.
He sponsored a bill in Congress to force a rerouting of the most dangerous railcar chemical shipments. But White House and railroad pressure forced a compromise that has left the railroads in sole charge of route selection.
So the well-intentioned new routing law won't protect Baltimore anytime soon, if ever.
And in the event of a massive toxic gas release from even one tank car, which the U.S. Naval Research Lab has estimated could kill 100,000 people in a half-hour in a crowded city, the only relevant question for the small Amtrak police force and for Amtrak passengers and citizens engulfed in the gas cloud is how fast and how far they can all run for their lives.
The members of Baltimore's City Council should wear tennis shoes daily and also insist that CSX reroute dangerous trains immediately.
The writer is a consultant on homeland security for Friends of the Earth.
Recordings the key piece of evidence
I believe reporter Matthew Dolan's account of the role of informants in the criminal justice system was incomplete and misleading ("Telling Tales," March 2).
I base my opinion on 25 years of experience as an FBI special agent assigned to Baltimore.
While with the FBI, I made frequent use of informants to investigate cases involving illegal drug organizations, attorneys involved in money laundering, public corruption and bank fraud.
In each and every investigation, I used informants equipped with voice recorders. The recordings of conversations with the target of the criminal investigation they made became the key piece of evidence in the case, not the testimony of the informant.
The criminals could be relied upon to boast about their criminal activity in their own voice, discussing how they committed or intended to commit a crime.
Mr. Dolan's article also omits the many ways that law enforcement officers add to the recorded evidence.
But informants' testimony and voice recordings are buttressed by additional witnesses and law enforcement interviews of the criminal targets. Other evidence can include information obtained by surveillance and searches of the target of the investigation's person, home and other locations.
I agree the informant is critical in obtaining the criminal target's incriminating conversations. But the recordings of the conversations are generally more important evidence than the informant's testimony.
Treaty underscores religious neutrality
The Sun's editorial notebook "Got religion?" (March 1) mentioned that Sen. John McCain, now in his fourth six-year term as a U.S. senator, is among the 55 percent of Americans who believe that "the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation," according to a poll.
As the editorial notes, the Constitution does no such thing.
The pertinent language of the Constitution, in the First Amendment, states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
In 1797, the Senate unanimously ratified, and President John Adams endorsed, the Treaty of Tripoli.
Consistent with the First Amendment, Article 11 of that treaty explicitly stated that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion."
That is critical because Article VI of the Constitution specifies that "all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land."
To my knowledge, no treaty, constitutional amendment or legislation has been enacted subsequently that repeals, contravenes or modifies Article 11 of that treaty.
Marriage bill boosts tradition of fairness
Maryland lawmakers are now considering the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act ("A new tack for gay rights," March 6).
This bill aims to balance the interests of our communities of faith with the rights of gays and lesbians.
The bill affirms that no religious group or official would be required to perform or recognize same-sex marriages.
If a church does not want to perform a marriage ceremony for a same-sex couple or allow gay people to become ministers, this bill would not change its ability to act that way.
This bill simply says that marriage licenses cannot be denied to gay and lesbian couples.
Our government has created a system in which some heterosexual couples are granted hundreds of state-level protections and responsibilities. This is done to help strengthen their families and help them raise their children.
These same protections must be extended to the thousands of gays and lesbians in Maryland who are also making their lives and raising families in our great state.
This issue is about civil rights.
Maryland has been a leader on many issues of fairness in employment and other equality issues.
There will always be people who oppose equal marriage rights, just as there were people who once did not think that interracial couples should be allowed to marry.
But the Assembly should honor Maryland's history of fairness and justice by supporting this important legislation.
Tech tax helps meet state's fiscal needs
In its November special session, the General Assembly applied the state's 6 percent sales tax to computer services.
Members of the state's technology business sector are now pushing hard for the tax to be repealed ("Tech tax will cost state jobs, revenue," letters, March 1). The Assembly should stand firm and retain the tax.
The main focus of our state's economy has shifted from goods to services. But our tax laws are still based on the old goods-based economy.
The revenues from the sales tax go mostly to help pay for health and education. These are important public functions with growing unmet needs.
The state cannot ignore these escalating needs in its budget, and it cannot ignore this large and growing business sector in its tax base.
Computer services tax opponents say the tax will cause technology jobs to stream out of state. I don't believe it. Businesses are here to take advantage of Maryland's well-educated work force, to be close to federal government agencies or to be close to other customers. A 6 percent tax is not going to outweigh those advantages in very many cases.
The main problem with the computer services sales tax is that it singled out just one sector to add to the list of services currently subject to the sales tax.
In the future, the state should move to include a broad range of services in the sales tax. This could perhaps be packaged with a reduction in the overall sales tax rate.
In the meantime, the Assembly should not take a step backward.
Neil L. Bergsman
The writer is director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute.
Expectant elephant may need new name
So Felix the elephant is having a baby ("Zoo expecting big day," March 6)?
Can we change her name to Felicity now?