Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Rockwell's resurgence," Nov. 24, 2001

AT LEAST IT WASN'T TERRORISM: JUMBO JET'S APPARENT MECHANICAL FAILURE ENDS IN FIREBALL OVER QUEENS
Oh, no...not again
Holidays aren't supposed to start like this. Explosions. Screams. Burning shrapnel raining from the sky. Houses bursting into flames. But this was Veterans Day 2001-two months and a day after the World Trade Center attacks-and grim-faced newscasters seemed ready to chalk it up to the "new normal." For the first few hours after American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into a Queens, N.Y., neighborhood, people across the country sat glued to their televisions. With some 4,000 planes in the air at that moment, the question in the back of every mind was: How many more flights would come crashing down before the day was over? In battle-scarred New York, officials weren't waiting to find out. They closed the city's airports and bridges, locked down the United Nations, and evacuated the Empire State Building. President Bush, meanwhile, canceled a meeting on the war in Afghanistan to focus on the possibility of a new war in the homeland. As the hours dragged into days, however, investigators began to suspect that Flight 587 had died of natural causes rather than a terrorist bomb. The twin engines of the Airbus 300 were found separated from the fuselage, one in a gas station parking lot, the other in someone's backyard. That suggested to experts that at least one engine had exploded upon takeoff from nearby JFK Airport, slicing through crucial hydraulic lines and rendering the plane uncontrollable. All 260 passengers and crew were killed, according to the airline. About 90 percent of the victims were Dominicans; the daily shuttle to Santo Domingo is popular with New York's large immigrant population from the Dominican Republic. A half-dozen people on the ground were also reported missing, though that number would surely have been higher had the plane not crashed nearly intact. Investigators said the small "footprint" of the wreckage was another indication that no bomb had ripped the plane apart in mid-air. Officials cautioned that the investigation would likely drag on for weeks. But in a nation turned upside-down by the events of Sept. 11, no news could only be good news: Mechanical failure takes longer to prove than sabotage. INTERNET BOOSTS U.S. TROOP MORALE, BUT ALSO CARRIES ENEMY PROPAGANDA
War in the Net era
Stationed aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Seaman Nick Urbas spends part of his scarce free time checking his e-mail in the ship's library. "I've got a girl back home and I can keep in touch with her," said the 19-year-old weapons specialist. The war against terrorism is the first major war fought after the Internet boom, and all sides are using e-mail to try to gain psychological advantages. Many in the U.S. military believe e-mail is especially good for boosting spirits when troops are shipped overseas. America's opponents are also taking notice of e-mail. Hundreds of Iranians have used a computer facility located at the former U.S. embassy to fire off angry messages to American leaders. "When we chant 'Death to America!' there is a deep reason, going back many decades, for that," said Masoud Lotfi, who helped set up the facility. "Americans need to hear this voice." While Iranians currently have unrestricted Internet access, the country's leaders said earlier this month that all service providers not run by the government must shut down within six months. Meanwhile, terrorism experts believe the al-Qaeda network and other Islamic extremists use e-mail as a communications tool. BEYOND AFGHANISTAN: EXPERT SAYS LEBANON SHOULD PAY A HIGH PRICE
Tip of the terrorist iceberg
Resistance to the Bush administration's campaign against terror doesn't have to be large to be significant. After the United States added Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organizations earlier this month, tiny Lebanon and Syria, the group's chief sponsors, refused to get on board. Expert Walid Phares says the refusal of his homeland to cooperate in a crackdown on Hezbollah should prompt military action. The 43-year-old survivor of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, who now teaches at Florida Atlantic University, told WORLD that Lebanon-controlled by the Syrian government since 1990-is "the nest of terrorism." He said, "The sophistication of the infrastructure of the terrorists in Lebanon is by far exceeding all imagined platforms and groups in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the tip of an iceberg, but the depths of the iceberg are found basically in Lebanon, but also probably in Sudan." Hezbollah is known to have participated in past attacks against the United States, and there is growing evidence of a connection to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, including the testimony of Ali A. Mohamed, who confessed to the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya. The United States, Mr. Phares said, should pressure Syria to "either save its own regime" or face military reprisal. And U.S. diplomats still need to learn it's not possible, he said, to "have the whole Arab world with you." -by Kim Andrews, WORLD Journalism Institute student KABUL FALLS, AS TALIBAN ABANDON PRISONS BUT FLEE WITH WESTERN AID WORKERS; CONCERNS RISE THAT BIN LADEN MAY HAVE NUCLEAR WEAPONS
First of many milestones
Under cloak of darkness, Taliban soldiers loaded eight jailed Christian aid workers into a black four-wheel-drive vehicle and whisked them out of Kabul. Guards posted at the abandoned jail for Western relief workers, who include two American women, said the prisoners were taken to Kandahar, a remaining Taliban stronghold. Whether they were to be held as hostages or released was unknown. It was the first sign that the Taliban forces, long allied with terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, were in retreat. Overnight Nov. 13 they fled the Afghan capital, leaving it to the opposition Northern Alliance. In Afghanistan's long civil war, Alliance fighters in recent years have not controlled more than 20 percent of the country; that is, until five weeks of punishing aerial bombardments from the United States undid Taliban resistance. But the Taliban defeat in Kabul did not prompt unambiguous cheers from the Pentagon. U.S. commanders had asked anti-Taliban fighters not to take the capital until a coalition government for Afghanistan was in place. The chaos prompted calls for a UN peacekeeping force. Afghan exiles aren't necessarily happy with the Northern Alliance, either. Pentagon officials stress that the Taliban retreat is but one milestone in a campaign with many miles to go. "This effort against terrorism and terrorists is far from over," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "The war is not about one man or one terrorist network or even one country." Pentagon strategists have in their sights more than conventional warfare. When Osama bin Laden told a sympathetic reporter from Pakistan his organization "may retort with chemical and nuclear weapons," it was not news to U.S. officials. Intelligence sources have reportedly been tracking bin Laden claims to possessing chemical and nuclear agents, once dismissed but no longer taken lightly. Under pre-9/11 security, investigators believe crude chemical weapons or nuclear material sufficient to produce a low-level radiological burst could have been smuggled into the United States, enough to produce devastating results in a 5-10 mile radius. Last month, U.S. investigators questioned two retired nuclear scientists who admitted that they met Mr. bin Laden at least twice this year. The scientists left senior positions at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission about two years ago to establish a relief organization in Afghanistan. They said they discussed with Mr. bin Laden construction of a flour mill. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf claims he is taking no chances; he ordered an emergency redeployment of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal to secret new locations and reorganized military oversight of nuclear forces beginning two days after the Sept. 11 attacks. But that could be too late. One military analyst told WORLD that U.S. officials have worried over nuclear material in Central Asia going astray since the breakup of the Soviet Union. With nuclear technology now 50 years old, and political instability across the region, it's clearly logical the world's most harmful weapons could fall into the wrong hands. COMMUNICATOR-IN-CHIEF: BUSH SHINES IN THE PUBLIC PART OF THE PRESIDENCY
War of words
President Bush is acquiring the ability to inspire. He exudes strength, confidence and, to use a biblical term, righteousness. These are essential qualities for a leader who wants to strengthen the nation's resolve and convince us the war against terrorism will not be over soon, if ever. In a speech to the nation from Atlanta on Nov. 8-interrupted 36 times by genuine and heartfelt applause (compared to the theatrics that often characterize a presidential address before Congress)-the president used an old rhetorical device to contrast American values (good, right, and moral) with the values of terrorists (bad, evil, and uncivil). "We wage a war to save civilization itself," said President Bush. Who among us believes he is exaggerating given the stated, and demonstrated, nature of the threat? Mixing down-home language ("When the terrorists and their supporters are gone, the people of Afghanistan will say with the rest of the world, 'Good riddance'") with steely resolve ("Where terrorist groups exist of global reach, the United States and our friends and allies will seek it out and we will destroy it"), Mr. Bush projected credibility. It was a nice touch to deliver the speech outside of Washington because it conveyed a sense that the president was coming to the people to ask them to do something for the country, which is what he did. Again and again, Mr. Bush invoked the memory of the dead New York City police and firefighters and the civilian heroes who gave their lives for their country by taking back Flight 93 from hijackers over Pennsylvania, preventing even more deaths. "One way to defeat terrorism is to show the world the true values of America through the gathering momentum of a million acts of responsibility and decency and service," Bush challenged Americans. "Ours is a great story and we must tell it through our words and through our deeds." In any war, visible success and maintaining resolve are key. The raids on money transfer and money laundering operations with alleged connections to al-Qaeda are a good start. According to the president and the attorney general, we have just begun to fight. That's inspiring. -Cal Thomas © 2001 Tribune Media Services, Inc. ARE REPUBLICANS MISSING-IN-ACTION ON THE CULTURE WAR?
One-track minds
With Republicans focused on the war against terrorism, vigilance on social issues continues to slip. In rushing appropriations bills to the president's desk, the Senate approved-with only token opposition-the District of Columbia appropriations bill that contains a provision high on the gay-rights wish list. The nation's capital now has the blessing of Congress to implement a domestic-partners law for same-sex or unmarried city government workers. Because D.C. is a federal district, Congress controls its budget and sets policy. House conservatives failed in late September to uphold the domestic-partnership ban-which survived even the Clinton administration-when 41 Republicans broke ranks. On a near-party-line vote, the Senate also permitted the city to use local money for needle-exchange programs for drug addicts as an AIDS-fighting measure. That prompted the Bush administration to express disappointment, but officials were mum on the domestic-partner policy. Log Cabin Republican spokesman Kevin Ivers praised the GOP leadership "for stepping away from this issue at such a critical moment for the District of Columbia in its recovery from the impact of terrorism." Bob Knight of the Culture and Family Institute called the vote another example of social liberals "going full tilt with their agenda, while pro-family legislators are busy shoring up America's defenses. They need to shore up America's defense of the family as well." FACING "UNPRECEDENTED" DISSENT, SALVATION ARMY REVERSES DOMESTIC-PARTNER POLICIES, WILL FORFEIT TAXPAYER FUNDING
'We were listening'
In an urgent four-hour conference call on Nov. 12, the Salvation Army's five-member national policy-making group nullified its Western branch's week-old decision to extend employee benefits to "domestic partners." The leadership group-"commissioners" composed of the Army's four territorial branch commanders and National Commander John Busby-in October said each territory could decide its own employee-benefits policy. It was a bid to allow the 13-state Western branch to compete once again for millions of dollars of grant money for social-service projects. San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other Western cities had passed pro-homosexual laws requiring grant recipients to include domestic partners in benefits plans. But after the Western territory announced it would comply with these laws to win back taxpayer funding, a firestorm of protests erupted, both within the Army's ranks and among the greater evangelical community. Veteran Salvationists told WORLD the public dissent among the Army's some 5,000 clergy was "unprecedented." They questioned why the commissioners had not consulted their clergy first. The commissioners in their about-face made employee benefits a matter of national policy again: "We will not sign any government contract or any other funding contracts that contain domestic-partner benefit requirements." Army spokeswoman Teresa Whitfield confirmed a barrage of protest had hit headquarters. The reversal, she told WORLD, "shows we were listening." Health officials: Government could contain a smallpox outbreak
Smallpox bark worse than its bite?
Erceline Bailey isn't afraid of smallpox. That's because she's already had it. In 1930, Mrs. Bailey, now 79 and living in Crosset, Ark., was a girl of 8 growing up near the town of Sterling, Okla. In the spring of that year, Mrs. Bailey's grandfather became ill-horribly weak and drained, worse than any flu. By the time the local doctor made his diagnosis, Mrs. Bailey and two of her brothers, ages 5 and 10, had come down with what was ailing their grandfather: smallpox. "I remember it so plain ... being so weak and so sick," Mrs. Bailey said of the disease that she, her brothers, and her grandfather survived. "I remember the fever making me talk out of my head, telling mom to tell the neighbors to quit punching holes in the gate." Mrs. Bailey also remembers thick sores covering her body, sores that left no scars: "They weren't anything like the pictures I see on TV now." There's a lot on TV now that doesn't resemble what Mrs. Bailey and health care professionals old enough to remember smallpox and its effects know about the disease. The recent anthrax scares have politicians and pundits speculating about other potential bioagents, and smallpox tops the list. Such speculation has spawned concerns about smallpox's "1 in 3" death rate and fears of a national vaccine "shortage." But medical and bioterror experts say the current vaccine supply, along with standard public-health disease-containment procedures, are adequate to contain a smallpox outbreak in this country. They also say that during smallpox's two-decade public absence, its legend has overshadowed an important fact: It is a very survivable disease. "A lot of people forget that smallpox was a naturally occurring disease even in the U.S.," said Charles Bailey, Mrs. Bailey's son and former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the Army's anti-bioterror program. "Even years ago when the disease was fairly common and medical technology was not what we have today, the mortality rate was about 30 percent. Today, it would not be nearly that high." Not to minimize the seriousness of the disease: In 1967, smallpox was endemic in 31 countries. Even then, though, the mortality rate was between 13 and 20 percent, according to the Lasker Foundation, a well-known medical research trust. And that data is heavily weighted with statistics from third-world countries where little or no public-health-care infrastructure exists, said Allen Beck, a veteran emergency medicine specialist. Thus, the often cited "1 in 3" smallpox death rate may be misleading when applied to the United States. The threat of weaponized smallpox remains real, however. During the cold war, the U.S. and Soviet governments acknowledged they had retained live cultures of the pathogen, and U.S. officials speculate that thousands of Soviet bioweapons scientists may be at work in rogue countries such as Iraq and Libya. Still, Drs. Beck and Bailey agree that public-health officials could halt the effects of a terrorist smallpox strike with standard epidemiological protocols. More than 12 million vaccine doses exist in the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile, the CDC told WORLD. The U.S. government has taken applications from 10 drug companies to begin producing 250 million additional doses. The most prudent reaction among citizens in the event of an actual smallpox outbreak, Dr. Bailey said, would be to consult a family physician and seek guidance in regard to vaccination. Unless an outbreak occurs near your immediate area, extreme measures such as self-quarantining are "completely unnecessary," said Dr. Bailey. Inquiring readers:
North's warning
Did Oliver North warn America about Osama bin Laden during the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings? That's what several WORLD readers wondered after reading a widely circulated Internet story about Mr. North justifying his unlawfully purchased home-security system with terrorist threats by Mr. bin Laden. According to the story, Mr. North told an unnamed senator that Mr. bin Laden had threatened his and his family's lives, and that Mr. bin Laden was "the most evil person alive" and "an assassin team [should be] formed to eliminate him and his men from the face of the earth." Of course, Mr. bin Laden would have been 29 years old at the time-pretty young for a nefarious international terrorist leader. So we checked the transcripts and found that the terrorist Mr. North actually cited in his testimony was Abu Nidal. When committee counsel John Nields questioned Mr. North about his $14,000 personal-security system, Mr. North said, "The issue of the security system was first broached immediately after a threat on my life by Abu Nidal. Abu Nidal is, as I'm sure you and the Intelligence Committees know, the principal foremost assassin in the world today. He is a brutal murderer." New Governor backs edison schools
Philly failure
Teachers unions and liberal politicians are screaming in Philadelphia, so something positive may be happening in the city of brotherly love. Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker last week announced a plan to privatize the Philadelphia school district, the nation's seventh largest. Mr. Schweiker, the former lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, took over the state's reins when President Bush tapped his predecessor Tom Ridge to head the new office of homeland security following the 9/11 attacks. Under Mr. Schweiker's plan, his state would pay Edison Schools, Inc., a for-profit school-management company, about $40 million per year to manage the district. The firm would also run 45 of the city's 60 worst-performing schools, with the other 15 managed by private companies in consultation with community groups. Edison already runs 136 schools across the nation, posting positive academic gains at 84 percent of them and reducing failure rates by an average of 9 percentage points per school. The Philadelphia contract would be the firm's largest to date. Philly mayor John Street slammed Gov. Schweiker's privatization plan, calling it "fantasyland." Reporters generally lined up behind him, giving prominence to anti-Edison educators such as one elementary-school principal who grumbled, "the [Edison] cure may worse than the disease." That would be a stretch: The city's school system operates with a $216 million budget deficit, with chronic teacher shortages. Test scores at William B. Mann Elementary School typify district performance: 71 percent of fourth-graders lack basic math skills, while 45 percent read poorly or can't read at all. Think tank: Unemployment rate remains historically low
Still on the job
The jobless picture may not be as bad as it looks at first glance. October's labor numbers-including a half-percent spike in jobless claims, the worst single-month jump in 15 years-precipitated a downpour of bad economic news. But glowering headlines obscured several employment bright spots, according to the Employment Policy Foundation (EPF), a conservative policy group in Washington. For example, the October unemployment rate of 5.4 percent is still lower than the average rate for the 1970s (6.3 percent), 1980s (7.1 percent), and 1990s (5.6 percent). In addition, the median duration of unemployment at 7.4 weeks remains low compared to the nine-plus week average that characterized the early 1990s, when the country experienced its last full-blown recession. And at 11.4 percent, the proportion of unemployed workers who were jobless for more than 26 weeks remained relatively unchanged over September's mark of 11.3 percent. Still, EPF president Ed Potter said last month's numbers showed the impact of the 9/11 terror attacks on an economy that had seemed poised to rebound: "The terrorist attacks have disrupted normal economic activity and shaken consumer confidence. A recession now seems inevitable." Medical groups protest "lower-carcinogen" smokes
Taste over toxins?
As two tobacco companies roll out new "lower-carcinogen" cigarettes, at least two medical groups are fuming. Brown & Williamson, the company behind Kool and Lucky Strike, last month began test-marketing Advance Lights, a cigarette the firm touts as having "all of the taste, less of the toxins." Meanwhile, a double-page ad in this month's issue of People hawks Vector Group's new Omni cigarette brand: "The ... medical community has identified specific carcinogens that are a major cause of lung cancer in smokers. In a groundbreaking move, we have reduced many of these." The American Medical Association, fired up over such claims, fired back, saying that "no scientific data exist to support Vector's implication that an Omni cigarette smoker is less likely to develop lung cancer than a smoker of conventional cigarettes." American Heart Association chief M. Cass Wheeler said Advance Lights "provide new smokers with a false sense of security." The tobacco industry itself is healthier than it was last year, despite massive class-action settlements. While the industry suffers an average 2 percent annual reduction in U.S. demand for cigarettes, overseas sales are sizzling. Last year, consumers worldwide purchased more than 5 trillion cigarettes. TV TRANSSEXUAL: America may now just have to change the channel
Where's the outrage?
CBS this fall quietly opened a new front in the culture war. The network's new show The Education of Max Bickford features a male college professor who obtains a sex-change operation, marking the first time a transsexual character has been a regular on a weekly series. Actress Helen Shaver plays the man/woman. With middling ratings and the public distracted by the war on terrorism, Bickford has attracted scant attention. Yet the show runs at 8 p.m. (Eastern) on Sundays, in what the networks once considered the "family hour." Ms. Shaver's character, named "Erica," took a sabbatical from work for the operation and is an old drinking buddy of the title character, played by Richard Dreyfuss. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation raves about the show and even sent a glossary to journalists, listing the preferred terms for the character. The group endorses the word transgender and says journalists should refer to "Erica" as "she," never "he." Such a milestone comes as more successful shows are running storylines that would have been impossible only a few years ago. ER is highlighting a doctor's lesbianism, while a Friends character is having an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. None of these moves has attracted nearly the protest that the illegitimate pregnancy on Murphy Brown generated a decade ago. Against the economic grain: A Christmas tree sales boom?
Comforting tradition
Even in war-stressed times, one industry expects to deck the halls this winter: The Christmas tree industry projects 2 million more sales this year than last year. If people travel less, officials say, they're more likely to stay at home and buy a tree for the living room. "Typically, the Christmas tree industry weathers those periods well," said Andy Cole, owner of a tree farm near Greenville, Mich. Uncertain times, he says, lure people back to comforting traditions. Jim Corliss, president of the National Christmas Tree Association, predicted that Americans would buy 35 million trees this year. "Tree farmers around the country tell me they are expecting more demand this year," he said. "The Sept. 11 events just make people want to be together, and gathering around a tree is a traditional way of celebrating Christmas." While more Americans may buy fresh-cut pines, they are not likely to buy much else. The retail and travel industries are bracing for disaster, with the economy down and unemployment on the rise. Only 57 percent of consumers plan to spend the same amount for the holidays as they did last year, according to a survey released by the Consumer Federation of America and the Credit Union National Association. Board: Restructure Amtrak
A hobo of a railway
Will Amtrak ever stop railroading taxpayers? After 30 years of operating deficits, America's nationalized railway has gobbled up over $24 billion in taxpayer subsidies. A federal oversight panel this month told Amtrak to develop a plan for liquidation because profitability is nowhere in sight. Back in 1997, Congress gave Amtrak five years-until Dec. 2, 2002-to become self-sufficient. With that goal all but unreachable, the Amtrak Reform Panel voted 6-5 to develop a restructuring plan by February. Amtrak has never been able to compete with airlines and buses or capitalize on popular nostalgia for trains. Even though Amtrak carried a record 22.5 million passengers last year, its finances were so bad last summer that it had to mortgage part of New York's Penn Station. The railroad will receive $521 million in federal tax dollars this fiscal year. At least part of the problem is the railway's politicized structure. Congress, in addition to calling for profitability, also forces Amtrak to serve unprofitable routes. Amtrak President George Warrington says lawmakers should make a choice: Allow the railway to run only profitable routes or continue the subsidies. Amtrak covers 45 states, but its busiest stations are all in the Northeast. The outlook for weaning Amtrak off the federal dole seems dim now, but time may be catching up with the long-struggling railroad.

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