Artists learn early to pay attention to negative space, while journalists know to dread it. What's to say about the news that did not happen? Yet in August the biggest stories were those that failed to come true-beginning with the plot to blow up transatlantic flights to the United States and ending with (and possibly linked to) the prediction that Iran would launch a strike against the West, most likely Jerusalem, on Aug. 22.
Muslims and non-Muslims alike gazed into the stars on the night of Aug. 21 following a threat from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to "light up the heavens in answer to the UN"-his response to a Security Council deadline for Iran to comply with international demands to end its uranium enrichment program. Even the very conventional Princeton Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis took Ahmadinejad's words as a threat-pointing out that Aug. 22 corresponds with the Islamic calendar date when Muslims celebrate the night flight of the prophet Muhammad on a winged horse to "the farthest mosque"-a reference to Jerusalem-where a divine white light would spread from there to cover the whole world. In an Aug. 8 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mr. Lewis noted, "This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world."
If the threat of a nuclear catastrophe failed to materialize by Aug. 22, Ahmadinejad, the blacksmith's son with a Ph.D. in transportation engineering, did manage to demonstrate his capacity for driving the world in vicious circles. The former mayor of Tehran is, after all, building a boulevard in the capital for the purpose of welcoming the mysterious and messiah-like 12th Imam, who will usher in the end of the world.
So it bordered on logical that Iran launched large-scale land, air, and sea military exercises involving over 120,000 soldiers just days prior to its self-imposed deadline. And in the early morning hours of Aug. 22, Iranian warships opened fire on a Romanian oil rig off the coast of Iran, boarded it, and seized it, holding 27 workers for several hours.
As Wall Street analysts tried to get ahead of the doomsday curve by predicting a downturn in stock markets, the Rapture Index, a "Dow Jones Industrial Average of end-time activity" managed by Are You Rapture Ready? co-author Todd Strandberg, spiked at 158 (145 on the index is the threshold signaling that rapture may be imminent).
The Iranian response to the UN, then, on Aug. 22 had perhaps the desired effect of sucking wind out of all the hyperventilation: Top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said Tehran is prepared "to enter serious negotiations" about its nuclear program while at the same time he rejected calls to suspend "nuclear activities."
Middle East expert Walid Phares called that ambiguous salvo part of Iran's two-track strategy. "Iran's foreign minister and others are buying as much time as possible with the international community," he said, "while real assembly and building up of the technology continues." Mr. Phares, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, believes the Iranians "are way more advanced than we know when it comes to what they are doing on uranium enrichment." The United States and its allies, without nuclear inspections in place, are "completely blind on the situation."
Mr. Phares, born in Lebanon and educated in Beirut's Jesuit universities, said he was not surprised Aug. 22 passed without catastrophe. "That date had theological value but there are many other dates with that value in the Shia and Sunni communities in the Middle East. These are not dates calling for action, these are actions calling for dates."
Westerners, Phares said, "are stunned always with dates of revelation in general. Muslims know that Ahmadinejad is hiding an agenda that has nothing to do with theology. If he has something to show, yes, he will wait for a date and it will be a highly significant date to appeal to his own constituents."
And almost on cue, observers pointed out that the weeks following Aug. 22 are significant this year, too. "Every 400 years the crescent [new moon] and Mars line up together to create the Muslim flag and this year this will take place in the last two weeks of August," said Kamal Saleem, a former PLO fighter from Lebanon. Signs and wonders aren't over.
Eleven suspects charged in a terror plot to blow up transatlantic airliners using liquid explosives appeared before a British court for the first time on Aug. 22. Eight men are accused of conspiracy to murder and preparing to commit terrorism. Three others-including the mother of an 8-month-old-are charged with lesser offenses, including failing to disclose information.
Documentation presented in the courtroom gave a glimpse of the months of surveillance the suspects underwent before most were arrested on Aug. 10. Since then, London's anti-terrorism police chief Peter Clarke said, police have searched "69 houses, flats and business premises, vehicles and open spaces" and recovered 400 computers, 200 cellphones and 8,000 data storage devices such as memory sticks and DVDs.
Former New York U.S. attorney Mary Jo White, who prosecuted a similar plot to attack planes flying over the Pacific in 1995, said the plan "has all the earmarks of an al-Qaeda plot."
An unknown militant group demanded the release of Muslim prisoners in U.S. jails within 72 hours in exchange for two kidnapped Fox News journalists, who were shown sitting cross-legged and barefoot on the floor in a video released Aug. 23.
The video, which broke 10 days of silence from the kidnappers, marked the first time militants in Gaza have issued demands going beyond the conflict with Israel. The footage lacked the hallmarks of locally produced videos, such as flags or masked gunmen, raising the likelihood that foreign extremists have taken root in Gaza in the aftermath of Israel's withdrawal one year ago.
In the footage correspondent Steve Centanni, 60, of Washington, D.C., and cameraman Olaf Wiig, 36, of New Zealand, shown for the first time since they were abducted Aug. 14, said they were being treated well by militants, who called themselves the Holy Jihad Brigades.
European foreign ministers set a Sept. 1 deadline to put in place an international force to police the ceasefire at the Israel-Lebanon border. Pressure grew for France to increase its commitment of 200 soldiers and for Italy to take a stronger role after Israel rejected offers of participation from Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia-predominantly Muslim countries that do not recognize the Jewish state.
The FDA on Aug. 24 gave its approval for over-the-counter sales of Plan B, the controversial "morning-after pill" that previously required a prescription. A prescription is still necessary for women under 18, but pro-family groups, expressing outrage at President Bush's support for the new policy, argued that the FDA would not be able to enforce that rule. "It's just irresponsible for the FDA not to see that," said Carrie Gordon Earll, senior analyst for bioethics at Focus on the Family Action. "What this is going to do, very likely, is give a free pass to older men who want to prey on younger girls for sexual behavior. Plan B, in essence, becomes a free ticket to prey on teenage girls."
Executives at Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts biotech firm, say they've found a new way to obtain embryonic stem cells for research that does not destroy embryos. The company announced last week that it had developed a method to remove a single cell from an embryo and use that cell to develop stem-cell lines.
Pro-life bioethicists immediately raised concerns about the safety of the procedure for the embryo and also about the in vitro fertilization process to produce the embryo. Obtaining the cells without destroying the particular embryo "probably makes it a little less objectionable," David Stevens of the Christian Medical Association told the San Francisco Chronicle, "but you've already got a morally questionable act that begins this process."
And then there were eight. Astronomers meeting in Prague voted Aug. 24 to strip Pluto of its status as a planet. About 2,500 experts were in Prague for the International Astronomical Union's (IAU) landmark decision, which came after a stormy debate in which scientists had to choose between demoting the outermost planet in the solar system to dwarf planet status or adding three new planets. Pluto has been considered a planet since its discovery in 1930 by the American Clyde Tombaugh but will now be erased from school and university textbooks.
Man Knows Not His Time
Photographer Joe Rosenthal, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his immortal image of six World War II servicemen raising an American flag over battle-scarred Iwo Jima, died Aug. 20 at 94. The photo, taken for the Associated Press on Feb. 23, 1945, became the model for the Iwo Jima Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington and has become a symbol of U.S. military sacrifice everywhere.
The photo actually shows the second raising of the flag that day on Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi as Marines fought the Japanese on the strategic strip of land 750 miles south of Tokyo. The photo quickly became the subject of posters, war-bond drives, and a U.S. postage stamp. "Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken, and when you take a picture like that, you don't come away saying you got a great shot. You don't know."
Millions of Americans saw the picture before Rosenthal did, and when he learned of its impact, he said, "I had no idea what picture was meant." But the lifelong photographer later wrote, "I take some gratification in being a little part of what the U.S. stands for."