August 2010: Ground Zero confusion, our carnivorous past, and other observations

A tip of the cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

THE MORAL HIGH GROUND IN THE DEBATE OVER THE SO-CALLED GROUND ZERO MOSQUE HAS PROVED TO BE SLIPPERY. Attempts to cast all opponents of the proposed controversial Cordoba Center/Park51 as intolerant or bigoted ran into trouble when some unexpected voices weighed in against the proposed location for the community/cultural center, two blocks north of Ground Zero. Somehow characterizing Howard Dean, Nat Hentoff, Donald Trump, Sen. Harry Reid, and Abraham H. Foxman (national director of the Anti-Defamation League)—who have all expressed reservations about the siting of the center so close to the World Trade Center—as Islamophobic didn’t ring true.

Yet the debate over the Cordoba center has been ugly at times: Sarah Palin (who called it the “9/11 mosque”) and Newt Gingrich (who warned it represented “an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization”) have both appealed to America’s baser instincts, and right-wing candidates around the country have attempted to capitalize on the Ground Zero controversy.

Because of the heated nature of the debate, there’s been a fair amount of confusion over the issues involved. What’s clear is that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and the Park51 developers have a legal and constitutional right to build the center. If the idea behind the Cordoba Center is, as its founders claim, to foster healing and interfaith dialogue, then they should be open to rethinking its location. The firestorm of criticism over perceived insensitivity to Sept. 11 victims and survivors, a point of view held by most Americans, makes continuing ahead with the current plans a divisive move. If the idea is to heal the 9/11 breach, then Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his colleagues should be open to efforts by Archbishop Timothy Dolan and New York governor David Patterson to find a compromise site.

SCIENTISTS NOW SURMISE THAT WE WERE BUTCHERING MEAT MUCH EARLIER IN TIME THAN PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT. Nature reported that “slashed animal bones suggest early hominins were chopping up predator kills earlier than we thought, based on research in Ethiopia. The report highlights the crucial role that large-animal meat played in making us who we are (homo sapiens). We are, it seems, carnivorous by nature.

SMELL, SEX, AND NATURAL SELECTION APPEAR TO BE CLOSELY INTERTWINED, ACCORDING TO INTRIGUING NEW RESEARCH. Smell has been singled out as a key determinant in sexual attraction (based on “sweaty t-shirt research” where men and women rate the smell of prospective mates).

Now WebMD reports:

A woman is sexually attracted to men who smell like a good genetic match, but birth control pills make her desire the “wrong” men, a U.K. study shows.

Who is the right man? Studies suggest women are attracted to men whose genetic makeup differs from their own. Having a genetically different mate increases the chances for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.

In experiments, women on the pill preferred the smell of genetically similar men. The researchers theorize that birth control may cause a woman to respond as if she were pregnant, where other studies show genetically similar males become more attractive.

Researcher S. Craig Roberts told WebMD: “If this really happens in the real world, women on the pill would end up choosing a more genetically similar mate than she would otherwise choose and the implications go on from there.”

Don Draper of Mad Men seems to understand this dynamic of smell: his come-on line in Season Four has been: “You smell good.” While some find it lame, Draper is clearly a keen student of evolutionary biology.

RECENTLY RELEASED FBI FILES STRONGLY SUGGEST THAT THE LATE HOWARD ZINN, BEST-SELLING AUTHOR OF A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES WAS ALSO A COMMUNIST PARTY MEMBER DURING THE 1940s. Ronald Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, notes that Zinn kept his CPUSA membership a secret in his Weekly Standard piece “Aside from That, He Was Also a Red.” Radosh, no fan of the radical historian, sees Zinn’s impact in highly negative terms: “Writing his tendentious history, which influenced a new generation to regard our country’s past with disdain, became his substitute for the old activism. That legacy is worse than anything he ever did as a member of the Communist party.”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM HOCKEY GREAT WAYNE GRETSKY: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

The week (April 20th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of a Yankees (or Red Sox) cap to New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

IS DAVID AXELROD THE NEW POLITICAL GEPPETO for Democrats and is Barack Obama his latest Pinocchio? Two intriguing newspaper pieces—Ben Wallace-Wells’s profile of Axelrod in the New York Times Magazine, “Obama’s Narrator,” and a Scott Helman article in the Boston Globe—suggest that Axelrod, a Chicago political strategist, hand-picked Obama as a presidential candidate and has been grooming him for the run for years.

Axelrod field-tested the themes of personal biography and political hope Obama is currently employing with another successful African-American candidate, Deval Patrick, who won Massachusett’s governor’s seat with an aspirational, issue-free campaign. Sound familiar? The Globe ran side-by-side excerpts of Patrick’s and Obama’s political rhetoric to show the thematic similarities.

And the key evidence of Axlerod’s patient strategy? Wallace-Wells learned that:

For four years Axelrod has had camera crews tracking virtually everything Obama has done in public — chatting up World War II vets in southern Illinois, visiting his father’s ancestral village in western Kenya — and there were days when the camera crews have outnumbered the civilians.

Has any other first-term U.S. Senator had film crews trailing for years capturing footage for future use? Axelrod has been packaging Obama for bigger and better things for quite some time. That isn’t to take anything away from Obama’s accomplishments, only to suggest that his vagueness on issues and stress on uplifting rhetoric and personal biography isn’t as artless as you might think. So the next time a talking head starts praising Obama’s authenticity, think of two words: David Axelrod.

COULDN’T WE SEND ROSIE O’DONNELL TO IRAN as a special ambassador tasked to negotiate an end to Tehran’s nuclear program? After a few days of full-strength Roise, the Iranians would agree to anything just to get her on the plane back to the U.S.

SHOULD AWFUL PUBLIC ARCHITECTURE be preserved? The Boston Globe editorial board apparently thinks so—it recently raved over Boston’s City Hall—”there can be no question that City Hall is a landmark of 20th century architecture”—and worried about Mayor Tom Menino’s plans to raze the building, designed by the architectural firm of Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood, and sell the prime real estate the massive structure sits on.

A case can be made, I imagine, for preserving a given building because its design is a prime example of the architecture of its historical period. Boston’s City Hall—which looks like a Soviet maximum detention facility sited in desolate Siberia—may be representative of modernist architecture, but there are other awful structures elsewhere in the Athens of America that could be preserved. I think Menino’s idea of moving City Hall to the waterfront is loopy—tearing City Hall down and rebuilding with something graceful in the same location is a better way to go.

SORRY, BUT COMEDIAN WILL FARRELL just isn’t as funny as he thinks he is. Jerry Lewis doesn’t make me laugh, either.

LOTS OF EXCITEMENT OVER RED SOX PITCHER DAISUKE MATSUZAKA’S recent performances in American’s national pastime. The Japanese hurler is off to a great start and Red Sox Nation is hoping he is the new pitching Messiach. But, as Bill Parcells would say, hold off on the anointing oil and a reserved space in the Baseball Hall of Fame—Dice-K hasn’t been through the league twice. It’s the second time through, after hitters have had a chance to study the videotape and make adjustments from their initial experience, that tells you what sort of player you have.

BILL O’REILLY AND DENNIS MILLER endorsed waiting periods for gun purchasers the other night on “The O’Reilly Factor.” After Miller noted that it took longer for him to get his Starbuck’s coffee than it did for Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui to purchase one of his weapons, O’Reilly agreed: “ I’m with you on that one. I can’t get my dry cleaning back for seven days, and you know, you get a Glock in ten minutes.” Could the tide be turning against the National Rifle Association? The Washington Post reports that the NRA “has begun negotiations with senior Democrats over legislation to bolster the national background-check system and potentially block gun purchases by the mentally ill.”

NEWSDAY’S WALT HANDELSMAN HAS WON THE 2007 PULITZER PRIZE for editorial cartooning. Handelsman took a year to teach himself computer animation—and his brief Web cartoon shorts are very funny (he does all of the voices himself). You can find them here.

Cormac McCarthy was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer in fiction for his novel “The Road.” It must say something about the rest of the field, because it’s not his best work. Perhaps fiction is like wine, in which case 2006 will not rank as the best of literary vintages.

THE KNICKERBOCKER BAR AND GRILL makes great scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. The 100-year old marble bar in the New York eatery is the one on which “Charles Lindbergh signed his contract to fly across the Atlantic.”

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK COME FROM ROBERT F. KENNEDY: “… Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily—whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence— whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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What’s wrong with the NRA

In the aftermath of the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech, there have been renewed calls for a consideration of America’s ragged quilt of federal and state gun laws.

No one disputes that the gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, a troubled student with a history of mental health problems, apparently acquired his weapons—a Walther .22-caliber pistol and a Glock 9 mm pistol—legally. Cho purchased, and used, a 15-round ammunition magazine, which was prohibited under the federal assault-weapons ban that Congress allowed to expire in 2004. Such magazines allow rapid firing without reloading.

Some of the questions being asked include: did Virginia’s notoriously lax gun laws make it too easy for Cho, (who wasn’t even an American citizen!), to get the guns? Is it time to think anew about restrictions on semi-automatic weapons and those with high-capacity ammunition magazines before another massacre occurs? Why shouldn’t sensible gun control become a national priority?

These are questions the National Rifle Association, the NRA, the chief lobby in this country for unchecked gun ownership, doesn’t want asked. And that’s what wrong with the NRA.

The NRA has taken an absolutist position on the Second Amendment, fighting any meaningful regulation of guns, despite the fact that Americans support stricter gun laws (a Washington Post/ABC News survey in October 2006 found 61 percent favoring tighter restrictions, while 37 percent opposed them.)

The NRA has decided that the Second Amendment trumps all other rights. Again, that’s what is wrong with the NRA. The organization’s refusal to compromise, and accept common-sense gun controls such as the assault weapons ban, dooms efforts to curb gun violence.

Let’s remember: the “right to bear arms” is not absolute. Our lawmakers have decided that some weapons—bazookas, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons—shouldn’t be in the hands of civilians, (and rightly so). That Second Amendment right is curtailed if you are a felon or mentally ill. Many states have laws about carrying concealed weapons (you may need a permit) or regulating the sale of guns.

All of these restrictions on gun ownership have held up in the courts. So it is not a Constitutional debate we should be having, but a debate about what sorts of limits a civilized society should place on firearms.

Here are some of the questions Congress should be considering.

  • Why should non-U.S. citizens, like Cho, be granted the right to purchase or own firearms?
  • Why shouldn’t there be a mandatory waiting period when someone purchases a gun?
  • Why shouldn’t we regulate gun shows, dubbed “arms bazaars for criminals and terrorists” where you can buy and sell guns on “a cash-and-carry, no-questions-asked basis”?
  • Why shouldn’t we require gun safety training and ask owners to pass a safety test? (Would we let someone drive a car without training and testing?)
  • Why shouldn’t we ban weapons primarily designed for military use (such as semi-automatic assault rifles) that are designed for rapid-fire?
  • Why shouldn’t we ban the high-capacity clips for semi-automatic weapons which allow the firing of multiple rounds in seconds?
  • Why shouldn’t we mandate traceable ammunition, allowing police another tool in fighting crime?

None of these reforms should trouble any law-abiding gun owner. Firearms for self-defense and hunting would remain available. (There are already some 250 million privately-owned guns in the United States). These stricter regulations would serve to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and would make it harder to acquire and use a gun impulsively.

It is not just the specter of Virgnia Tech that should move us to action. Urban violence in cities across the nation is fueled by easy access to weapons and, as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani will testify, tough gun laws can make a difference in the crime rate.

Sadly it looks like the Democratic Congress, fearful of political backlash in rural states, will sit on its hands when it comes to meaningful gun control, and the presidential candidates of both parties will also shy away (or bow before the gun lobby), concerned about the influence of the NRA with swing state voters.

And that is just wrong.

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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (February 16th, 2007)

As Jimmy Cannon, columnist extraordinaire, used to say, “Nobody asked me, but…”

NEW YORK CITY MAY BE LOSING SOME GROUND TO LONDON as a center for financial markets, but the Big Apple will remain the world’s capital of media, publishing, fashion, art, and pop culture whether or not some investments move from Wall Street to The City. The longer-term threat to New York’s reputation as the Center of the Universe will come not from London, but from Shanghai, another port city with economic vitality, ambitious people, and a long tradition of cosmopolitanism.

YOU CAN GAUGE AL GORE’S HUNGER FOR THE PRESIDENCY by checking out the size of his waistline. If he’s eager to be drafted as a compromise candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination looking as bloated as he did at the Grammy Awards—presenting the “Best Album” award to the Red Hot Chili Peppers along with co-presenter Queen Latifah (a bizarre grouping that could occur only in America)—doesn’t send the appropriately telegenic message that he’s fit, trim and ready to run.

Steve Kornacki of the New York Observer (itself recently trimmed into tabloid format) reports that Gore continues to weigh a 2008 run, but is delaying a decision until September, hoping to remain above the fray, and “…use the time to hit the gym and sweat off some of the weight he piled on the months after he conceded the 2000 race to President Bush.”

Before I face accusations of weightism, I’ll confess that I empathize with Gore on this (weighty) issue—it’s very hard to cut out enough carbs to get the bathroom scale needle headed in the right (and healthier) direction.

Gore will definitely stay in the public eye over the next few months. There is his likely Best Documentary Oscar win for “An Inconvenient Truth” on Feb. 25, and his “Live Earth ” climate change concert (Gore just announced the musical lineup this week) that will be a huge summer event. Meanwhile, long-time Gore backers assemble a draft campaign, and the former Vice President’s Gallup poll numbers swing up. Could it happen? Never say never.

As to the upcoming presidential race, when I recently suggested to a savvy Democratic pollster I know that the Electoral College map looked promising for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s ’08 presidential run, he demurred, arguing that Clinton could run into trouble in heavily Catholic Pennsylvania. He was sandbagging, in my view. With a Democratic governor, two Democrats in the Senate and a congressional delegation tilting blue, the tide is running Mrs. Clinton’s way.

The reality: it’s difficult to imagine Sen. Clinton losing any of the blue states carried by John Kerry in 2004, even if she is facing Rudy Guiliani or John McCain. If she carries Ohio (where the polls show her leading) , or Florida (where her husband is a decided plus in the black and Jewish communities), then Hillary Clinton becomes the first female president of the United States.

SUPPORT AMONG COUNTRY MUSIC ARTISTS FOR THE BUSH ADMINSTRATION’S IRAQ POLICY is waning, a development noted by the Boston Globe editorial board in its commentary “Speak up and sing.”

The Globe points out that the Dixie Chicks, outspoken in their dislike of President Bush, just won five Grammy Awards and that the music of other country singers, like Merle Haggard, Darryl Worley and Trace Adkins is reflecting a growing disillusionment with the Iraq war.

What the Globe editorial obscures, however, is that singers like Toby Keith, with his “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” and Darryl Worley (“Have You Forgotten?”) wrote tough songs in response to the 9/11 attacks. Keith for one, says he opposed the Iraq war.

Country music singers are patriots, not partisans; many are blue-collar Democrats, including Keith, Tim McGraw (who apparently has political ambitions), Hal Ketchum (a member of the Music Row Democrats, along with Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith), and Billy Ray Cyrus (whose “We the People” became candidate Bush’s 2000 campaign theme song).

That isn’t to say there are many Nashville pacifists; country music’s roots are in the ballads brought to America by the Scots-Irish settlers of the Appalachian mountains and valleys, known for their sometimes violent frontier culture founded on male honor and religiosity. The Scots-Irish became a willing source of manpower for the American military for centuries.

As Walter Mead Russell pointed out in his 1999 National Interest article “The Jacksonian Tradition,” and James Webb reiterated in his book “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,” America’s Scots-Irish have little patience for limited wars: they believe in fighting to win, and winning quickly. That helps explain, in part, why the Bush Administration has seen support for its adventure in Iraq slip in Red States.

PRESIDENTIAL WANNABE JOE BIDEN has provided ample comic relief these past few weeks with his “let Joe Biden be Joe Biden” and “Barack Obama is clean and articulate” riffs. But the Maryland Senator is not always clownish; his op-ed piece in the Miami Herald calling for the immediate opening of the Nazi archives at Bad Arolsen for Holocaust survivors, historians and researchers is public service at its best.

Germany and other European countries are foot-dragging on this because of “privacy concerns, logistical problems associated with making the records widely accessible and fears of new legal claims,” but the real reason, I suspect, is embarrassment over the tale of complicity and inhumanity the files will tell. Biden is right to call for an immediate opening of the records, before it is too late for the many aged survivors.

OUR WORDS FOR THE WEEK come from the great New England poet Robert Frost: “Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (September 29th): Nobody asked me, but…

As New York’s legendary “man about town” columnist Jimmy Cannon used to say, Nobody asked me, but…

THE PERFECT LATE SEPTEMBER weather in New York City over the past two days brought to mind Childe Hassam’s paintings of a sun-drenched Fifth Avenue, canvasses dominated by rows of hanging American flags and the colorful blur of pedestrians and traffic. Is there any better time of the year to be in Manhattan?

PERHAPS THERE IS SOME GOOD TO BE elicited from the revelations that Senator George Allen (R-VA) may have used the “N-word” in college and challenger James Webb’s admission that anyone living in the South in the 1960s and 70s may also have used the racial slur (Webb included), although Webb denies ever using the word as an epithet. The potential good? It serves to remind us of the casual acceptance of racism in the United States—and, perhaps, will provoke some consideration of the powerful legacy of prejudice against African-Americans.

Meanwhile the Senate race in Virginia has tightened; Allen has lost his initial 16 percentage point lead and polls are showing the candidates in a dead heat.

PETER BAKER of the Washington Post, in his recent front-page story “For Bush, War Anguish Expressed Privately” demonstrates how in-depth, balanced reporting and sensitivity to the complexity of life can offer journalistic insights of a near-literary quality. Baker reports that Bush’s contact with the families of killed service members is greater than generally known.

For those who have suffered losses in the wars he initiated, Bush prefers to offer comfort in private. He writes letters to families of those killed, visits soldiers at military hospitals and meets with relatives of the dead. Altogether, according to the White House, Bush has met with 1,149 relatives of 336 dead service members. These sessions generate little attention because the White House bars journalists, but some relatives have described them.

Baker’s news feature offers a different, more somber, portrait of George Bush—one light years removed from the smirking, frat boy image the President oftens projects. That Bush is meeting with the families of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan counters the conventional wisdom that he has been buffered from the considerable suffering produced by the war; that some of the families are confronting him over the deaths of their loved ones is remarkable.

INFORMATION MAY LONG TO BE FREE, as the early Internet (Web 1.0) mantra went, but unless traditional media companies—especially newspapers—can figure out a way to make money with their reportage (“content” in the new lexicon), they will face a no-win future of decimated newsrooms, shrinking coverage and dramatically reduced influence.

The recent conflict between Tribune Company executives and Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet and publisher Jeffrey Johnson—where Johnson and Baquet have refused to make personnel cuts mandated by the parent company—highlights the considerable challenges of balancing return-on-investment concerns with journalistic mission.

While Johnson and Baquet are right in arguing that cutting news staff will be counterproductive, and that the short-term solution may be for the Tribune Company to accept lower margins at the Times, what about the long-term? Is this just a postponement of an inevitable down-sizing of the traditional metro newspaper? Even if Tribune settles for a short-term profit margin of say, 5%, and relents on cuts, what happens if Times advertising and circulation revenue continues to erode? No one in the newspaper industry has yet figured out what to do about the continuing loss of readers and advertisers—and the Internet doesn’t yet offer comparable returns.

FILE UNDER HOLLYWOOD ENDINGS Notre Dame’s improbable comeback win against Michigan State last Saturday, where the Fighting Irish scored 19 points in the fourth quarter to prevail 40-37. Quarterback Brady Quinn threw for five touchdowns, showing why professional scouts rate him so highly, and the Irish defense toughened in the second half, pressuring the Spartans into turnovers. The win kept Notre Dame’s slim hopes for a national title alive.

SOME ARRESTING PASSAGES FROM AN E-MAIL of a Marine serving in Iraq recently caught my eye. According to, the e-mail came from a Marine in Fallujah and is “making the rounds.” The absurdity of war and its moments of dark humor are perfectly captured in this entry:

Most Surreal Moment – Watching Marines arrive at my detention facility and unload a truck load of flex-cuffed midgets. 26 to be exact. I had put the word out earlier in the day to the Marines in Fallujah that we were looking for Bad Guy X, who was described as a midget. Little did I know that Fallujah was home to a small community of midgets, who banded together for support since they were considered as social outcasts. The Marines were anxious to get back to the midget colony to bring in the rest of the midget suspects, but I called off the search, figuring Bad Guy X was long gone on his short legs after seeing his companions rounded up by the giant infidels.

The unnamed Marine closed his email with the universal longing expressed by warriors throughout the ages:

Most Common Thought – Home. Always thinking of home, of Kathleen and the kids. Wondering how everyone else is getting along. Regretting that I don’t write more. Yep, always thinking of home.

PERHAPS SOME DAY SOMEONE WILL EXPLAIN the draw of NASCAR to me. I just don’t get it. What is it about watching cars drive around in a big circle that attracts viewers and spectators? Morbid curiosity? Even stranger: one of the Boston sports radio stations broadcasts play-by-play of NASCAR races. Listeners are treated to the sound of engines in the background as the announcer follows the “action.”

SOMETIMES I THINK GEORGE BERNARD SHAW had it right: “Everything happens to everybody sooner or later if there is time enough.”

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (September 15th): Nobody asked me, but…

With my customary nod to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN Senior Analyst (and onetime speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy and John V. Lindsey), is asking the right questions about the upcoming 2006 election, one of which (the key in my view) is: “Will Democrats catchup on turnout?” The key to the 2004 election, Greenfield notes, became the GOP’s get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts masterminded by Karl Rove.

Greenfield writes:

This year, the Democrats appear late off the mark in tapping the wealthy supporters who underwrote the formally independent vote-getting operations. Will they show up again this year, or will Republicans have a significant money advantage? And even if they don’t, how well have Democrats and their allies built their turnout machine?

What Greenfield doesn’t mention is the qualitative difference between Republican and Democratic GOTV in 2004. Rove had the Republicans focused on using the social networks of Christian churches in Florida and Ohio—where a fellow church member would offer to accompany the prospective voter to the polls. Democrats relied more on traditional turnout methods, including labor unions, phone banks and volunteers (often out-of-state college students). As Matt Bai pointed out in a brilliant piece of reporting from Ohio in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, the GOP tactics proved superior.

BOB DYLAN doesn’t deserve the soft treatment he’s getting over “borrowing” phrases from Civil War-era poet Henry Timrod for the lyrics on his critically acclaimed album “Modern Times.” His defenders claim that it isn’t somehow quite plagiarism because appropriating is part of the “folk process.” Sorry, but couldn’t Dylan mention his use of Timrod’s words in his liner notes? There shouldn’t be double standards on plagiarism for the famous (Dylan, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, etc.) and the relatively unknown (would-be “chick-lit” novelist Kaavya Viswanathan). Yes, T.S. Eliot made the argument that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” but doesn’t the truly secure artist acknowledge (whether slyly or openly) his or her literary or musical inspiration?

SENATOR GEORGE ALLEN of Virginia, stung by questions about his racial sensitivities, held what his campaign called an “Ethnic Community Campaign Rally.” A bit awkward…to say the least.(Stephen Colbert pounced on this contrived event with glee, his eviseration of Allen can be found here). Allen’s frantic damage control over his “macaca comment” is an attempt to stop his slide in the polls as Democrat James Webb closes on him (within three percentage points of the incumbent, according to the latest SurveyUSA poll).

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post opines in his blog that Allen’s Senate seat can now be considered “in play.”

WHEN HISTORIANS TURN TO THE IRAQ CONFLICT, I do not think they will be kind in their assessment of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s stewardship of the U.S. military. Rumsfeld’s decision to proceed with dramatically lower troop levels than recommended by senior military commanders for the occupation of Iraq, and to demand multiple tours by active duty troops has had significant negative consquences—a destabilized Iraq and a U.S. Army under great strain.

Neoconservatives William Kristol and Rich Lowry belatedly called for more troops to be sent to Baghdad this week in a Washington Post op-ed piece:

The bottom line is this: More U.S. troops in Iraq would improve our chances of winning a decisive battle at a decisive moment. This means the ability to succeed in Iraq is, to some significant degree, within our control. The president should therefore order a substantial surge in overall troop levels in Iraq, with the additional forces focused on securing Baghdad.

The question, however, may not be whether President Bush should agree to more troops, but whether he can.

Daniel Benjamin and Michèle A. Flournoy, both from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argue in Slate that “We can’t send more troops to Iraq.” Their assessment is grim:

That is the unmistakable message of an Army briefing making the rounds in Washington. According to in-house assessments, fully two-thirds of the Army’s operating force, both active and reserve, is now reporting in as “unready”—that is, they lack the equipment, people, or training they need to execute their assigned missions. Not a single one of the Army’s Brigade Combat Teams—its core fighting units—currently in the United States is ready to deploy. In short, the Army has no strategic reserve to speak of. The other key U.S. fighting force in Iraq, the Marine Corps, is also hurting, with much of its equipment badly in need of repair or replacement.

If Benjamin and Flournoy are correct—and the available evidence supports their contention— then Rumsfeld’s decision to fight the Iraq war on the cheap has to be regarded as a colossal miscalculation.

FIVE YEARS AFTER 9/11, more filmmakers, novelists and poets are beginning to address the sudden terrorist attack against America. British poet Simon Armitage has written “Out of the Blue,” an arresting poem about 9/11 which traces the experiences of “a fictional British trader trapped in one of the twin towers as the planes strike.” Armitage told The Times of London, “I wanted to do something which was both commemorative and elegiac, but not political.”

The poem’s opening lines are striking in their evocative simplicity:

All lost.
All lost in the dust.
Lost in the fall and the crush and the dark.
Now all coming back.

I found the poem both moving and disturbing; along with Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” Armitage’s verses rise to the artistic challenge without trivializing or sentimentalizing. (You can download “Out of the Blue” here.)

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Answering those 9/11 Twin Towers questions

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Wednesday published answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ) about its investigation of the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings on September 11, 2001 (post terrorist attack). This represents a very positive development, because while there are no new revelations—NIST has simply summarized the results of its massive scientific investigation—the answers debunk some of the more prevalent 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Decision-makers at NIST now realize that it must publicly counter the paranoid fantasies and pseudo-science of the conspiracy theorists with a clearer, and more focused, statement of the facts.

It’s an approach all government agencies should take about 9/11. The more transparent and open they are, the easier it is to refute the idea that 9/11 was an “inside job.” There is significant work to be done on this front: a Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll in early August found that “more than a third of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East.”

NIST’s response to the argument that the Twin Towers (WTC 1 and WTC 2) were brought down through “controlled demolition” can not be repeated often enough:

Video evidence also showed unambiguously that the collapse progressed from the top to the bottom, and there was no evidence (collected by NIST, or by the New York Police Department, the Port Authority Police Department or the Fire Department of New York) of any blast or explosions in the region below the impact and fire floors as the top building sections (including and above the 98th floor in WTC 1 and the 82nd floor in WTC 2) began their downward movement upon collapse initiation.

In summary, NIST found no corroborating evidence for alternative hypotheses suggesting that the WTC towers were brought down by controlled demolition using explosives planted prior to Sept. 11, 2001. NIST also did not find any evidence that missiles were fired at or hit the towers. Instead, photographs and videos from several angles clearly show that the collapse initiated at the fire and impact floors and that the collapse progressed from the initiating floors downward until the dust clouds obscured the view.

The NIST FAQs also deal with some other common misunderstandings and/or distortions:

  • To the argument that “no steel-frame, high-rise buildings have ever before or since been brought down due to fires,” NIST points out that it concluded that
    the Twin Towers fell because:

    (1) the impact of the planes severed and damaged support columns, dislodged fireproofing insulation coating the steel floor trusses and steel columns, and widely dispersed jet fuel over multiple floors; and (2) the subsequent unusually large, jet-fuel ignited multi-floor fires weakened the now susceptible structural steel.

    Further, NIST notes, no U.S. building “has ever been subjected to the massive structural damage and concurrent multi-floor fires” of 9/11.

  • The “puffs of smoke” coming from the WTC buildings during their collapse, cited as evidence of demolition by 9/11 conspiracy theorists, instead occurred because “the falling mass of the building compressed the air ahead of it—much like the action of a piston—forcing smoke and debris out the windows as the stories below failed sequentially.”
  • The automatic sprinkler systems in the Twin Towers never could have handled the severity and extend of the jet-fuel induced fires—even if the sprinklers been operating on the “principal fire floors,” which they were not.
  • What about the melted steel in the wreckage (cited by the conspiracy theorists as proof that something other than fire was responsible for the collapses)? NIST’s response: “Under certain circumstances it is conceivable for some of the steel in the wreckage to have melted after the buildings collapsed. Any molten steel in the wreckage was more likely due to the high temperature resulting from long exposure to combustion within the pile than to short exposure to fires or explosions while the buildings were standing. “

It is disappointing that NIST announced in this FAQ answer sheet that the report on the collapse of World Trade Center 7 (which was not directly hit by the airliners but damaged by debris) will not be released until early 2007 (a fall 2006 release had been planned). NIST repeated its working hypothesis that WTC 7 fell because of structural damage to the lower floors which triggered a “vertical failure,” and led to “a disproportionate collapse of the entire structure.” The good news is that the controlled demolition hypothesis for WTC 7 will be dealt with directly.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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