Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Stuff Your Face CONTRAPOSITIVE will be on hiatus for the next few days. Happy Holidays!

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Rich Gets it Wrong In an otherwise sharp riff about the lengths President Bush and John Kerry have gone to downplay their upper-crust, ivy-league roots, Frank Rich hands Howard Dean this backhanded compliment:
Dean is more forthright about his Yale (via St. George's) and Park Avenue pedigree--up to a point. On his Web site, a gathering place for small donors, his privileged upbringing goes unmentioned, and in the recent "Rock the Vote" debate on CNN, he said he had gone to "a college in New Haven, Connecticut."

Let's take these two points one at a time.

1. While it's true that the bio on www.deanforamerica.com doesn't mention the candidate's Park Avenue childhood (it doesn't say much about his seventh grade science project or his little league career either) a few seconds tinkering with the site's search tool--try typing in the words "Park Avenue"--turns up dozens of results, the first of which reprints an article published in the Boston Globe this fall. The article's third paragraph?

Within the Deans' world of Park Avenue and East Hampton, it was expected that Charlie would buck the family's four-generation lineage on Wall Street, leaving that obligation to quieter, tamer Howard and the two younger boys.

Ahem. So--is Dean hyping the fact that he grew up on Park Avenue? No. But I wouldn't say he's exactly running away from it. And it's certainly not fair to say that "his privileged upbringing goes unmentioned" on his site.

2. I watched the Rock the Vote debate, and heard Dean use the "a college in New Haven" formulation. But what Rich fails to mention is that the debate--held before an audience of college students and other young people--took place in Boston. That is to say, not so far from another elite institution of learning about which Rich himself may know a thing or two. And so it seems awfully reasonable to read Dean's formulation--as I did at the time--as a bit of a joke, made with the Harvard-friendly (and thus,Yale-unfriendly) audience in mind.

Kind of surprised Rich didn't pick up on that.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Cutting Corners at the TSA Okay, a more complete analysis of the Transportation Security Administration's recent announcement that it will begin to require the screening of freight cargo traveling on passenger planes. (For the TSA's full plan, click here.)

When you break down the part of the plan dealing with passenger planes, it seems to employ two basic strategies:

1: Random cargo searches conducted by the cargo carriers themselves, under TSA supervision.

2: The implimentation of new security procedures designed to locate cargo shipments that are of "elevated risk" so that they can be searched.

Now, it should be said at the outset that this an important step. From the terrorist's point of view, the air cargo system has gone from being an inviting target to something more complicated. Any terrorist trying to take down a plane will need to spend time and money to work around these procedures, and weigh the increased risk that he or she may get caught.

That said, from the point of view of an airline passenger, the new plan seems vastly inadequate.

And that's because when I take a flight, I don't just want it to be costly and complicated for a terrorist to bring the plane down, I want it to be close to impossible. More specifically, I don't just want to know that none of the cargo on board is thought to be of "elevated risk." I want to know that there aren't any bombs on the plane.

Indeed, this seems to be the logic of the screening of airline passengers and their bags.

But if, as a society, we feel it's necessary to search passengers themselves for explosives--if we don't trust passengers not to bring down their own planes--how can we trust the packages brought on board by non-passengers without applying the same security standards?

Well, as a matter of fact, the TSA's report contains a hint of an answer:

In developing the Strategic Plan, TSA carefully evaluated the feasibility of physically screening 100 percent of all air cargo. Limitations of technology and infrastructure make such an undertaking impractical, from both a flow-of-commerce and resource point of view.

So there you have it: Too expensive, too inconvenient.

There's been a lot of talk by some conservatives about how liberals Just Don't Get the post-9/11 reality. I would submit, however, that until Republicans are willing to speak out for security enhancements that will be costly and inconvenient for their donors and political allies, they're the ones not ready to face the music.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Just Call Me Waffa B. Wondering what the Bin Laden family has been up to since several of its member were whisked out of the US in the wake of 9/11? Check this out. No joke.

Progress on Air Cargo? Just minutes after CONTRAPOSITIVE raised the issue of air cargo screening on passenger planes, a major development took place: The Transportation Security Administration announced that it will soon require screening of freight cargo on both passenger and commercial planes. (Whether the folks at the TSA have been reading CONTRAPOSITIVE remains an open question.)

While it's too early to draw any firm conclusions about what the new screening standards mean, there are couple discouraging signs. First, the standards appear to call for random, rather than comprehensive screening. And second, cargo operators won't be required to employ the full range of screening techniques (including, for example, explosives-detection systems designed to detect bomb residue) that are used to screen passenger bags--at least that's the impression left by the early piece on CNN.

In any event, these are preliminary observations. More to come on this topic, and hopefully soon.

Monday, November 17, 2003

And by the Way, We're All Going To Die

I'd be the first one to argue that, in the discussion of terrorist targets and vulnerabilities, airplanes receive too much attention--at the expense of things like ports, chemical plants, etc.

But when it comes to passenger planes, there is one security gap so insanely, gapingly large that, if I told you about it, you'd never believe me.

Just try reading the reporting here [registration required] and here without concluding that air cargo poses a serious threat.

(What's more, the recently-published revelation that U.S. intelligence sources believe Al Qaeda has explored making "bombs which could be placed on aircraft and detonated by changes in barometric pressure [translation: detonated when the plane reached a particular altitude]" makes this threat look more terrifying than ever.)

So, why haven't you heard more about this story? Where's the mainstream media been?

An article recently posted at msnbc.com is a great case study. After spending fifteen paragraphs of his sixteen paragraph report implying that the air cargo threat is restricted to cargo planes alone, correspondent Preston Mendenhall drops this little nugget:

Experts and pilots also caution that the air cargo industry’s woes also extend to passenger planes, which carry unscreened cargo next to passenger luggage in the luggage hold.

If that isn't burying your lede, I don't know what is.

It's hard not to take such willfully bad reporting as evidence that journalists--or their editors--are so terrified about the air cargo situation that they're afraid even to draw attention to it.

But wouldn't it be better to get this issue out in the open, shine some light on it, and then shame the Bush administration into taking quick action? Are we truly better off pretending the problem doesn't exist?

Tuesday, November 11, 2003


Peace in Our Time? The scribes at The New Republic have now gone almost nine days without taking a single swipe at Howard Dean in their TNR Primary feature. Compare that to the week of Oct. 13 when Dean received two "F"s, two "D"s and a "C" from TNR's writers, or the week of Sept. 15 when he earned two "F"s, two "C"s and a "D."

True, there was one long stretch--spanning from late October to early November (it lasted just a shade under 8 days and 2 hours)--when TNR held its fire. But the current Dean-bashing drought is longer than anything the TNR Primary has seen since the end of July.

Now, granted--this is no Major Campaign Development. But is it wrong to interpret TNR's silence as a sign that the DLC-wing of the party is starting to come to terms with the fact that Dean is likely to be the Democratic nominee?

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.