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The [Sunday] Papers

The editorial pages of the Tribune and Sun-Times on Sunday both strain to assure readers that they should take the alleged plot to blow up the Sears Tower seriously, arguing that those exhibiting a little bit of skepticism - and apparently there are enough of us who do that each paper felt obliged to write editorials - do so at their own peril, and the peril of the nation.

I take the alleged plot with a measured bit of seriousness, but I find the stance of our local editorial boards to be far more perilous than the mopes in South Florida who probably couldn't blow up a balloon, much less our most fortified, security-laden landmark.

Both editorials see a parallel between the Miami gang who couldn't terrorize straight and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in that both are "homegrown," as if that's enough to put them in the same class.

Both editorials also scold skeptics of repeating what they see as the grand mistake of 9/11 - a failure of imagination (they do this without irony, for those of you who may have noticed that the papers commit failures of the imagination on a daily basis). And this is what, at this late date, is most astonishing.

"Before 9/11, we never imagined planes flying into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon; we once never dreamed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City would be blown up with bombs made with fertilizer," the Sun-Times says in "Latest Alleged Plot Shows Security Is Still A Tall Order."

"[Three words] stand out from all the others in the 9/11 commission's final verdict: Public officials succumbed to a 'failure of imagination' that spanned multiple government agencies and two presidential administrations," the Tribune says in "When To Take Plotters Seriously." (Note the neat trick of avoiding holding the twice Tribune-endorsed George W. Bush accountable all by his lonesome.)

I don't know if the editorial boards just haven't been keeping up or are willfully ignorant, but the failure of imagination argument has been debunked six ways from Sunday. I would speculate that perhaps only they and Condi Rice haven't gotten the memo, but it turns out that Rice did get the memo, despite her infamous statements to the contrary.

This ground has been tilled over and over and over, for anyone paying attention. The evidence is voluminous that the U.S. government had exactly imagined terrorists not just flying planes into buildings, but specifically flying planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The evidence is so thick, in fact, that it's tiring to go back and pick out just which examples to use to show that the editorial boards haven't been doing their homework. I've pulled three somewhat disparate examples to show just how discredited this notion is, from NORAD training exercises to French intelligence to the findings of the 9/11 commission as exasperatingly recounted by a 9/11 widow.

* "In the two years before the Sept. 11 attacks, the North American Aerospace Defense Command conducted exercises simulating what the White House says was unimaginable at the time: hijacked airliners used as weapons to crash into targets and cause mass casualties," USA Today reported in April 2004. "One of the imagined targets was the World Trade Center."

* "The president of Egypt and the deputy prime minister of Italy say that Osama bin Laden's network of Islamic terrorists threatened to kill President Bush and other leaders of the industrialized world when they met at a summit meeting in Genoa last July," The New York Times reported in September 2001.

"In an interview on French television on Monday, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt spoke in specific terms about the threat, saying that 'on June 13 of this year, we learned of a communique from bin Laden saying he wanted to assassinate George W. Bush and other G8 heads of state during their summit in Italy.'

"It was a well-known piece of information," Mr. Mubarak added in the interview broadcast by the network France 3.

Separately, he told Le Figaro, a major French daily newspaper, that Egyptian intelligence services had told the United States about the threat and that the warning included a reference to "an airplane stuffed with explosives."

"Several days before Mr. Mubarak's interview, in an appearance on Italian television, Gianfranco Fini, the Italian deputy prime minister, discussed parallels between the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and warnings his government had received before the Genoa meeting in July.

"'Many people joked about the Italian Intelligence Force,' Mr. Fini said, 'but actually they had information that in Genoa there was the hypothesis of an attack on the American president with the use of an airplane. That is why we closed the airspace above Genoa and installed antiaircraft missiles. Those who joked should now reflect.'"

* "Either [Rice] flat out lied or she's incompetent, because the historical record is replete with instances of planes being used as missiles," Kristen Breitweiser, one of the 9/11 widows whom Ann Coulter accused of being a harpie enjoying the death of her husband, said in 2004.

"I can hold up the joint inquiry report," Breitweiser said. "You see all the post-its on here, indicating instances of planes being used as missiles, of al-Qaeda being interested in using plane as missiles of attacks in the homeland."

On and on it goes. This is settled history to everyone but the most obstinate, partisan players whose interests lie in places other than our nation's security - and to clueless editorial boards unwilling to accept the fact that the Bush Administration is responsible for one of the biggest failures not of imagination but of competence in this nation's history - besides the Iraq war, of course. And that's 9/11.

Further, the comparison to the Oklahoma City bombing would be amusing if it wasn't so sad. The use of fertilizer in a bomb was hardly new (perhaps previously most famously used by the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s). And the Tribune's later statement that McVeigh went from aspirational to operational in two days is beyond comprehension.

Even this simplified timeline shows McVeigh began his actual plotting to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building at least six months before actually doing so, and multiple histories of McVeigh show that his aspirations to do damage to the United States government arose long before that.

I don't know anybody who doesn't think the Miami group shouldn't have been arrested and that those arrests weren't newsworthy. But when FBI director Robert Mueller says that "homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as al-Qaeda, if not more so," he is guilty of hyperbole that belittles the scope of the al-Qaeda threat. And when the media falls for the hype, our security is diminished by the increased skepticism that inevitably follows when the truth comes out. The applicable fable involves a little boy and a wolf.

A better assessment of the situation came this weekend from Maureen Dowd. "These guys were so lame they asked an informant for boots, radios, binoculars, uniforms, and cash, believing he was al-Qaeda - and that jihadists need uniforms," Dowd wrote.

(It wasn't the uniforms that caught my eye; it was the boots. Why would these guys need boots? Because their "cell" had plans to conduct a "ground war" against America. So, you know, let's just say their Observation Decks don't go to the top floor.)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is famous for saying "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The full statement is "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding, and support of the people themselves, which is essential to victory."

The Bush Administration has turned that wisdom on its head, and frightened and witless abetters in the media have gone right along with them, taking us over a cliff instead of leading us with courage and confidence.

The only failure of imagination America is guilty of is failing to imagine a president squandering a historic opportunity, in the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy, to unite a sympathetic world behind the best of America's values, and to instead lie us into a war whose disastrous ramifications will haunt us for decades to come; a war which has not only damaged our security and made us more vulnerable to terrorist attack, but has corroded our civil liberties and infected us with a viral strain of neuroses that have set our heads spinning. It's as if Osama bin Laden is, um, winning.

So let's please stop peddling old talking points and come clean about how we got into this mess - not just the war, but the environment of fear and insecurity that is dogging us. Otherwise we'll never be able to get out of it.

The Beachwood Tip Line: Actively imagining plots all the time.


Posted on June 26, 2006

MUSIC - Who's Next In Chicago Rap.
TV - Tribune-Nexstar Deal Is Bad News.
POLITICS - Big Soda Hates You.
SPORTS - Harold vs. the Haters.

BOOKS - Wright Brothers, Wrong Story!

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Go Ahead, Eat Raw Cookie Dough!

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