How Safe Are We?; Michael Who?; News Bites | Media | Chicago Reader

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How Safe Are We?; Michael Who?; News Bites

Since 9/11, protecting Americans has been the number one job of government. So where's the Pulitzer-worthy report on how that's going?


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How Safe Are We?

Santiago Calatrava's 2,000-foot Fordham Spire is so cool its fans immediately began rationalizing away reasons why Chicago shouldn't build it. Once it's up we'll be oohing and aahing, said the Sun-Times editorial page. "We won't be thinking of congestion. . . . And here's something else we won't be thinking of: caving in to the shallow threat of terrorism by building, and thinking, safer and smaller."

Shallow threat? Did someone paddle out and measure? The same July 28 issue of the Sun-Times offered the educated guesses of a couple security-firm owners. "The terrorists' urge is to show their ability to tweak or deny U.S. power symbols," said Marc Enger. "I think if they were to attack Chicago, they would go for a building connected to the financial or governmental sectors." Dave Aggleton had a hunch the Fordham Spire would prove too deficient in "icon value" to be targeted. Apparently it's only in London that terrorists go after proles in subways.

The press argues over the war in Iraq day in and out. But the war was justified to the American people as a means to an end--the greater security of the American people. So are we safer? There's no answer to that question--but almost no public argument about it either.

Eleven nuclear power plants operate near Chicago. Can saboteurs get at them? Probably, according to a Time investigation two months ago. Long, slow freight trains rumble through the city, cargo ships dock in Calumet Harbor, semis course toward the Loop along our expressways. Should we worry? Absolutely, according to Stephen Flynn's 2004 book America the Vulnerable. Would terrorists have any more difficulty blowing up subway trains in Chicago than they did in London? Trust your gut on that one.

The media have sporadically offered depressing snapshots of what appears to be the haphazard state of American counter-terrorism. The Tribune complained in a July 23 editorial that "anti-terrorist security at hazardous chemical plants remains dangerously uneven." In Illinois alone, according to government data cited by the Tribune, there are as many as 13 plants in areas so densely populated that an attack on any one of them could kill a million people.

An editorial in the July 26 New York Times noted that since the July 7 bombings in London, New York City had doubled the number of police officers patrolling its subways, paying them some $1.9 million a week in overtime. "This is a national defense burden that Washington should be ready to shoulder quickly," said the Times, speaking of New York and other large cities. But the Times didn't sound optimistic. "Congress," it observed, "has been favoring pork over risk in giving the states money for homeland defense."

A long article in the July 25 New Yorker on the elaborate counterterrorism program within the New York Police Department left me wondering if Chicago has anything like it. (The article suggests no one does.) The police commissioner was asked if he got much help from Washington. "We're still defending the city pretty much on our dime," he replied.

An article posted online by the Atlantic Monthly on July 20 began this way: "Last week every Republican Senator voted against a Democratic amendment earmarking $1 billion for mass-transit security--surveillance cameras, bomb-detection equipment, dogs, and the like. The vote came during a week in which we spent $1 billion on a war that Republican senator Chuck Hagel says we are losing. Billions for Iraq, not one penny for subways the week after the London subway bombings."

None of the news is encouraging. The Atlantic's January/February issue was enough to scare the bejeebers out of anyone. Richard Clarke imagined a dystopian future of terrorist and counterterrorist thrusts, a future largely predicated on what he considers the blunders and missed opportunities of the Bush administration. In the same issue James Fallows called homeland security "largely a waste of money," the war of ideas one "we have not seriously begun to fight," and our measures for corralling "loose nukes" profoundly inadequate. But if the Atlantic intended to be provocative, it failed. No one's in the streets demanding higher taxes to buy up loose nukes. Counterterrorism hasn't become a political issue. And journalism hasn't taken the obvious next step.

Where are the Pulitzer-worthy surveys that turn all those snapshots into a big picture? In 1999 the Tribune began a series on prosecutorial misconduct with the devastating lead, "With impunity, prosecutors across the country have violated their oaths and the law, committing the worst kinds of deception in the most serious of cases." But not even the Atlantic is writing with that kind of aggression and authority about homeland security. Nobody's holding the president to account. Or the mayor of Chicago. Or the American people.

Who would presume to? How can anyone call homeland security a failure if nothing's happened yet or a job well-done when catastrophe could arrive tomorrow? Scott Baltic, editor of Homeland Protection Professional, a monthly trade magazine launched after 9/11, told me he's amazed American shopping malls haven't been bombed yet. "There's no way it's not going to happen," he said (the main focus of his magazine is response, not prevention). Most journalists assume it will happen sooner or later, which could become an excuse not to damn the powers that be for failing to do enough to prevent the unpreventable.

Prosecutorial misconduct can be quantified. The Tribune came up with a number--381--of homicide defendants across the country whose convictions had been thrown out because prosecutors either offered false evidence or hid exculpatory evidence. A terrorist threat can't be quantified. Bush's most extreme blow in the war on terror--invading Iraq--has made matters either better or worse, and Americans can't agree on which, let alone by how much. "I think the Iraq war and the way it's being conducted is making us less safe," says Baltic. "I think we're creating another generation of terrorists." But maybe the war's made us less safe in the short run and will make us safer in the long run--when the Middle East is serenely democratic.

Here in Chicago there's little public awareness of what government is doing to protect us--a sign of a journalistic failure to tell us and a political failure to involve us. And Chicago's not the only place. "Journalists are writing to meet a consumer demand that is not a demand for uncomfortable truths," federal appellate judge Richard Posner wrote in an essay on the media in the July 31 New York Times Book Review. "Moreover," he observed, "people don't like being in a state of doubt."

Journalists don't either. They appreciate a few clear facts as much as their audience. An excursion into the uncomfortable truths and ambiguities of counterterrorism takes everyone to a place no one wants to go. Fallows wrote in the Atlantic, "We cannot waste any more time on make-believe." But others see make-believe as a sign of robust national character. To quote a great newspaper, it's splendid of Chicago to show we're not "caving in to the shallow threat of terrorism by building, and thinking, safer and smaller."

Michael Who?

A new byline is about to show up in the Tribune as the reviewer of A-list movies: Michael Phillips. Who's he? wondered the programmers at a couple film venues I called for comment. He's the Tribune's top drama critic, I said. This bewildered them. "I thought they had Chris Jones," said Charles Coleman at Facets. "What happened to him?"

So Phillips's new assignment might be his opportunity--after three and a half years in Chicago--to make a name for himself. It'll be Jones's opportunity to fill the job a lot of people thought he already had.

For Michael Wilmington, the Tribune's main film critic for the past 12 years, the advantages of this rearrangement of chairs aren't so clear. But he'll be able to take time off. On July 21 he asked entertainment editor Scott Powers for a couple weeks of vacation--the longest stretch of days off he says he's ever requested at the Tribune--and said he needed to skip the Toronto film festival in mid-September. The reason is that his elderly mother, who lives with him, is very ill and he has to take care of her.

Powers got back to Wilmington the next day with the news that the editors had decided on a temporary "job swap." August is a slow time in theater, so Phillips, who's done a fair amount of film writing at other papers, will review movies for a while. But it isn't actually a swap. If Wilmington were going to review plays for a few weeks he wouldn't mind, but he was told the Tribune wants him to focus on Sunday film essays.

"I was told not to read anything into it," says Wilmington, who's not so sure where he stands. "It does free me up to take the time off. I'm grateful for that."

Powers also told me not to read anything into it. "It's no different from [arts critic] Sid Smith coming over and doing some movie reviews," he said. "We do think it's good for people and readers to hear different voices."

So this isn't Phillips's audition?

"No," said Powers.

And he'll go back to theater in a couple of months?

"It's hard to predict what's going to happen two months in the future," Powers said. "Who knows? As my boss Jim Warren likes to say, 'None of these jobs, including mine, is tenured.'"

News Bites

Good idea: Assigning Richard Posner, author of the recent appellate court opinion eviscerating the doctrine of reporter's privilege, to review a batch of books on the media for the New York Times Book Review. Posner wrote a provocatively contrarian essay in which his one-tool tool kit of cost-benefit analysis seems handier than ever.

Bad idea: "Up Front," the inane editors' note fawning over the "inhumanly prolific" Posner's "predictable unpredictability" and all-around neat mind. Readers know who he is, his essay speaks for itself, and no matter how much we gush he's not going to take back what he said about Branzburg v. Hayes.

Spotted on the Tribune home page on July 27: "Cubs walk off with win. Jeromy Burnitz hit a two-out, full-count single to drive in his second walk-off run in three games as the Cubs beat the San Francisco Giants 4-3 Wednesday."

Walk-off single? What's next--a walk-off squeeze bunt?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Dolan.

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