"[This book] embodies the Buddhist wisdom about change, life, and the
world more than anything written after the events of that day."
Robert Stone

July 2007 Archives

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July 22, 2007


On the eve of tomorrow’s CNN/YouTube Debates, which will allow average citizens, through homemade videos, to engage the presidential candidates, I’d like to belatedly direct viewers to a clip posted in April by blogger-pundit and press-expert Jeff Jarvis. (Full disclosure: It was Jarvis who encouraged me to set up this blog in the first place!)

The clip, viewable HERE, is Jarvis’s hilarious advice to one candidate, John Edwards, and serves as a reminder of how the presidential hopefuls need to be mindful of remaining genuine as they make their pitches to the American public.


Jarvis runs BuzzMachine, one of the blogosphere's must-click portals for monitoring how news, new media, and old media intersect. The Edwards Advice clip is part of his PrezVid initiative, an attempt to gauge the 2008 presidential race through a YouTube-tinted monocle.

As I mention in Watching the World Change (pages 287-290), Jarvis began blogging on September 11, 2001. (Click HERE for a link to an audio narrative of his coverage that day). An editor for the new online startup Daylife.com, he is also the director of the interactive journalism program the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Tune in to CNN tomorrow night, or CNN.com, to watch the latest two-step in the electronic tango between politicians and the public.



In his learned, deftly written, and dazzlingly researched new book, Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, historian Cullen Murphy draws ingenious comparisons between the Roman Empire and our two-century-old American experiment. (Murphy, an editor at Vanity Fair, was the managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and, truth be told, a mentor of mine at Amherst College.)

Murphy casts a wide net, teaching us parallel truths about how Rome sowed the seeds of its own decay and how the United States is on a similarly nationalistic, myopic, arrogant, and imperialist path. While the book is a lucid critique of the Bush administration, it is at the same time decidedly hopeful and inspiring, offering a prescription for how we might take control of certain aspects of our fate as a nation -- through understanding, encouraging, and continuing to foster and export the best parts of the American character.


One passage on our militarized society as an echo of the Late Roman Empire, circa 100 to 450 A.D., really hit home for me vis-a-vis September 11th (page 198):

"As perceived threats to the country grow more insistent and varied, all of society increasingly bends toward a particular vision of homeland defense. We watch as local police forces, the educational system, even pop culture, bit by bit acquire a vaguely martial cast. Spending on domestic programs is diverted to national security. Economic life orients itself increasingly around the requirements of the military and the intelligence apparatus, and of our far-flung protectorates. Individual rights and freedoms take a back seat to the government's need to know. Borders are hardened. Privacy becomes just a footnote in the history books (though not the ones used in Texas). The executive branch is paramount, the other two branches having evolved into useless but still-detectable appendages, like a whale's vestigal limbs."

July 15, 2007


RUDY REVISITED. During the weeks after September 11, Rudy Giuliani was the human face of authority in a besieged New York City, a ubiquitous presence, part official, part paternal. He appeared daily on our television screens, walking the streets, offering interviews, holding press conferences, attending memorials. His somber, sympathetic manner, confidence, resolve, and hands-on management style reassured a grieving and beleaguered populace.

But now that Giuliani is running for the Republican presidential nomination, many are questioning the depth of his post-9/11 leadership and pointing to various cracks in that veneer. This week, the International Association of Fire Fighters released a 13-minute video, VIEWABLE HERE, that uses on-screen testimony from many New York City firefighters to undercut Giuliani's image as New York's consummate 9/11 commander.

You be the judge.

NEW BIN LADEN VIDEO?Today there are news reports of a short clip, posted online, that may very well show recent footage of Osama bin Laden, who hasn't appeared in a new video since last summer. His subject: the blessings of Martyrdom.


It is important to note that bin Laden's modus operandi throughout the 1990s and ever since he was chased out of Afghanistan has been to signal an impending attack with some video or audio foreshadowing or call to arms. The footage--still unconfirmed as "new"--has surfaced, however, during a time of heightened security concerns. This week it was revealed that the U.S. intelligence community believes the al Qaeda threat is more acute today than at any period since 9/11.

The Associated Press is reporting today that "a new U.S. intelligence assessment being released to Congress this week is expected to say that al-Qaida is stepping up its efforts to sneak terrorist operatives into the United States and has acquired most of the capabilities it needs to strike here. The National Intelligence Estimate is expected to point in particular to al-Qaida's growing ability to use its base along the Pakistan-Afghan border to launch and inspire attacks. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff last week said he had a 'gut feeling' that the nation faced a higher risk of attack this summer. "

I hate to say it, but: When in doubt, go with your gut.


BUSH FLUNKS HIS HISTORY LESSON. David Halberstam, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, war correspondent, and sage, perished in a car crash in California this spring, at age 73. In its current issue, Vanity Fair, where Halberstam was a contributing editor, publishes his final dispatch—on how Bush and his cronies are trying to veil their mistakes in the cloak of “History,” even if their evocations of Yalta and the Cold War, Roosevelt and Truman are sorely strained and off the mark. (Also viewable at VanityFair.com).

One of the highlights of the piece:
“Many of us have always sensed a deep and visceral anti-intellectual streak in the president, that there was a great chip on his shoulder, and that the burden of the fancy schools he attended—Andover and Yale—and even simply being a member of the Bush family were too much for him. It was as if he needed not only to escape but also to put down those of his peers who had been more successful. From that mind-set, I think, came his rather unattractive habit of bestowing nicknames, most of them unflattering, on the people around him, to remind them that he was in charge, that despite their greater achievements they still worked for him.”

GLAND-EMONIUM. Given the hi-resolution blare of the new glossy tabs and the paparazzi Web sites, we now get our celebrities served up like sushi: raw, fresh, and bite-sized. In today’s Times, Virginia Heffernan writes about this relatively recent phenomenon:

“Us Weekly and its copycats quickly reinvented celebrity photography, eschewing production stills and party pictures in favor of snapshots. But they didn’t only go for red-carpet fashion photos, or the gotchas that come along once in a lifetime: Gary Hart with Donna Rice, Kate Moss with cocaine. Instead they focused on the mundane: stars in supermarkets, dog parks, parking lots. In all that natural light they looked indistinct, sometimes homely. At first I thought, who cares? But then the magazines taught me to care, and mistake the new unkempt images for intimacy, if intimacy is something I might achieve by rooming with a celebrity at a mental hospital….

“Forget the hourglass figures of stars of old; now fans and anti-fans simply seem to want small pink dots of light, partially obscured, that seems to represent human glands.”

PLOP VALUE. On a related note, the Times media columnist David Carr recently referred to the alluring, unquantifiable "plop value" inherent in the best of the glossy magazines. Great phrase, that. (VIEWABLE HERE, if you have Times Select.)

July 8, 2007


I titled my book Watching the World Change. But skeptics will tell me on occasion that the world really didn't change all that much on that day in September 2001. Within two years of 9/11, they claim, humankind went back to its destructive preoccupations and quotidian routines. Conflicts across the Middle East continued to bleed on. The Bush administration squandered reservoirs of good will that it had built up among the community of nations. Tensions grew between the U.S. and Europe, between the U.S. and Russia, between the U.S. and allies (and enemies) everywhere. And here at home Americans abandoned their cohesiveness and determination, seeking refuge in distraction from the War on Terror and the brewing campaign in Iraq by losing themselves in reality TV, the tabloids, Internet gossip, and all manner of electronic self-abosorption. Same old woeful same old.

But a quick perusal of this morning's paper is all one needs to find ample evidence that ours is indeed a post-9/11 world, one that has been irrevocably altered in ways large and small.

- Today the Times' new public editor, Clark Hoyt, observes that "[President] Bush mentioned [al Qaeda] 27 times in a recent speech on Iraq.... The Associated Press reported last month that although some 30 groups have claimed credit for attacks on United States and Iraqi government targets, press releases from the American military focus overwhelmingly on Al Qaeda."

- In a guest editorial, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (Dem., NY), who oversees the House subcommittee examining the government’s failure to warn of possible health hazards associated with the Ground Zero rescue effort, reminds readers of pronouncements made by ex-EPA chief Mrs. [Christie] Whitman on September 18, 2001, in which she said she was “glad to reassure the people of New York” that “their air is safe to breathe.”

- After New York City was promised increased anti-terror funding by Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff earlier this year, New York lawmakers are now angered because of reports that the estimated outlay for the city has been mysteriously cut back yet again.

- In today's "Week in Review," the Times' Mark Landler, writing from London, discusses the dubious role played by closed-circuit cameras (CCTV) in deterring potential suicide bombers: "Video surveillance...is better at unraveling crimes than deterring criminals, particularly Islamist terrorists bent on bringing a holy war to Britain's streets. 'The idea of CCTV as a deterrent for something like this is no longer accepted,' said David Murakami Wood, an expert in video surveillance... 'If you don't think you're coming back, you're not going to mind if you're caught on a camera.'"

- And today's prime Page One piece announced: "U.S. ABORTED RAID ON QAEDA CHIEFS IN PAKISTAN IN '05: A secret miliatry operation in early 2005 to capture senior members of Al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas was aborted at the last minute after top Bush administraton officials decided it was too risky and could jeopardize relations with Pakistan."

In 2007, we are still attuned to the tensions of 2001, and are still seeking to learn its lessons.

We've come to understand the bigger picture, surely: how internecine conflicts have international repercussions; how politics, once decidedly "local" affairs, now often have worldwide ramifications; how the global economy, new technologies, and the Web connect us all. And we've come to see how the state of the environment is everyone's concern. This last topic was highlighted by yesterday's mega-eco-concert, Live Earth, held on all seven continents. While I make much of the fact (pages 32-35 of the book) that the global television and Internet audience for news footage on September 11 was on the order of two to two-and-half billion (the largest viewership ever for a breaking-news event) -- the estimated aggregate audience for Live Earth (TV, Net, radio, plus concert-attendees) was reportedly as high as two billion as well, according to concert organizers.

Since the World Cup's largest viewership was also tallied at between one and two billion, I'm highly skeptical of this number, which I find incredibly inflated -- not to rain on Al Gore's impressive, resplendent, and truly inspirational parade of performers. According to Carl Bialik, the respected gadfly and blogger known as The Numbers Guy, who analyzes such stats for the Wall Street Journal Online, one should regard these figures warily, since estimates of Oscar audiences (one billion!), Olympic ceremonies (one billion!), and even Princess Diana's 1997 funeral (2.5 billion!) have always proven to have been jacked up by organizers or reporters or armchair historians by many many many millions.

Which brings us back to the theme at hand: Skepticism.

Never trust what you read. Especially what you read on a blog.

FOLLOW UP: The Wall Street Journal's "Numbers Guy," Carl Bialik, actually followed up on this suggestion and wrote a column that poured cold water on the Live Earth "two billion viewers" estimate. According to Bialik:

“In the U.S., 19 million Americans tuned in for some part of the Live Earth broadcast, which was shown for several hours on various networks, according to Nielsen ratings. 'It’s hard to believe that the rest of the world (including countries in Asia or Africa) watched at a higher level than the U.S.,' Nielsen spokesman Gary Holmes told me in an email. The U.S. audience was about 6 percent of the overall population. If the rest of the world did watch at the same rate, that would suggest an audience of about 420 million.

"Live Earth never intended for the figures to represent viewership, spokesman Yusef Robb told me. Instead, two billion is the organizers’ estimate of how many people would become aware of the concert in some fashion: Newspaper articles, television, radio coverage, promotion, advertising or online.”

Awareness ain't audience. But, hey. Four hundred twenty million ain't anything to shake a recycled stick at.

July 4, 2007


Abbas is the esteemed Iranian-born, Paris-based photographer for the Magnum photo agency, who, since the 1970s, has made breathtakingly poetic images in zones of conflict. This week, when I told him about Watching the World Change, he agreed to send me an account of his 9/11 experiences, describing how he had happened to be in Siberia that day, in the company of several shamans. These particular mystics, according to Abbas, are said to be able to cast hallucinatory spells on people.

Abbas e-mailed the following journal entry:

“Kyzyl, Republic of Tuva - Sept. 11, 2001. For two weeks now, I have been photographing shamans and their rituals which [are making] a spectacular comeback in this Siberian republic.

“When Vera, my dinner host, switches the television on, I wonder if one of the shamans I met in the afternoon, did not play a prank by programming a hallucination: the two World Trade towers in New York are in flame and they soon crumble down!

“Like many others throughout the world, I stay glued to the screen, fascinated by what is happening in New York, thirteen time zones away.

‘Who but Islamists could plan, organise and carry out such a sophisticated terrorist action? I see their violence as an act of desperation, because their utopia, Islamism, has failed everywhere. Their power of nuisance is made greater by their willingness to sacrifice their own lives for their cause. These 'martyrs' are spiritual heirs to [Iran’s Ayatollah] Khomeiny.

“How will the Umma, the world polity of Muslims, react? Will they, once again, engage in an exercise of exorcism by pretending Islamist terrorists are not Muslims, as they did when this ideology was violently defined as an alternative model in their own societies? How much longer will Muslims be hostages, sometimes willingly, to the rhetoric of Islamists with whom they share common values and an equal belief the Koran is sacred as the word of God?

“Does Islamism not feed on Islam?”

MANY THANKS, BJR. Nice review of Watching the World Change, by Patrick Sutherland, in the new edition of the British Journalism Review. He calls the book “impressively-researched. . . revealing. . . Friend communicates a profound knowledge and love of photography.” Since the article is unavailable online, I’m providing it here, in miniature, just in case any amoeba or deer ticks are curious.


SPEAKING OF ENGLAND. In Watching the World Change (pages 122-123) I am extremely critical of Britain’s surveillance culture: “A person out for a walk in the city of London – which bristles with a half million [closed-circuit TV’s], the largest such concentration in the world – is likely to have his or her picture taken three hundred times.”

The book goes on: “While [CCTV’s] helped in the arrest of plotters tied to the London Transit bombings of 2005, the cameras didn’t prevent the attacks, nor the deaths of fifty-two civilians, in the first place. . . . Sociologist and surveillance expert David Lyon, of Queen’s University, Ontario, has noted that in combating terror better money might be spent not on unmanned cameras but on tried and true human interdiction: the use of agents to infiltrate cells and informers to gather information, and intensive screening by trained professionals at airports and the like....

"Watchdog groups hold that there is little proof to suggest that a network of ubiquitous cameras makes an urban environment any safer. Britain’s own National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders noted in a post-9/11 report that ‘the extent of CCTV coverage and the government’s funding of new systems has increased dramatically over the last decade with very little substantive research to suggest that CCTV works.’ According to The New York Times, ‘the study suggested that low-tech measures, like money for better street lighting, could have a more pronounced effect.’"

And yet British authorities this week were able to swoop down on eight terror suspects in the London and Glasgow bomb-plots through a combination of surveillance cameras (at air terminals and on motorways, revealing faces and license plates), confiscated cell-phones (which contained telltale phone numbers of suspects' contacts), voluminous tips, and dogged investigative work by dozens and dozens of detectives, police, and intelligence experts. One could argue that, in this instance, camera-saturation – and the swift and highly publicized arrests – were crucial tools for law-enforcement and might serve as strong deterrents to future would-be terrorists.

While I agree that it makes sense to place cameras at major transport hubs and gathering spots (airports, bridges, key highways, key monuments and squares), I’m still troubled by the presence of such devices on virtually every street corner. The camera’s ubiquity erodes one’s sense of privacy and individual freedom in an open society. In addition, a vast surveillance network is too easily abused; given a horrific sequence of events, a nervous government would be able to evolve in a relatively short time from a security-conscious entity into a police state.

And now, of course, Senator Joe Lieberman is calling for more cameras in this country! Right in time for the 4th of July (when we're supposed to be celebrating our release from England's shackles)!

EVERYONE'S A PAPARAZZO. I neglected to point out a perceptive Thomas Friedman column from the June 27 edition of The New York Times. (It's available only to those who subscribe, online, to Times Select). And it's apty titled, “The Whole World is Watching.” In it, Friedman notes:

“When everyone has a blog, a MySpace page or Facebook entry, everyone is a publisher. When everyone has a cellphone with a camera in it, everyone is a paparazzo. When everyone can upload video on YouTube, everyone is filmmaker. When everyone is a publisher, paparazzo or filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. We’re all public figures now. The blogosphere has made the global discussion so much richer — and each of us so much more transparent.

"The implications of all this are the subject of a new book by Dov Seidman, founder and C.E.O. of LRN, a business ethics company. His book is simply called How. Because Seidman’s simple thesis is that in this transparent world “how” you live your life and “how” you conduct your business matters more than ever, because so many people can now see into what you do and tell so many other people about it on their own without any editor. To win now, he argues, you have to turn these new conditions to your advantage....

"'The persistence of memory in electronic form makes second chances harder to come by,' writes Seidman. 'In the information age, life has no chapters or closets; you can leave nothing behind, and you have nowhere to hide your skeletons. Your past is your present.' So the only way to get ahead in life will be by getting your 'hows' right…..'We do not live in glass houses (houses have walls); we live on glass microscope slides ... visible and exposed to all,” he writes. So whether you’re selling cars or newspapers (or just buying one at the newsstand), get your hows right — how you build trust, how you collaborate, how you lead and how you say you’re sorry. More people than ever will know about it when you do — or don’t.”

July 1, 2007


Herewith, the 100th entry on this book blog.

I'm gratified that so many readers have reacted to Watching the World Change and have continued to remain engaged with the book's themes by using this Web site to share their observations, photographs, and recollections.

In looking back over ten months of entries, perhaps the most startling contribution came from photo-shop owner Art NeJame, of Delray Beach, Florida, who revealed that he had been the man operating the camera when the ringleader of the 9/11 hijack-plot, Mohammed Atta, came into his store and asked to be photographed for his I.D. picture, which would later be printed in newspapers and magazines around the world. [CLICK HERE to read Art's chilling account, "I Photographed Mohammed Atta."]



And no other image on the Web site (published for the first time in America in Watching the World Change and then viewed on this blog by countless visitors) caused as much controversy as this one, which prompted an entire New York Times Op-Ed piece by Frank Rich, and an ensuing debate [covered HERE and HERE and HERE] among online columnists, Hoepker, and the subjects in the photograph: