Time after time

ANOTHER YEAR, another wallow in journalistic retrospection. Sure as bowl games and supersales follow the holidays, so does another annual rite of excess: journalistic reviews of the top-10 stories of the year, people of the year, films of the year, moments of the year, moments on film, and so on and on. By the time you read this, these rituals will have been fully re-enacted; they’re just beginning as I write. But if previous years are any guide, I’m not missing much. Year-end wrap-ups tend to be about as exciting and illuminating as the Monarch Notes for a book you’ve already read. For those who followed the events as they happened, the wrap’s redundant; those who didn’t won’t likely be any more interested the second time around.

Ah, but this year is different! As we were told at the time and will surely be told again, this was the Year When Everything Changed (not to be confused with all the previous years when everything changed, like the one 10 years ago when the Soviet Union tanked, History Ended, and a different George Bush ushered in the New World Order). Perhaps the wise ones will have something fresh to say about such a momentous year. Whatever they say, they’ll surely say it momentously.

The P-I got a head start on the game with a weeklong series, starting last Wednesday, of columnists’ takes on “A Year That Changed Us” (a more modest formulation of the standard label). The Weekly minded its priorities by dedicating last year’s last issue to the top-10 stories in popular music (excuse me, just “music”). The New York Times started even earlier, in its Dec. 20 “Week in Review,” with a collection of “Headlines From the Cutting Floor”—all the matters that seemed so important before Sept. 11 and don’t seem so important now.

Then there are all the issues and questions that really did matter and still matter now, but have been forgotten, conveniently, amid the War on Terror. So goodbye, prescription drugs for seniors and Social Security guarantees for later generations. Adios to the economic boost of a balanced federal budget—at least until the Democrats, perversely recast (for lack of a better) as the party of fiscal responsibility, regain power. Vaya con frijoles, environmental hopes; Osama bin Laden has given full cover to the Bush gang’s sabotage of the rules on mining, drilling, filling wetlands, and controlling emissions. Hasta linguini to the Enron scandal; in normal times, this saga of scamming, looting, and finally meltdown might play like Whitewater and the savings and loan collapse rolled into one. From 1993 to 2000, the company and its employees gave George W. $2 million—coconuts next to Whitewater’s peanuts. Its chief, Kenneth Lay, huddled with Vice President Cheney to draft a national energy policy based on the same Enronomics as its own disastrous business strategy. But hey, who’s got time for accountability? We’re in a war.

It’s not so much that everything changed on Sept. 11 as that change itself stopped, frozen in place. How very convenient.


The last column, on the weighing of lives and reporting of civilian casualties, touched a few nerves. It also recalled this ringing recent example of the sort of chauvinism expressed in Fleet Street’s fabled “50 frogs, 500 wogs, or one Englishman” standard for reporting accidents. On Oct. 3, Jim Lehrer, the loftily apolitical host of PBS’s News Hour, and Washington Post editor emeritus Ben Bradlee were lamenting the slaughter at the Twin Towers, which vastly outmatched other death tolls they’d noticed in recent years. “The British ambassador was telling me there were only 250 people killed in the Falklands War,” Bradlee mused. “There were six killed in Grenada. This is an enormous number.”

“Very few in the Gulf War,” chimed in Lehrer.

In fact, though only 236 British (our kind of people) died in the Falklands, 655 Argentine personnel also did. But the Argentineans were the invaders and so don’t count as much. Eighteen American servicemen died undertaking the Grenada invasion in 1984—along with 49 Grenadan and 29 Cuban defenders. And though Desert Storm cost very few American lives148—the total death toll was rather higher: an estimated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers, whom Saddam sacrificed like clay pigeons; 5,000 to 15,000 Iraqi civilians killed in the allied bombing, by Greenpeace’s estimate; and another 4,000 to 6,000 who died as a result soon afterward.

Not that Lehrer and Bradlee are any more blinkered or heartless than the next Beltway sage. But they prove the basic rule of wartime chauvinism: Some casualties are people to be remembered, mourned, even avenged, while others are estimates to be forgotten.

Eric Scigliano’s media column appears every other week.