A little information

The tiny hardware store on Park Row, a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center site, had a good number of customers yesterday afternoon. The whole block seems to have returned to life since J&R, the electronics retailer, reopened on Monday. Even the street vendors had returned.

I was at J&R to patriotically make a purchase. But what I wanted was out of stock. Oh, well. I’ll return in a few days. I’m not sure this is the best time to try to get it by mail order.

The large post office near J&R remains closed. It’s not because of the recent anthrax mailings; it’s within the crime-scene security zone.

Someday there will likely be an anthrax-related presentation at the National Postal Museum across the street from Union Station in Washington, D.C. In the meantime (until May 8), they have a tiny but heart-wrenching exhibit called “Forwarding Address Required.”

It features correspondence between Clara Breed, a San Diego librarian, and some of the children she had previously served. The children were among the more than 120,000 Americans who were taken from their homes, schools, farms, and businesses and sent to isolated U.S. internment camps during World War II. Their only crime was being of Japanese descent. There’s an online version of the exhibit at this URL: <http://www.si.edu/postal/far/exhibit.html>

The steel used in New York’s World Trade Center came from Japan, a sore subject among American steel interests when the decision was made in the 1960s. Minoru Yamasaki was the complex’s architect.

Given those two statements and the way Yamasaki looked, one might leap to conclusions about his nationality and his role in the selection of the steel vendor. But here’s more:

Yamasaki was born in Seattle, attended local schools, and got his baccalaureate degree from the University of Washington and his masters from New York University. His firm had offices in Detroit and St. Louis, and, like the World Trade Center, the vast majority of the buildings he designed were built in the U.S. (some of the others were in Saudi Arabia). Yamasaki was all American.

As for the steel coming from Japan, that was a cost-based decision made by the American bureaucrats of the bi-state Port Authority (which built and owns — or owned — the World Trade Center). For what it’s worth, the steel plates from Japan were formed into box columns in Yamasaki’s home town, Seattle.

Like the name Minoru Yamasaki, Uday Menon doesn’t sound as traditionally American as, say, George Washington (although many of our other presidents had unusual first and middle names: Quincy, Zachary, Millard, Ulysses Simpson, Rutherford Birchard, Abram, Grover, Gamaliel, Delano, Fitzgerald, Baines, and Milhous). Menon decided a couple of weeks ago, perhaps patriotically, to take his wife to a Broadway musical for their anniversary.

He called Telecharge, a ticket agency, and tried, unsuccessfully, for “The Producers.” His second choice was “Kiss Me, Kate.” He asked the ticket agent if it was popular. When he was offered seats in the orchestra at $90 each, he asked for something less expensive. When he was offered seats in the mezzanine, he asked how many rows there were in the orchestra so he could judge how far he’d be from the stage.

When Menon, who came to the U.S. from India in 1986, went to pick up his tickets, he was directed around the corner where, according to a confirmed report in the New York Times, he “was swept off the ground and handcuffed by four police officers.” It seems that the ticket agent, combining Menon’s strange (to her) name and accent with his questions about the popularity of the show and the number of rows, alerted the theater. The theater manager called his boss. The boss called the police. By that time, Menon was considered a possible suicide bomber.

After it was determined that Menon had no weapons and was a technology consultant at J. P. Morgan, the police unlocked his handcuffs, and the theater upgraded him to orchestra seats, refunded his money, and will be treating the couple to “The Producers.” But Menon did not end up favorably affected by the event.

“When I came out of the theater that night — I don’t know what caused me to do that — I averted my eyes when I saw two cops out there. I behaved like a criminal, a wanted man. I would not have dreamed about doing that a day before.”

More than 30 years ago, when I was walking on the boardwalk in Ocean Beach, New Jersey with some friends, I was suddenly surrounded by police asking to see my draft card (which I, unlawfully, did not happen to have with me at the time). After questioning me and accepting some other identification, the police decided that I was not the armed robber they were looking for. But they showed me the description they had. It was me, absolutely, right down to what I was wearing. There was no xenophobia or ethnic profiling involved.

I had no ill feelings about those police. They didn’t have guns drawn. I wasn’t handcuffed. They didn’t even charge me with not carrying my draft card (although they warned me about that). And they took the extra step of showing me the description of the suspect so I would know why they had stopped me.

A little information like that can go a long way. I wish I had more information about what we are doing in Afghanistan. I wish I knew what we are trying to do (more specifically than “eradicating terrorism”).

Some in the area say we are intentionally trying to kill innocent civilians. I don’t believe that. But, intentionally or not, we ARE killing innocent civilians.

Last week, when reports from the Taliban said we had killed 70 civilians, we acknowledged ten. This week, the Taliban says we’ve killed a thousand civilians. Does the same ratio hold?

We’ve also hit a mine-clearing organization’s offices, a well-marked warehouse filled with humanitarian refugee supplies, and several residential neighborhoods. The United Nations says we’ve hit a military hospital. The U.S. Defense Department says we may have hit or damaged a home for the elderly.

Aside from any direct damage, our aerial bombardment has slowed or stopped many relief efforts — which had been in operation before September 11. Would YOU want to fly or drive around distributing food and blankets in the midst of falling bombs? We have turned down requests from humanitarian organizations for a suspension of bombing until winter-relief supplies can be distributed.

I agree with those who say there are always likely to be civilian casualties associated with aerial bombardment. That’s why I’d really like to know what we are trying to achieve with that bombing.

We began by destroying air defenses, but, by the second day, aircraft were already returning to their carriers with their bombs on board having run out of targets. Then we started hitting Taliban soldiers.

Sometimes I hear we want to destroy the Taliban; sometimes I hear we want them to be part of a new coalition government in Afghanistan. Sometimes I hear we don’t want to assist the Northern Alliance, because if they take over it could lead to civil war; sometimes I hear we do.

At one Defense Department briefing, it was reported that we had destroyed a heavily defended airfield. A reporter asked where it was. That information, it was said, couldn’t be released for security reasons. The reporter asked why. After all, surely the Taliban already knew where it was and that we had destroyed it. Eventually, the location was released.

Minoru Yamasaki was once asked about the World Trade Center, “Why two 110-story buildings? Why not one 220-story building?” His reply was a joke. “I didn’t want to lose the human scale.”

From the top of the World Trade Center, humans on the ground looked tinier than ants. From the altitude of a plane dropping bombs, they can’t even be seen.

TTFN, Mark