Friday, April 28, 2006
Wary of watching 'United 93'
I walked into a Universal Pictures screening room in New York City this week to watch a movie about a day that changed our lives. "United 93" is about 9/11 and the last plane, the one that did not hit the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, the one that went down in a Pennsylvania field killing everyone onboard.
I did not much want to see this movie. I have witnessed enough mayhem through decades of reporting that I don't go out of my way to see it recreated on screen. And as expected, I spent the next couple of hours cringing in my chair at the brutally frank, unsentimental version of events captured in this film.
Put together with the cooperation of many of the victims' families, "United 93" neither reduces the terrorists to animalistic caricatures, nor elevates the passengers and crew to superheroes. It relentlessly grinds forward, almost like a documentary.
I used to be a movie critic, and I would not recommend this movie as entertainment. It is so unlike most films that many audience members will be unable to connect.
But the families of many 9/11 victims suggest a different reason people should see this film: Because it is more of a memorial than a movie. They see the terror, fear, violence, and despair so many of us felt on 9/11, but they see something else too: That on the day enemies attacked America from within, their loved ones on United 93 fought back.
We'll never know everything that happened on that plane that day. We'll never know how close this movie's account of events comes to real life. We do know, however, the plane crashed into an empty field, and not into the U.S. Capitol, not into the White House, not into a dense neighborhood, not into any of the targets that we have reason to believe it might have been headed toward.
For the families I talked to -- and now for me, too -- that's reason enough for a film like this to get more than just passing consideration.
A Bush supporter ... in Iran?
The rhetoric between Iranian and American officials is rising, and rising fast. So today, we decided to head into the streets of Tehran, Iran's capital city, to see what ordinary Iranians think of America.
We started our day in a shopping area in the northern part of Tehran, which is where more affluent and more liberal Iranians reside.
One man, off-camera, told us he was a fan of President Bush because he had gotten rid of Saddam Hussein. Iran and Iraq fought a bloody 8-year war in the early 1980s. But when we turned the camera on, he didn't want to touch that subject. It's a glimpse at some of the difficulties in getting people to truly open up to a Western television crew.
We also met a few Iranian women who were willing to talk. They said they separate the American people from the American government and had great things to say about American society. One even said she models herself after what she considers the best parts of being American -- working hard and working well with others.
From northern Tehran, we traveled south, toward the more conservative part of the city, where we interviewed people at Tehran's biggest market.
People there said they aren't very aware of Americans, because they get very little information from the local media. One shop-owner warned us that as long as the American government continues to pressure Iran, Iranians will say, "Death to America." But not to the American people, he added.
Many of the Iranians we spoke to have split views of America. They say great things about the American people, but reserve harsh words for the American government.
These harsh words manifest themselves in some rather public ways. Off a main highway in Iran, there stands a government-sanctioned mural that reads "Down with America" on a U.S. flag dotted with skulls and bombs. And just days ago, a few hours outside the capital, there were celebrations marking the 26th anniversary of a botched U.S. rescue attempt to save Americans being held hostage in Iran.
The nuclear dispute is clearly heating up between Iran and the United States. But from the handful of Iranians we spoke to, they are hoping the two peoples can connect even if their governments cannot.
Thursday, April 27, 2006
Hybrid drivers face 'Prius backlash'
You have to be careful when you toss around the words "road rage" in California, because people are shot and killed fairly often on the freeways out here. Police say that's partly because the freeway system is so huge it's like a city unto itself, a city that once in a while has a shooting death.
But there is a kind of non-violent, low-level road rage building out here, and it has to do with special privileges for owners of hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius. It's been dubbed, "Prius Backlash."
First, the background: Under legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, drivers of the highest gas mileage hybrids -- only certain Toyotas and Hondas -- can now use California carpool lanes even if the driver is alone. If you try using those lanes alone in your Escalade, or even your Jetta, you'll get pulled over by a cop on a motorcycle, and the minimum fine is $271.00.
So not only is that nerdy guy you made fun of in high school now getting 52 miles per gallon, he's getting special treatment from Arnold himself, which allows him to zip past you in the carpool lane, while you sit stuck in traffic.
And here's the complicating factor: Not only is this a special privilege for people who buy certain cars, but the hybrid owners, as a group, have a reputation for driving slowly. Sometimes maddeningly so. That's because they get better gas mileage at lower speeds, and if they didn't care about gas mileage, then they wouldn't be driving a hybrid in the first place.
This is why Prius drivers like Jane Velez-Mitchell (Yes, the TV legal analyst who sometimes appears on CNN Headline News) say they've been yelled at, honked at, cut off in traffic and generally messed with.
Some advice: Don't mess with Jane unless you want an earful.
"I do get hostility, especially from SUV drivers," she told us. "And let's face it, they've made a really bad choice in their vehicle. ... If your little Prius is standing in the way of their Escalade, they get angry. Well, that's not how it works. Just because you drive a big Escalade doesn't mean you're more powerful or more important or should be able to get in front of me."
Folks on the other side of this divide say, essentially, "Lady, will you shut up and drive?"
You'll find these anti-hybrid sentiments on car forums like the one on edmunds.com, where someone writes, "Hey all you hyper milers, if you want to go slow and save gas, get a bicycle." The same writer, complaining at how cautiously some Prius drivers accelerate off the mark to conserve gas, claims hybrids are so slow "the Semi next to them with two trailers and towing the USS Nimitz has no problem out-accelerating them."
Despite the backlash, Velez-Mitchell has no plans to ditch her hybrid for a gas-guzzling speedster...or a semi.
Friend or foe: Candy's version
Ever see that program on the Game Show Network (no comments please) called "Friend or Foe"? Let's play my version.
Who made the following statement, friend or foe?
"Bush's advisers have swaddled their guy in so many cloying alliterations -- he's a 'compassionate conservative' and a 'reformer with results' -- that he has become a living cartoon." (08/00)
How about this one?
"The newly passive George Bush has become something of an embarrassment." (11/05)
Last one, friend or foe?
"No president has looked this impotent this long when it comes to defending presidential powers and prerogatives." (9/05)
Answer to all of the above: Tony Snow, the new White House spokesman. With a spokesman like that, who needs a press corps? Just kidding.
The truth is, Bush administration officials are enjoying this little kerfuffle over Snow's statements. They hope his pointed words against President Bush (and believe me, they were few and far between in a voluminous body of work as a writer and pundit) will run against the widespread notion that the White House is intellectually inbred.
For my TV piece on this subject, I talked to a lot of people about Snow's new role. None of them -- Democrats or Republicans -- think Snow's paper trail has much staying power. They believe events and issues will quickly overtake the google searching for Snow's old statements.
The truth is, if you're a columnist who toes the party line 100 percent of the time, people might as well just tune into the White House spokesman every day. Oh wait.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Passing the buck for high gas prices
Who should be accountable for gasoline running at three dollars a gallon? Who caused bills at the pump to swell to fifty, sixty, even a hundred dollars? Who is to blame?
"Not us," say the American oil companies that turn crude into gas, even though this week they are announcing staggering earnings for the first quarter of the year ($16 billion expected for the top three companies alone).
Blame it on the foreign oil producers, they say. Foreign producers are charging more for crude oil, and the people who invest in oil are willing to pay it, because they are nervous about potential disruptions in the supply ladder.
Blame China and India, some international affairs experts say. The economies in those countries have heated up, sucking up oil from the world market.
Blame it on lack of innovation, environmentalists say. The United States could have, should have, long ago developed a better alternative fuel program, they argue.
Blame it on drivers, economists say. As long as they are willing to pay $3.00 a gallon, that is what gas will cost.
Driving by my local gas stations these days with a quarter tank left is like playing some sort of wacky lottery; just hoping I'll run dry during a price dip. Is the cost of gas breaking my bank account? No. But watching those numbers spin on the pump is surreal when I think back to just a few years ago. Same gas. Same place. WiIdly different tab in the end.
The problem for consumers is that it is virtually impossible to prove where the blame lies...or if anyone should be blamed at all. The system by which we get gasoline is so vast that there are plenty of opportunities along the way for extra pennies to be skimmed, extra dollars to be gouged.
So what are you thinking out there as you watch the big board at your gas station? Who do you blame? Anyone?
Gas for 40 cents a gallon
With gas prices reaching record highs in the United States, we decided to see what was happening here in Iran, so we went to a gas station and found that a gallon of gas costs only about 40 cents.
Not a real surprise given that Iran has the world's second largest oil reserve, but there's a hitch to all the low cost gas -- congestion.
With gas so cheap, everyone can afford it, which results in people here driving everywhere. This means traffic is heavy and congestion is building.
A big reason why gas is so cheap in Iran is because the government subsidizes it, but that could soon stop. The Iranian government is set to ration gas in the coming months, and if you want to buy above the allotted amount, the cost goes up five-fold.
Iranians we spoke to at the pump had differing opinions. Some said rationing will help force people to drive less and use public transportation more. Others said it would only deepen the country's economic divide, where the rich will be able to buy as much as they want and the poor will not.
The government wants to ration gas partly because Iran doesn't have a huge capacity to refine oil, even though it sits on so much of it. So Iran ends up importing 40 percent of its gas from other countries, mainly India. The less it has to import, the more self-reliant the country can become.
And then there's the larger issue looming amid the nuclear dispute between Iran and the West. Will Iran use oil as a weapon and cut its supply to cripple the West? Iranian leaders have said so far that's not the plan.
But at the gas station, many Iranians told us that if Iran is pushed into a corner, oil production is an asset they should use to their advantage.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Move or get married
Imagine you've bought your dream house. And you've moved in. Now, imagine being told you can't live there because you -- and your children -- are not considered a family. That's the situation facing Olivia Shelltrack, Fondrey Loving and their three kids in Black Jack, Missouri.
They moved from Minneapolis to the St. Louis suburb a couple of months ago. I visited them recently at their five-bedroom home. They told me Black Jack requires all homes to have an occupancy permit, but that they were denied one. They said they were told that because there are more than three people in their house, and not all are related by blood or marriage, they don't meet Black Jack's definition of a family.
As Black Jack's mayor, Norman McCourt, put it recently at a city council meeting: "It's overcrowding because it's not a single family. It's a single-family residence and they're not a single family."
Olivia and Fondrey aren't married and had two of their three children out of wedlock. The third child is Olivia's from a previous relationship. They appealed to the city's Board of Adjustment for an exemption, figuring it wouldn't be hard for anyone to see they're a real family. But they were denied. Olivia and Fondrey told me they came away from that meeting feeling like they were given a clear message: Get married or move.
"Just because we don't meet your definition of a family doesn't make us any less of a family. ... We've been together for 13 years. ... We're raising three kids together," Olivia said.
So the couple called the ACLU. That's when they discovered at least three other families have had this kind of trouble in Black Jack before. The ACLU showed CNN a letter it says it received from Mayor McCourt in 1999 explaining why another family was being denied an occupancy permit at the time.
"While it would be naive to say that we don't recognize that children are born out of wedlock frequently these days, we certainly don't believe that is the type of environment within which children should be brought into this world," the mayor wrote.
The city has issued a statement saying at least 89 municipalities in the St. Louis area have similar occupancy permit requirements. The ordinances are designed to eliminate boarding houses and illegal renting of rooms, but the city now admits its 20-year-old ordinance may not be in step with the times.
And after a public hearing scheduled for Thursday, Black Jack may soften the wording of its ordinance. If the ordinance isn't changed, the ACLU says it will sue the city, arguing it is violating federal fair housing rules and the constitutional right to privacy. In the meantime, all Shelltrack and Loving can do is hope the city won't force them to move.
Playing politics with gas prices
There's a revolution of sorts brewing at a small gas station near Fallston, North Carolina. The Rockett Express has shut down its gas pumps in protest over high prices. The owners say they would rather stop selling gasoline than pass along to their customers the additional 11 cents more per gallon they say they have to pay than their brand-name competitors down the road.
The 'outrage' factor has spread. In the San Diego area, at least three independent stations also closed in protest after they say they were quoted 40 cents per gallon more than their brand-name competitors.
It's one thing when customers can't afford the gas, but it would seem to be a whole different ballgame when the gas stations can't afford to buy it. And as the price of oil keeps ticking ever higher, this could be just a hint of what lies ahead.
The cost of gasoline has become an incendiary election-year issue even though there may be little politicians can do to affect gas prices. Democrats and Republicans are lining up to say they're on the side of consumers.
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist sent a letter to President Bush on Monday urging his administration to keep a close eye out for price gouging. On Tuesday, Bush announced a federal probe into cheating in gas markets.
Democrats, meanwhile, stood up to say that not only does the White House need to investigate price gouging, but let's also take a look at those plush subsidies and tax breaks that the oil industry got in last year's energy bill. Big oil was granted billions of dollars in tax breaks and other incentives over the next decade.
As consumers struggle to make ends meet and the price of fuel skyrockets, many people are asking: Why does an industry that is making record profits need a government handout? Weren't those subsidies designed to keep prices down?
For the record, the five largest oil companies, Exxon Mobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhillips took home more than $111 billion in profits last year. That's greater than the GDP of 174 of the world's countries (2005 figures). With oil above $70 a barrel, it would hardly seem necessary to encourage people to go out and look for it, yet the government still does. Some people argue that without subsidies, the price of gas would be higher still.
There is something to be thankful for in all this: Thankful that you're not buying gas in Norway, England or Italy, where it hovers around the $6.00 per gallon mark. Alternately, you could wish you filled up your car in Kuwait, where gas is about 78 cents per gallon, or Caracas, where Venezuelans are paying a little over a dime. Or you can get used to paying $3.00 per gallon right here at home, because that's probably where it's going to stay for a while.
Just keep your fingers crossed that nothing disrupts the supply chain, because if it does, the price could go even higher.
Monday, April 24, 2006
Bin Laden's relevance
Osama bin Laden always seems to be with us. Or at least with me.
I've spent the past few weeks in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan covering terrorism; before that I was in Jordan.
During this trip, I spent some time working on a CNN Presents documentary about bin Laden that will come out later this year. I talked to people who knew him in high school, in college, and in Afghanistan. Some unusual facts emerged: He used to drive a Chrysler and liked to spend time riding horses.
But the question that dominated my interviews about bin Laden concerns his significance: Is bin Laden still relevant? Or to move the discussion forward: Do tapes like the one that came out Sunday still matter?
Most of the people I spoke to would like to say, "No, he isn't relevant." And maybe bin Laden isn't significant anymore in terms of running a worldwide network like a CEO. But then you get three blasts going off in an Egyptian resort town the day after bin Laden's tape surfaces and you have to wonder if there is a connection.
It is highly doubtful, though possible, that whoever did this attack was acting directly under bin Laden's orders (or those of his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri). After all, bin Laden's most significant activity these days seems to be sending out audio tapes on an intermittent basis to Al Jazeera.
But think about bin Laden differently for a minute. Think of him as the face on a brand, a kind of figurehead, instead of viewing him as a CEO-type. His brand is anti-Western (what he calls the Zionists and Crusaders) and pro-his distorted version of Islam.
Viewed this way, bin Laden is able to get things done even if he doesn't have a direct hand in planning and helping carry out particular terrorist attacks. There are people who believe in the bin Laden brand enough to act upon his exhortations. That doesn't mean he has any direct connection to what happened today in Egypt. But it does mean he remains an important figure.
So back to my original question: Is bin Laden still relevant? You tell me.
Illegal immigrants' cheap ticket home
We're 33,000 feet above the Sonora Desert in Arizona. Guards are watching for any sudden movement. They are wearing dark sunglasses so the passengers can't see their eyes. In all, there are 14 of them: Federal marshals trained in hand-to-hand combat. The passengers are for the most part wearing shackles and handcuffs.
Welcome to "Con Air." That's what Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials call this flight full of undocumented immigrants, which left from Williams International Airport in Mesa, Arizona. From this airport alone, three full flights leave each week bound for Central America.
This "expedited removal" program began last September in order to cut through the red tape and remove undocumented immigrants from the United States -- not within months or years, as was typical, but within days. The number of flights nationally has already been increased to 12 per week. ICE officials say they've removed 81,000 people in three months this year. Never before have so many illegal immigrants been removed from the United States in such a short period of time, these officials tell us.
The flight we're on is headed for Honduras. Onboard, we find immigrants separated by two classifications: 1) Criminal aliens, whose crimes range from heroin smuggling, murder and petty offenses; 2) Those whose sole crime is being in the United States illegally.
When we land, we realize Honduran officials are almost embarrassed to receive us. They can't keep their own people in their own country, and there are three reasons for it: No money, no money, no money.
After touching down, we visit some small villages outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras' capital. It appears as though half the boys are gone. Where are they? Many people told us they are in America looking for work.
On this trip, we met one young man, Marlon Vargas, 23, who has snuck into the United States seven different times. He says the United States is making it more difficult for him to stay in the country, so he plans to join the Honduran military instead of trying again to get into the United States.
Prior to the "Con Air" program, illegal aliens would have gotten written notice to appear for a deportation hearing. More often than not, they wouldn't show, according to Gary Mead, assistant director of ICE. Now, they often are on plane out of the country within days.
"It's a hope that these people, when they get back, will explain to others that there is no safe haven anymore, and that when people are apprehended, they are processed quickly and they are returned quickly," Mead said.