Confronting reality: Occam’s Razor and the 9/11 “Truth Movement”

When I walked across Cooper Square last Thursday just after dark, I found two columns of bluish light rising into the Manhattan night sky, an illuminated reminder of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The “Tribute in Light” was a sight that stirred memories of that tragic day in New York seven years ago, and all that has followed.

It is a changed country now: innocence lost; American soldiers and marines in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq; and many Americans deeply conflicted about the “War on Terror” and what focusing on homeland security means for civil liberties in a democratic society. And, after the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London, and numerous foiled plots, there is a deep unease about our continued vulnerability to terrorism.

Others have responded to the danger of Islamic terrorism, however, by minimizing the threat, or blaming the victim, or embracing conspiracy theories that obscure the reality of 9/11. I found evidence of that last week when, along with John Ray, a very bright Carnegie-Mellon student who blogs at Conspiracies R Not Us, I appeared on the Toronto-based show “The Agenda with Steve Paikin” to offer the skeptics’ view of the “evidence” behind 9/11 conspiracy theories. Also on the show: two Canadian academics, Graeme MacQueen and Michael Keefer, who argued that the American government deliberately staged the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to provide a pretext for war in the Middle East. (You can view the program in its entirety here.)

I was somewhat surprised that MacQueen and Keefer proved to be such fervent members of the 9/11 “Made it Happen on Purpose” (MIHOP) school, because it’s a hard position to defend considering its logical gaps and inconsistencies. For starters, MIHOP advocates won’t concede the obvious: that 19 Arab terrorists hijacked four airplanes on 9/11; that Al Qaeda engineered the attacks; that jetliners loaded with fuel made effective weapons; and that the explanations of structural engineers and fire safety experts for why the World Trade Center towers and nearby buildings collapsed make sense. Instead, most in the MIHOP school contend that the Twin Towers and World Trade Center 7 were brought down by controlled demolition; many think the Pentagon was hit not by a plane but by a missile; and few accept what they call the “official story” about the crash of United 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. MIHOP believers see “an inside job” and/or a “false flag operation” behind the events of 9/11 and blame the “neo-cons” in the Bush Administration (and sometimes, with an anti-Semitic twist, the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, as well).

Occam’s Razor and 9/11 conspiracies

As I pointed out on “The Agenda,” these grand conspiracy theories violate Occam’s Razor, the insight of a 14th century Franciscan that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is the best. These theories also run afoul of basic logic: Why crash airliners into buildings AND bother rigging them beforehand for controlled demolition? Wouldn’t the attacks alone be enough of a provocation? For that matter, why bother with hijacking planes? Wouldn’t a massive truck bomb, or bombs, work just as well and present fewer logistical challenges? Why not replicate the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center (or Oklahoma City)? Why make the conspiracy so elaborate and so complex?

The controlled demolition theory doesn’t make much sense either. To rig a large office building with explosives takes professional demolition firms months to accomplish. How could massive amounts of explosives been placed secretly in three skyscrapers, let alone one, without detection? And as John Ray noted, the larger the conspiracy gets, the greater the number of people involved—to the point where hundreds of thousands must be part of the “cover-up.” Would they all remain silent? Would no one be moved to confess? With all of the media attention following 9/11, wouldn’t the secret have leaked out? Further, there isn’t any evidence of controlled demolition, something that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) noted in its reports on the collapse of WTC 1, 2 and 7: no witnesses, no seismic record, no demolition equipment in the wreckage.

The “Alice in Wonderland” nature of the MIHOP fantasies makes them relatively easy to debunk. The Let It Happen on Purpose (LIHOP) argument, on the other hand, while also flawed, relies on a more subjective approach to the question of 9/11. LIHOP advocates say 9/11 happened because the Bush Administration had advance knowledge of Al Qaeda’s plans and, eager to fight a war for oil, either turned a blind eye to the plot, or worked to facilitate it. There is no “smoking gun” evidence for LIHOP, and the record suggests incompetence, indifference, and ignorance on the part of the authorities, not collusion, but since LIHOP asks us to assume the worst about the U.S. government, it has gained adherents from the far Left and Right, and will continue to attract support.

Confronting the reality of 9/11

My appearance on “The Agenda” provoked further comment in the days that followed: I received several emails from Canadians (including those from a retired pilot and a firefighter) apologizing for what they saw as the anti-Americanism of MacQueen and Keefer, and assuring me that most Canadians accepted the reality of 9/11. I replied that no apologies were necessary, that Canada had supported the U.S. in its pursuit of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that the leaders of the 9/11 “Truth Movement” were Americans. I also received some nasty feedback from foot soldiers in that movement, denouncing me as a CIA media plant and hinting darkly of the fate that awaited such “traitors.”

Despite their nastiness, my sense is that that the 9/11 “Truth Movement” is losing ground. The debunking done by Popular Mechanics, the BBC, and independent bloggers and skeptics, and the recent release of the NIST’s WTC 7 report ruling out controlled demolition as a cause of the building’s collapse, has put the 9/11 deniers on the defensive.

At the same time, it seems that many in the U.S. are slipping back into a pre-9/11 complacency on the question of terrorism. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released last week found only one in 10 Americans who say terrorism is the most important issue in voting for president, and “concerns about an impending terrorist strike are at the lowest point on record” since 9/11.

Also last week the New York Times carried a chilling op-ed piece by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic (“On Nov. 4, Remember 9/11“) warning of the dangers of nuclear terrorism and noting that “[m]any proliferation experts I have spoken to judge the chance of such a detonation to be as high as 50 percent in the next 10 years. I am an optimist, so I put the chance at 10 percent to 20 percent.” Goldberg doesn’t flinch from confronting the reality of 9/11 seven years later: “The next president must do one thing, and one thing only, if he is to be judged a success: He must prevent Al Qaeda, or a Qaeda imitator, from gaining control of a nuclear device and detonating it in America.” It is advice that we can only hope that Senator Obama or Senator McCain will heed.


 

Debunking some specific claims made by MacQueen and Keefer on “The Agenda”

 

John Ray and I tried to refute as many of the outlandish claims made by Professors MacQueen and Keefer during our appearance on “The Agenda.” We didn’t get to deal with all of them, and so, in the interests of setting the record straight, I am offering a more detailed debunking of six of their claims.

1. American air defenses were deliberately weakened by war games on 9/11. FALSE.

While it is true there were a number of military exercises that day, it made no difference in the readiness of the American military to respond to a hijacked jet, and, if anything, might have allowed a quicker response to terror attacks (if there had been more timely communication between civilian air traffic controllers and their military counterparts, which there wasn’t). There were only 14 fighter jets on alert in the contiguous 48 states, none of which were diverted because of the “war games.”

SEE: Popular Mechanics, “Debunking the 9/11 Myths” and the website Debunk 9/11 Myths.

2. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been politicized by the Bush Administration, and therefore cannot be trusted to investigate the WTC collapses. FALSE.

There is no evidence that NIST has been politicized. The WTC reports were reviewed by professional associations of architects, structural engineers, and fire safety experts (for example, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the Structural Engineers Association of New York (SEONY), and National Fire Protection Association) without anyone questioning NIST’s objectivity, professionalism or adherence to the scientific method. The one dissenter cited by Professor Keefer, fire safety expert James Quintiere, has differed with NIST over its investigative approach but agreed with NIST’s conclusion that controlled demolition was not involved. In Quintere’s comments on NIST’s WTC 7 report, he dismissed demolition claims, according to Newsday:

Quintiere stressed, however, that he never believed explosives played a role. He said NIST wasted time employing outside experts to consider it.

3. At the Zacarias Moussaoui trial, the FBI testified that conservative commentator Barbara Olson could not have called her husband from the doomed flight (AA 77) that crashed into the Pentagon. FALSE.

The FBI identified one interrupted phone call from Olson, and could not determine who was the source for four other calls from the plane. It is likely that some of these unidentified calls were made by Olson, as reported by her husband. The 9/11 Commission reported:

The records available for the phone calls from American 77 do not allow for a determination of which of four “connected calls to unknown numbers” represent the two between Barbara and Ted Olson, although the FBI and DOJ believe that all four represent communications between Barbara Olson and her husband’s office (all family members of the Flight 77 passengers and crew were canvassed to see if they had received any phone calls from the hijacked flight, and only Renee May’s parents and Ted Olson indicated that they had received such calls).The four calls were at 9:15:34 for 1 minute, 42 seconds; 9:20:15 for 4 minutes, 34 seconds; 9:25:48 for 2 minutes, 34 seconds; and 9:30:56 for 4 minutes, 20 seconds. FBI report, “American Airlines Airphone Usage,” Sept. 20, 2001; FBI report of investigation, interview of Theodore Olson, Sept. 11, 2001; FBI report of investigation, interview of Helen Voss, Sept. 14, 2001; AAL response to the Commission’s supplemental document request, Jan. 20, 2004.

SEE: 9/11 Commission Report, Note 57

4. The WTC 7 fires “died down” and couldn’t have caused the thermal expansion described by NIST and the resulting progressive collapse. FALSE.

Fires raged, unchecked, on many floors of WTC 7 for some seven hours. Firefighters reported this at the time, and FEMA and NIST found photographic evidence of this.

SEE: Photos here from the scene.

5. The steel sample taken from WTC 7 had damage suggesting the impact of thermite or some unexplained chemical. FALSE.

Here’s what the BBC has reported about his claim.

In New England the claims of the mysterious melted steel from Tower Seven has been unravelled at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute near Boston.

Professor Richard Sisson says it did not melt, it eroded. The cause was the very hot fires in the debris after 9/11 that cooked the steel over days and weeks.

Professor Sisson determined that the steel was attacked by a liquid slag which contained iron, sulphur and oxygen.

However, rather than coming from thermite, the metallurgist Professor Sisson thinks the sulphur came from masses of gypsum wallboard that was pulverised and burnt in the fires. He says:

“I don’t find it very mysterious at all, that if I have steel in this sort of a high temperature atmosphere that’s rich in oxygen and sulphur this would be the kind of result I would expect.”

SEE: BBC News, “The Conspiracy Files

6. WTC 7 is the only steel-framed skyscraper in the world to have collapsed solely because of fire. TRUE.

WTC 7 is also the only steel-framed skyscraper with vulnerable long-span construction subjected to unchecked fires for seven hours (a sprinkler system was disabled when the water main broke). 9/11 “Truth Movement” advocates point to office tower fires in Madrid and Caracas which didn’t bring those structures down, yet fail to note that these buildings had their steels columns encased in cement (unlike WTC 1, 2 and 7).

SEE: Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories


An extended commentary on the 9/11 “Truth Movement” can be found at “Exposing the 9/11 conspiracy fantasies.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Belonging and betrayal

More evidence surfaced recently to support the truism that one country’s traitor can become another country’s hero.

In October, Queen Elizabeth honored Oleg Gordievsky, formerly a senior KGB officer and double agent for the British who defected to the West in 1985, naming him Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George. After the ceremony Gordievsky was photographed with Baroness Margaret Thatcher, and the Cold War’s Iron Maiden managed a smile for the camera.

In November, in what The Times of London called “tit-for-tat,” Vladimir Putin’s Russia awarded the Order of Friendship to George Blake, a former MI6 agent who had spied for the Soviet Union. Blake was honored at his 85th birthday celebration in Moscow. (The Times described Blake as a “notorious traitor” in the lead sentence of his story, displaying an uncharacteristic lack of Anglo reserve.) “It is hard to overrate the importance of the information received through Blake,” explained Sergei Ivanov, a spokesman for the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service.

Blake, who betrayed numerous MI6 operatives to the KGB before his 1961 detection and apprehension, escaped from prison and fled to the Soviet Union in 1966. He is apparently unrepentant about his role as a double agent, telling the English-language Russia Today cable television network:

I could have left the service, and I could have joined the Communist Party, and I could have sold the Daily Worker at a street corner, and many people would say that would have been a more honorable cause. But I felt that I could do more for the cause, make a far greater contribution if I set aside my scruples.

Also in November Putin saw fit to posthumously honor a previously obscure American double agent, George Koval, awarding him the Hero of Russia medal for his role in penetrating the Manhattan Project, which developed America’s atomic bomb. Koval, dubbed the “spy who came in from the cornfields,” had what William J. Broad of the New York Times called “an all-American cover“: born in Iowa, educated in New York, and by all accounts a decent baseball player (a sport also beloved by Fidel Castro).

Whether Koval’s spying actually “helped speed up considerably the time it took for the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb of its own,” as the Russians claimed, is unknowable, given that the KGB and GRU archives have been closed to Western scholars. Putin’s intelligence agencies are fully capable of trying to rewrite history to shield other double agents, even those long gone, or to obscure the true outlines of the conspiracy.

There is some irony here, of course; Gordievsky, Blake, and Koval all earned these national decorations for their treachery, for behavior (lying, double dealing, revealing secrets, betraying trust) that is normally considered beyond the pale in any other circumstances by all civilized communities.

Their betrayals are not completely symmetrical, however, for they betrayed different societies: Blake and Koval conspired against the tolerant liberal Western democracies of Great Britain and the United States, while Gordiesvsky’s covert work was directed against a totalitarian police state. Certainly we can judge Gordiesvky’s treason differently; an argument can be made that he chose the lesser of two evils in spying on his colleagues, even if we don’t fully endorse the 17th century dramatist Pierre Corneille’s belief that “treachery is noble when aimed at tyranny.” And history suggests that Gordiesvky chose correctly, in the broadest sense.

The complexity of betrayal

This may all be true, and yet “honoring” a double agent, even a Gordiesvsky, can be tricky, an exercise fraught with ambiguity. What is being honored? Motives or results? Many of these agents became spies for reasons more personal than political. If their treachery was spurred by circumstance, rather than conviction or principle, should it be judged differently? (Which brings to mind the words of Archbishop Thomas Becket in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “The last temptation is the worst treason/ To do the right thing for the wrong reason.”)

Blake’s comments to Russia Today raised another complication for those who may be tempted to admire the “courage” of the double agent: Soviet moles in the West consciously chose to support the Communist cause covertly, instead of openly espousing their Marxist-Leninist beliefs. They could have opposed Western political systems directly and openly. Instead, they chose to “set aside their scruples,” as Blake did, and abandon those decadent bourgeois notions of patriotism, integrity, trust, and honor.

It is ironic, then, that some revisionist historians still try to find something honorable in the actions of those American Communists who spied for Stalin, arguing, as has Ellen Schrecker, that these men and women “did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism.” Gordiesvsky and other Iron Curtain spies, on the other hand, did not have the option of open political activism, unless they hankered for the Gulag or execution.

In considering the decisions made in the 1930s and 1940s, we should remember that many Americans and Britons opposed the rise of Hitler and Mussolini without volunteering to spy on their friends and colleagues. While the archival research of historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr has convincingly demonstrated the close connection between the American Communist Party leadership and Soviet-directed espionage, those who decided to spy for the KGB nevertheless had to elect to do so. The historical record shows that some refused to take that step; others agreed to disloyalty.

The mind of the traitor

What, then, compels people to betray their country? Historians, psychiatrists, and intelligence experts offer explanations which can be broadly grouped into three categories: betrayal for money; betrayal for ideological or political reasons; and betrayal linked to a spy’s personality. All of these factors can come into play in the making of a traitor.

The mercenary strain of double agent was prevalent during the last few decades of the Cold War: Aldrich H. Ames, Robert P. Hanssen, Earl Edwin Pitts, and John Anthony Walker, Jr., all accepted payment from the Soviets in exchange for classified information. These cases represented a break from the more ideologically-prompted espionage of the past.

Indeed, until the mid-1960s ideological commitment was the most common reason for spying against the U.S. or its Western allies. For example, historian Maurice Isserman, in his essay “Disloyalty As a Principle: Why Communists Spied” (published in 2000) argued that American Communists who doubled for the Soviets in the 1930s and 1940s did so because they felt they were “serving a greater cause,” what Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev called “romantic anti-fascism.” While Isserman conceded that some of this spying resulted from “the same complicated mixtures of reasons that almost always motivate people to break with accepted patterns of behavior and belief,” he nonetheless saw principle as a primary motivation.

Yet the more we learn about the psychology of the double agent, the less ideology alone appears to be a factor. The narcissistic excitement of wielding secret power, of revenging imagined or actual slights, of converting alienation into action, at some level seems more vital to the traitor than does “serving the cause.” Jerrold M. Post, a psychiatrist and psychological profiler for the CIA, wrote in his now de-classified 1975 paper “Anatomy of Treason,” that narcissism, or extreme self-absorption, was a characteristic quality found in many double agents; further, Post noted, these figures “… feel they are destined to play a special role, have an insatiable appetite for recognition and success.” Thus being passed over for promotion often triggered the spying, as it did with GRU mole Oleg Penkovsky, whose career was blocked because of his father’s past as a White Russian officer. (Penkovsky was discovered, convicted after a show trial, and executed by the Soviets in 1963).

This narcissism is often coupled with feelings of isolation, alienation, and marginalization. As Harold “Kim” Philby, who betrayed both Crown and country during the Cold War, once explained: “To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged.” A sense of separation, of “not fitting in,” can arise from many factors: an awkward childhood; sexual orientation or behavior at odds with societal norms; outsider status (because of religion or class) in a closed community, such as a British public school or an Ivy League college; troubled family relationships; excessive drug and alcohol use; perhaps an innate aversion to authority.

Thus it is possible for even the most privileged members of a society, such as Philby and his fellow Cambridge Spies, Britain’s most infamous spy ring, to feel alienated, often for hidden or private reasons. The Cambridge Five were sexually rebellious in a morally conservative time: Philby and John Cairncross were drawn to adultery and sexual adventure; Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess were closeted homosexuals; and Donald Maclean struggled with his bisexuality.

Another example: while George Blake now claims that it was indiscriminate American bombing of villages during the Korean War that turned him towards Moscow, it is more likely that he was reacting to upper class English anti-Semitism. The son of a Spanish Jew, Blake was spurned as a suitor by the family of a proper English girl because of his background. Joel Barr, who was part of the Rosenberg spy ring, cited the eviction of his family from their Brooklyn apartment during the Depression as what spurred him to become a Communist, and later, a spy (Barr’s story is recounted in Steve Usdin’s Engineering Communism).

Secret compensation

There are compensations, primarily psychic, for becoming a double agent. Whether spying for the KGB, CIA, or MI6, the betrayer joins a welcoming new community, one that has not injured him and can help him settle old scores. The betrayer finally belongs. (Not surprisingly, intelligence agencies have often awarded secret medals and other honors, including high rank, to the double agent—recognizing that “insatiable appetite for recognition.”) In Alan Furst’s historical novel, Night Soldiers, the young Russians and Eastern Europeans recruited into the NKVD find they have joined a family of sorts, one that responds harshly to injustice and punishes its enemies. There is also the added pleasure of hitting back, secretly, at those who have wronged the double agent.

Intelligence agency talent spotters have long recognized the profile of the potential mole. As Ben Macintyre of The Times of London has noted, the KGB’s Pavel Sudoplatov looked for those “…who are hurt by fate or nature —the ugly, those craving power or influence but defeated by unfavorable circumstances. In co-operation with us, all these find a peculiar compensation. The sense of belonging to an influential, powerful organization will give them a feeling of superiority over the handsome and prosperous people around them.”

Macintyre adds: “As a trade, espionage attracts more than its share of the damaged, the lonely and the plain weird. But all spies crave undetected influence, that secret compensation. Espionage may spring from patriotism or treachery, but ultimately it is an act of imagination.”

Timeless concerns

If the Cold War drama involving Gordievsky, Blake, and Koval seemed a trifle dated, news reports in November of the discovery of a possible mole in the CIA with ties to the radical group Hezbollah served as a reminder that the dynamics of betrayal are timeless.

Nada Nadim Prouty, a Lebanese national who became an American citizen and had been employed by both the FBI and CIA, pleaded guilty to “charges of conspiracy, naturalization fraud and unauthorized computer access” and, according to court documents “at one point used her security clearance to access restricted files about the terrorist group Hezbollah.”

U.S. authorities said there was no evidence that Prouty had passed secrets to Hezbollah, but, as the Washington Post noted, Prouty’s “ability to conceal her past from two of the nation’s top anti-terrorism agencies raised new concerns about their vulnerability to infiltration.”

Whether Prouty’s crimes represented a serious security breach or not (and in a reflection of the inter-agency distrust endemic to Washington, the Daily News reported that former FBI and CIA officials disagreed on this question), her case is both disturbing and yet quite predictable. In fact, it’s safe to say it will not be the last time Western intelligence agencies confront their “vulnerability to infiltration.” Why should the “War on Terror” prove any different when it comes to the matter of betrayal?


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

The Fire in France: Which American Solution?

Many journalists and commentators have cited French reluctance to adopt “the American solution” of affirmative action for its ethnic Arab and African minorities as a crucial factor in triggering the riots in France’s troubled suburbs this October and November.

Affirmative action is why the United States has enjoyed greater racial and social integration, and why France’s disaffected Muslim minority has turned to violence, according to much of the elite media (such as the New York Times and other major metro newspapers, the major networks, and CNN). USA Today, for example, called affirmative action “a policy prescription that could help move France’s immigrants and their descendants into mainstream society.” An NBC report noted “experts” arguing that affirmative action “ is just what is needed to level the playing field and to give the Arab and African immigrant families a kick-start to break the cycle of poverty…”

The truth, however, is that our progress towards racial harmony is not the result of affirmative action, a controversial approach (often employing race-based preferences or quotas) that was late-coming to the civil rights struggle. Rather, America’s pursuit of equal opportunity in education and employment, a growing societal acceptance of non-whites as social equals, and a free market economy that has generated millions of jobs, have been the keys to the emergence of a stable and prosperous black middle class.

So if the French are serious about assimilating their ethnic Arab and African minorities they will not turn to the “quick fix” of state-imposed affirmative action—or as the Europeans term it, “positive discrimination” —but, instead, will try the other “American solution,” racial equality based on access, inclusion and economic expansion.

The first giant step for the U.S. on the journey to greater social justice was a series of legal and political civil rights victories in the 1950s and 1960s removing barriers that prevented blacks from voting, attending quality schools, and finding and competing for decent jobs. Federal anti-discrimination laws followed, to insure that minorities received fair treatment in the job market. Affirmative action programs emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as a way to accelerate racial progress. Where voluntary in nature, they had some success, but generated opposition as violating the spirit of a merit-based society.

In contrast, France has yet to confront its corrosive racial and religious prejudice (including rampant anti-Semitism). A French government study found that youths with Arab-sounding names had their job applications rejected up to five times as often as those with traditional Gallic names. Addressing these iniquities is an unaddressed task—one best handled by enforcing tough, and currently non-existent, French anti-discrimination laws.

Then there is our halting, but persistent, progress towards heart-felt social equality. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders appealed to America’s sense of fairness and commitment to equality. They offered a vision of judging others “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” a vision well suited for a nation of immigrants. It meant accepting minorities not only in schools or the workplace, but also as social equals. As evidenced in the 2005 Gallup Minority Rights and Relations poll, America has made progress on this notion, judging from the attitudes expressed towards interracial dating (one proxy for the fundamental acceptance of other races). More than 70% of Americans surveyed approved of whites and blacks dating and some 95% of those between 18-29 wholeheartedly endorsed interracial romance. It is hard to imagine similar results in a poll of the French, who have been slow to address issues of intolerance.

A final factor has been the part America’s dynamic economy has played in fashioning a more inclusive society. Equal opportunity without economic opportunity is meaningless. Free market policies encouraging innovators and entrepreneurs have generated millions of new jobs in the U.S., “expanding the pie.” In comparison, France has discouraged initiative and closed markets to competition, resulting in a “zero sum” economy. Consequently, gains for one group come at the expense of another. There are successful free-market European models to emulate—Ireland comes to mind—but the French must first abandon decades of misguided economic policy.

True, the U.S. has yet to fully achieve its lofty goals of racial equality. Racism remains a virulent problem in many pockets of our society; Hurricane Katrina exposed the sad reality of poverty for many African-Americans and the work yet to be done. Nonetheless, however imperfectly, there is progress.

So which “American solution” will France adopt? Prime minister Dominique de Villepin proposes showering the volatile banlieus with multicultural rhetoric and state-subsidized jobs, while his rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, hints at “American-style affirmative action.” Neither approach will work; France’s leadership ignores the fundamental success factors in America’s long-horizon pursuit of racial and social justice—access, inclusion and economic expansion—in favor of immediate statist answers. France will suffer from that short sidedness; slighting the need for authentic and fundamental reform will not avert “the fire next time.”

Autumn in New York, 2005

What will future social historians think when they look back at photos of New York City’s street scene during this improbably warm autumn of 2005?

Chances are they will find New Yorkers of the early 21st century to be remarkably distinctive: individualistic, idiosyncratic, multiethnic, multiracial and, no doubt, prisoners of their specific time and place when it comes to fashions, customs and behavior.

We can’t see it, of course, the magnificent uniqueness of the here and now. It’s too comfortably familiar. It might take a Louis Trimble, the protagonist of a marvelous F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, to do our city streetscape credit. In Fitzgerald’s tale, Trimble wanders around New York soaking up its simple wonders. “I simply want to see how people walk and what their clothes and shoes and hats are made of,” he explains.

Yet, we later learn, Trimble is no stranger to the city; a native, he hasn’t left its environs in ten years—in fact, he has designed one of its premier buildings. But Trimble has been blind to its sights and sounds because he’s been “every-which-way drunk” for a “Lost Decade,” and has now only just emerged from his alcoholic stupor to begin to appreciate New York anew.

Most of us are so caught up in our daily routines that, perceptions dulled, we miss or ignore the fabulous in front of us. Unlike Trimble, we don’t stop and delight in the human parade passing us by—garment workers with hand trucks, mothers pushing strollers, bicycle messengers careening, street vendors and deal-making businessmen, students with backpacks, tourists slightly-dazed by the speed and scale of New York.

Perhaps only an observer with the keen fashion eye of Tom Wolfe could adequately chronicle the variety of styles and individual statements being made on New York’s streets. Thin women in fashionable black (some things never change). Men in traditional business attire, but without the fedoras of the past. Instead, today’s hats of choice are from the Boys of Summer—baseball caps worn sideways, backwards, with the brim flat, with the brim curved, with ponytails protruding (yes, it’s a unisex style), with Yankees caps the most popular (New York has always loved a winner).

What is also different—and invisible and unremarkable, but passing strange none-the-less—is the ubiquitous electronic invasion of our city streets by cell phones, Blackberrys and iPods. It seems every third person is jawing away on a cell-phone. I chat, therefore I am, has become the motto of the age.

A businessman briskly strides along, conducting a conversation with no one, his miniaturized microphone and phone out of plain view. A tourist holds up her camera phone to snap a digital photo of a landmark, her husband offering guidance in German. Some of the younger phone-users pause to punch the phone keys with their thumbs or fingers – the text messaging of the under-30 set.

Will those future social historians regard these vignettes as the precursor of the plugged-in street? A preview of a wireless, digital world to come, where computers and the Internet are built into anything with electricity, and pedestrians glide by always connected to the invisible Web (shades of the Matrix!)?

Perhaps it will be so. But for now, why not abandon those digital props, and like Louis Trimble, simply enjoy this lovely autumn in New York, lingering, observing, and savoring the flavor of this amazing city in the old-fashioned, purely human way?