Before the attacks

Nostalgia: The stories that dominated the headlines before the terrorist strikes now seem like artifacts from a long-game era.

October 28, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was

A time of innocence, a time of confidences

Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph

Preserve your memories; They're all that's left you-

"Bookends" by Paul Simon

They are still too new to be fading with age, too modern to be sepia toned. But the newspaper headlines of the days before Sept. 11 kindle that part of the memory reserved for the long ago and far away

We were afraid of attacks from the unknown back then: mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus in the skies of Maryland and sharks biting bathers in our coastal waters.

Though a woman in Baltimore with West Nile died and a man was in a coma, the woman's death was unrelated and the man improved. In the weeks after Sept. 11, three more people were diagnosed with the flu-like illness. Concern then turned to West Nile's spread into horses and other livestock until a cold snap sent the mosquitoes packing.

That weather also got people out of the water before any more sharks could attack. In the 10 days before the terrorist attacks killed 5,000, two died of shark attacks - a boy in the waters off Virginia Beach and man off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Another youngster was bitten in Florida.

This was top news.

America was also concerned with an attack on one of our nation's most trusted institutions. On Sept. 10, 21 people were indicted for rigging promotional games at McDonald's with a scheme in which they allegedly stole winning tickets and handed them out to friends and relatives who claimed the prizes.

Then there was Gary Condit, the California congressman whose alleged affair with Chandra Levy dominated the tabloid papers - and garnered much coverage from the mainstream press - in the months preceding Sept. 11. Since then, Condit canceled a fund-raiser, several from both parties - including former ally Dennis Cardoza, a Democratic state assemblyman - have announced they will oppose him next year, and calls for him to step down at the end of this term have increased. Washington police have had other things on their minds than the search for Levy, the missing 24-year-old intern whose mysterious disappearance triggered the intense interest. The block where Levy's parents live in California - once a center of a media frenzy - is now again a quiet suburban street, a few fading yellow ribbons are tied to trees.

There were tense international negotiations in the days preceding the attacks, not over building an anti-terror coalition, but over the wording of a U.N. document on racism. Participants in the meeting in Durban, South Africa, worked overtime on the weekend before Sept. 11 to draw a up a document that expressed concern for the Palestinians without condemning the Israelis - and that did not call for reparations for slavery. The U.S. delegation had walked out days before when it appeared it would not get its way.

Missile defense debate

The Bush administration was equally adamant about its plans for a missile defense shield, giving Russia a November deadline to agree to modifications in the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty or face a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from that cornerstone of disarmament. The American tone in international negotiations became much more conciliatory after Sept. 11 as the concentration turned to building the anti-terror coalition. After recently meeting in China, Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin announced that they had agreed to treaty modifications that would allow the United States to proceed with testing the shield. A few days ago, the Defense Department delayed planned tests that would have violated that treaty, a further sign of a softening stance.

In the first weeks of September as Congress was preparing to return to work, Washington politics was showing its tedious partisan side. The Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was not on TV displaying an anthrax-laced letter that had come to his office - he was on the Sunday talk shows trying to squeeze the administration between its tax cut and its promise not to use any Social Security money as the faltering economy diminished the surplus.

In the days preceding the attack, Daschle would not call for rescinding the administration-backed $1.3 trillion tax cut - a potentially unpopular move - or offer any other substantive solutions to the dilemma, but asked for "leadership" from the White House on what to do about the problem. Republicans were saying the disappearing surplus did not show that the tax cut was wrong, but that it was needed more than ever to stimulate the economy. Both sides agreed to leave the Social Security money alone as they wrestled with coming up with a balanced budget.

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