The Breakfast Table

Seeing No Evil

Dear Atul,

I’m running late this morning, because I’m the only person in my household who has a temperature of less than 102. This is not unusual in kids age 3 and 6, of course–through February and March they often wake up glowing like tiny furnaces, it’s just what kids do in the winter. But I’ve never seen my husband this sick before; he’s got some awful flu. (You didn’t know, did you, that the Breakfast Table would be another version of the terrible experience you must have at cocktail parties, where people grab you by the lapels and ask you to look down their throats to check for strep? At least, I assume they do. …)

It was a big day for foreign news. I’m with you on the European Union snooze factor–I really can’t bring myself to read past the jump of any story that has European Union in the first paragraph. Still, I do like the Safire insight that it’s suddenly Europe that finds itself in a paroxysm of scandal and outrage, while here in the U.S. we now take the tolerant, French attitude to all wrongdoing.

Which is a nice transition to your query about the Alpine gondola accident. I am fascinated by this story, and I too have an uncomfortable ambivalence about the pilot’s exoneration. I think I wanted him not to be convicted; it seemed unfair, given what the various investigations found about the entire system’s implication in the tragedy (the incomplete map; the possibly malfunctioning altimeter; the squadron’s culture). And yet how do you court-martial a culture? I was delighted, though, by the clarity of your outrage over the pilot and the navigator’s having removed a videotape taken during the flight. As a legal matter, yes, of course–they should and probably will get some punishment for taking it. But in a case where it’s easy to see mitigating factors as dialing down their moral culpability (no one thinks the tape, which was taken early in the flight, includes footage of the accident; and one can imagine their removing it as a panicked response to the accident, an attempt to help themselves re-create what happened), there’s something thrilling about the absolutism of your reaction. It reminded me of your wonderful New Yorker piece about how doctors and hospitals (ideally) go about facing up to their dreadful mistakes. But of course it’s a point of view completely incompatible with having let President Gaslight off the hook. I’m still tiredly furious at the cognitive dissonance we’ve all adopted (well, he lied but it wasn’t perjury, technically; well, he’s a bounder but Ken Starr is worse; well, he tried to cover it all up but if it wasn’t impeachable in the first place, who cares?); so I was charmed by how straightforward it seems to you. Why is it that only Tom (there-are-some-absolute-truths) DeLay and I agree with you?

Here’s my nominee for the best story in today’s Times: the Page One account of how undercover U.S. Customs agents were firmly prevented from following a huge cocaine-banking case to the target their criminal “associates” pointed them toward: Mexico’s defense minister, Gen. Enrique Cervantes. It’s a really complicated tale, but basically, the baddies in the Juarez cartel, with whom the customs agents were posing as Colombian bankers, told the agents that the defense minister and some associates had about a billion dollars they needed to launder. Clinton administration higher-ups said, er, no thanks. There are, of course, two sides to the story (the agents had only their criminal targets’ word for the allegation, not any more solid proof), but still our government showed a really striking lack of curiosity. Customs was ordered to finish up the investigation, arrest its suspects, and move on; none of those who pled guilty, according to Times reporter Tim Golden, was even asked further questions about whether the Mexican official most responsible for collaborating with our anti-drug efforts was in fact a part of the problem.

The best part? The code name of the operation was “Casablanca.” Because we’re always shocked–shocked!--to find out that official corruption might be part of Mexico’s narcotics trade. …