The Breakfast Table

Traffic, Spies, and Videotape

Dear Marjorie:

On computers and schools, I couldn’t agree with you more. Making computers and the Internet into central tools for teaching seems almost as ill-advised as the efforts in the 1980s to put cable television in the classroom. I suppose it’s possible that these technologies can be used to good effect. But it’s so much harder than using, say, books and direct interaction with teachers that the strategy seems doomed to failure.

In today’s news, the lead in my New York Times was the resignation of all 20 European Commission members, but the story was such a yawn that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. My morning papers supply tons of other stuff worth talking about, though–almost too much. I had never looked at the newspaper as conversation fodder before, but it does supply endless material, doesn’t it? There’s the depressing prospect of collapse for the Medicare commission that was supposed to iron out recommendations for shoring up the health-care program for the elderly. There’s the Gephardt endorsement of Gore and the way it seems to cement the notion almost a year before the primaries that Gore will be the Democratic nominee. There’s the report on Gore’s speech in Iowa yesterday in which he outlined a “livable world” agenda with initiatives aimed at tackling such problems as traffic congestion and lost airport luggage. Jacob Weisberg recently wrote in the New York Times Magazine about all the factors that have driven Clinton’s presidency to resemble a governorship more and more. Perhaps a president as mayor is the logical conclusion. I actually think there’s some intriguing stuff to the policy agenda–and a far more complicated discussion about what major problems we want the next president to be tackling.

But let me focus on a couple of other topics. First is the Los Alamos spy story. If I have it right, the thinking is that since China was found to have nuclear trigger devices an awful lot like our own, then they must have gotten the ideas for building them by spying. But reporting is increasingly focusing on how easily ideas and technology flow across borders and how difficult it is to stop the process. It seems much of the information may have been transmitted when the scientist Wen Ho Lee spoke at an international conference on nuclear technology in China. Was this illegal leaking of state secrets? No one seems to know. The basis for portraying Lee as a spy still seems worrisomely circumstantial. The story does, however, bring up in a new form an old problem held over from the Cold War: Is Chinese Communism an evil empire with which we should trade no ideas (or consumer goods)? Or is it a mere ideological shell for a society that inevitably will reform from within?

A smaller-bore issue: The papers carry more aftermath from the military jet accident that felled the gondola with 20 skiers in the Italian Alps. Charges of involuntary manslaughter have now been dropped against the navigator. I can’t say I was outraged by the military jury’s finding of innocence for the pilot of the jet. From what I read, it sounds like responsibility should be placed at higher levels–for failing to establish clear rules regarding speed and altitude, for not indicating the gondola cables on the military maps, and for not responding to long-held complaints from skiers about how low the planes seemed to come in. But it disturbs me that I’ve seen no indication that anyone is being held responsible. Today’s report also contains the news that the flight crew had replaced an onboard tape of the accident with a blank one, and that the original tape is now missing. That is reprehensible, not because it is a suspicious thing to do but because it is fundamentally immoral. It’s like a doctor covering up when he or she has caused a harmful complication in a patient. It makes the perpetrator no longer worthy of trust. If the facts are right and these actions go unpunished, then that should be the outrage. How have you seen this whole affair?