Today's Papers

Not So Silent Night

The front pages of the Christmas papers are splashed with violence and bloodshed. The Washington Post lead reports that soldiers in the Ivory Coast mounted a coup d’etat, ousting President Henri Konan Bedie and suspending the country’s constitution, courts, and parliament. “I will take care of everybody. You should not be worried,” announced retired Gen. Robert Guei, who claimed to be in charge. Meanwhile, army troops and civilians alike pillaged the capital city of Abidjan. The soldiers’ motives are still unclear– some seem to be after back pay, while others said they specifically wanted to topple Bedie. Bedie may be under house arrest or may have taken refuge at the French ambassador’s residence– no one’s sure yet. The papers describe the Ivory Coast as a former oasis of stability in war-torn West Africa.

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times front the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight bound from Katmandu to New Delhi with 189 people abroad (the WP reefers the story). Since terrorists seized it on Friday, the plane has touched down in India, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Afghanistan. The hijackers claim to have killed four passengers, but so far they’ve released only one corpse, along with three men, nine women, and 13 children. The papers tentatively identify the hijackers as Sikhs, but don’t give any background on their history or goals. (The Sikh minority has long sought freedom from Indian rule. Many moderate Sikhs seek autonomy; more extreme factions want independence, and have long used violent means to pursue it.) The NYT tentatively speculates that the hijacking is related to the Indian-Pakistani tug-of-war over Kashmir but doesn’t say how. The LAT mentions the possibility that the hijackers are Kashmiris.

The LAT lead wonders if U.S. law enforcement officials are too quick to broadcast warnings about terrorist threats to the public. By erring “on the side of overexposure,” authorities may be encouraging mass paranoia. As evidence for this nationwide hysteria, the story quotes a gun shop owner in Las Vegas who’s been unloading an unusually high number of gas masks and bulletproof vests (if ammo shops in Las Vegas are a reliable indicator of the country’s mood, then Today’s Papers is moving to Denmark). The story also says that disclosure of the threats generates intense media coverage, which in turn means that the extremist groups get exactly what they’re after–national publicity. The tell-all policy is a reaction to the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, when the State Department was condemned for sharing some threats with its embassies but not with the public. Many of the points in the story were stated in an op-ed in Thursday’s NYT written by a former CIA-nik. These arguments seem to have migrated a little too quickly from the NYT to the LAT and from the op-ed page to the front page.

A WP front pager reports that Canadian authorities have issued an arrest warrant for Abdelmajed Dahoumane, former roommate of Ahmed Ressam, the man arrested last week for trying to enter Washington state while carrying ingredients for explosives. Workers at the Vancouver motel where they’d stayed said their room stank of rotten eggs–more evidence that they may have been brewing up bombs. The WP reminds readers that on Christmas Eve five years ago, armed hijackers from an Algerian independence group with which Ressam is linked hijacked an Air France jet. They were foiled when French anti-terrorist commandos stormed the jet as it was parked and killed the terrorists.

The LAT reports that very little of last year’s $206 billion settlement between states and tobacco companies is being used for anti-smoking programs. Instead, the money is being used for sundry bread-and-butter projects: new sidewalks, tax cuts, boot camps, school construction. The suit, of course, was filed expressly to fund anti-smoking efforts.

Front-page reports in the WP and LAT report that millennial Christmas Eve in Bethlehem was peaceful, if a bit sparsely attended–many visitors stayed away from fear of violence. Meanwhile, midnight mass St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican was thronged with worshippers. Perhaps they came for the e-goodies: this year, the Vatican produced “pilgrim cards” embedded with microchips, which visitors can swipe to reserve seats at masses, on tour buses, and in restaurants.