Today's Papers

Hostage Horror

The papers all lead with the gruesome resolution of the three-day school siege in Beslan, Russia, where at least 250 children, parents, and teachers died in massive explosions and a bloody, hourslong battle between heavily armed terrorists and Russian commandos. While the Russian government had once stated that there were only a few hundred hostages in the school, officials conceded there may have been as many as 1,200, and casualties are expected to mount as the rescuers comb the wreckage of the school’s gymnasium, which was still smoldering 10 hours after the blasts.

The papers’ main stories agree on most elements of the tragedy: Militants had wired the school with explosives and booby traps that they threatened to detonate if Russian troops attempted a raid. The battle erupted after the enormous bombs unexpectedly went off, blowing out the main gym’s enormous windows and causing its ceiling to collapse on those being held inside. Taking advantage of the chaos, hostages—”barely dressed, their faces strained with fear and exhaustion, their bodies bloodied by shrapnel and gunshots”—began to flee and militants opened fire on them. “To save their lives, we retaliated,” a Russian security chief told the Washington Post.

Outside the school and at Beslan’s only hospital, the New York Times paints a dizzying scene of death and confusion, describing “unclaimed children lying dead on litters on the lawn outside the morgue, beside the tiny classmates whose mothers knelt in the grass, stroking their blood-matted hair.” The WP’s scene piece is the most compelling, however, because it interlaces the children’s harrowing accounts to assemble an image of what went on in the school. “They’re killing us,” one girl on a stretcher told a police officer after the fighting began. “They’re exploding everything.” The papers’ Web sites also post disturbing photo galleries of the battle and aftermath.

Interestingly, while the papers’ leads go with the official line that the battle started unexpectedly and the Russians were not planning a raid (indeed, the WP and NYT report were even ready to negotiate with Chechnya’s exiled separatist leaders), the kids tell the Post that soldiers were trying to sneak children out of the gym. That’s when shots started ringing through the air, followed quickly by the massive blasts. One child told the WP that the terrorist manning the main bomb had run away from the commandos’ shots, letting his foot off the pedal that had kept it from detonating.

According to separate pieces in the WP and NYT, Russian state-controlled television offered only brief, sanitized updates during the violence, and continued with regularly scheduled soap operas and series like the Taxist, a show about taxi drivers. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself remained silent about the tragedy until early this morning, when he visited a hospital and told victims, “Today, all of Russia suffers for you,” according to the NYT.

As the fighting continued, angry local residents mobbed—and killed in one case, according to the Los Angeles Times—suspected guerrillas who had supposedly changed into civilian clothes and snuck into the surrounding neighborhoods. One man believed to be a fighter hid under a tank until he was discovered and hustled away from the crowd by soldiers. “Everybody tried to beat him,” one man told the NYT. “People wanted to tear him to pieces. I myself would have pulled his eyes from his head with my fingers.”

Four Navy SEAL commandos have been charged with assaulting an Iraqi prisoner and then trying to cover up his death at Abu Ghraib last year, according to stories in all the papers. A photograph of prisoner’s dead body packed in ice to cover up his death was one of the more grim images to emerge during the height of the abuse scandal earlier this year. According to the report issued last week, the SEALs, who were working closely with CIA operatives, struck the detainee with a rifle (a move called a “butt-stroke,” apparently), and he later died from the blunt trauma. The papers all note that it’s the first time Special Operations forces have faced charges in the torture scandal at the prison.

The WP goes inside with a follow-up on the FBI probe into charges that current and former employees at the Pentagon and in Dick Cheney’s office may have passed classified information on Iran to Ahmed Chalabi and Israel. The new twist? The names the FBI has been dropping read like a who’s who of the neocon braintrust: Doug Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle. (For background, check out yesterday’sPost story, too.)

A day after South Korea admitted that its scientists had, four years ago, enriched uranium to levels useful only in weaponry, its government underlined that it does not have a nuclear weapons program. The position is that a group of rogue scientists enriched a grain of uranium “smaller than a sesame seed” only once, merely “to satisfy their curiosity.”

A late Friday-afternoon bad-news dump: Medicare premiums will jump 17 percent in 2005—or about $11.60 a month. The increase, a record in dollar terms, has nothing to do with the new prescription drug benefit, which is set to begin in 2006 and will have its own premium. The NYT alone notes that about $1.75 of the increase will cover the billions the program now must pay private insurers so that they participate.

The U.S. economy added 144,000 jobs in August, a figure the papers say is just about enough to keep up with population growth. (Apparently, the economy needs to generate about 150,000 jobs a month to break even.) So, is that good news or bad news? “It’s milquetoast,” said one economist in the NYT. “Political economists will paint the picture in their respective colors, but you cannot definitively say whether the economy is a glass half full or half empty.” And the papers can’t really either: As usual, they just parrot the candidates’ soundbites and spins on the news.

Meanwhile, a Time magazine poll shows Bush opening up an 11-point bounce, as other polls lean in his direction but remain statistically tied. The papers don’t read much into the results, though. Despite the fact that it’s the most significant lead Bush has had in months, the LAT only manages to say, “IT’S BUSH BY A NECK.” For its part, the NYT phones in some campaign trail stories as Bush basks in postconvention confidence and Kerry labels the GOP gathering “bitter and insulting.” In the back-and-forth of the Post’s “CLOSING LAPS IN RACE TO NOVEMBER,” the most interesting revelation is merely the intensity of president’s itinerary: In eight days, Bush will have hit Pennsylvania and Ohio three times, Iowa and West Virginia twice, and Michigan, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Wisconsin each once.

Everyone reports that former President Bill Clinton checked into a Manhattan hospital yesterday to have a quadruple bypass sometime in the next few days after an angiogram showed significant blockages in his coronary arteries. The NYT and LAT offer companion stories on the mechanics of bypass surgery, explaining that it has become relatively routine, at least for an open-heart procedure. Hillary put on a good face, too, telling reporters at the hospital that “[h]e’s in great humor.” Bill himself underlined the point, speaking from the hospital on Larry King Live: “Republicans aren’t the only people who want four more years here.”