Today's Papers

Cruel and Unusual Kittycat

Everyone leads with President Bush’s announcement that the United States will donate $350 million to assist the victims of last weekend’s Indian Ocean tsunami. He called it an “epic disaster.” The aid package is 10 times the $35 million the U.S. had previously committed. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that the estimated death toll climbed to 140,000 yesterday, as relief workers finally reached the hardest-hit areas of Indonesia’s Aceh Province. “Meulaboh is gone, destroyed,” an Indonesian army officer told the paper, referring to a town of 120,000 near the epicenter of last Sunday’s quake.

Th e Los Angeles Times has the best analysis of the president’s largess, saying that it “marked the fourth consecutive day in which the Bush administration dramatically widened its response to the Asian catastrophe.”*  Critics have also tweaked Bush for lying low at his Crawford, Texas, ranch. The NYT notes that in contrast to years past, Bush did not make a public appearance at a Crawford coffee shop this New Year’s Eve or take questions from reporters.

Feature stories pile on the harrowing detail. The Washington Post fronts a dispatch from the devastated city of Banda Aceh, where “bloated corpses, their limbs akimbo and their skin gray with mud and silt, dotted the streets,” and emergency aid was arriving slowly. Inside, it has an account of a man’s barefoot 100-mile journey along Aceh’s western coast in search of his family. He said that over the course of five days he did not see a single survivor. The LAT goes searching for cadavers with a team of young Sri Lankan men who earn about $1 or $2 a day for their work. The NYT goes inside with a piece on the disaster’s reverberations in Europe. Thousands of vacationing Europeans, mostly Scandinavians, were swept away when the wave hit beach resorts. In Denmark, where hundreds of citizens are missing, the prime minister warned of “an incomprehensible tragedy of national proportions.”

The NYT follows the WP and the Wall Street Journal in reporting that the Justice Department has issued new guidelines on torture, defining the term broadly and calling it “abhorrent.” This reverses a notorious August 2002 memo that appeared to wink at the practice. Inside, the paper runs an extensive investigation revealing more details about the allegedly unpleasant methods used to interrogate terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay. One detainee, a suspected accomplice of the 9/11 hijackers, is said to have been tranquilized, blindfolded, and put on a plane in order to fool him into thinking he had been transferred into the custody of the Egyptian secret police. Other alleged tactics include giving prisoners forced enemas, blasting them with rap and heavy metal, and making them listen to a looped tape of the Meow Mix cat food jingle for hours on end. (How long could you take it? Click here.)

The LAT fronts and the other papers go inside with Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s annual year-end report on the federal courts, which will likely be his last. Rehnquist used the opportunity to inveigh against recent efforts by congressional Republicans to sanction or even impeach judges whose rulings they find disagreeable. The chief justice, who is suffering from thyroid cancer, gave no indication of his own plans for 2005. Inside, the NYT reports that powerful evangelist James Dobson is pushing for a “strict constructionist” to fill any vacancy and vowing to put vulnerable Senate Democrats “in the ‘bull’s-eye’” if they resist.

Everyone stuffs news that the Sudanese government signed a peace agreement with rebels in the country’s south. “Africa begins the year 2005 on a very good footing,” said South African President Thabo Mbeki, who helped broker the deal, “Let’s party!” The war, which pitted the Muslim government against southern Christians and animists in a fight for power, territory, and oil, had raged on and off since 1956. An estimated 2 million people died. The agreement will have no immediate effect on a separate, and so far less deadly, conflict in the western region of Darfur.

The WP fronts an apparent exclusive on the coming air war over Social Security. Conservative groups are planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising boosting President Bush’s private investment plan. The AARP is countering with a $5 million campaign against it.

A front-page piece in the LAT details changes in California’s domestic partnership laws which go into effect today. Gay couples cannot marry, but if they split, they have to go through divorce proceedings just like straight people do, with the same laws on joint property and child custody applying. The paper points out that gay couples affected by the change in California’s law “vastly outnumber” those who have married in Vermont or Massachusetts.

Bats Hit … Clean, quiet, non-carcinogenic, nothing’s more earth-friendly than a good ol’ fashioned windmill. Right? Well, think again, bat killer! That’s right, according to a front page story in today’s WP, wind farms in the Appalachian Mountains have become a killing field for flying vermin, which soar headlong into spinning windmill blades. No one knows why they can’t avoid the massive turbines, which one biologist calls “bat Veg-o-matics.” A study found between 1,500 and 4,000 dead bats, a seemingly small number, but one that could translate to “very large, probably unsustainable kill rates” if, as expected, 700 more windmills are built in the area, according to an expert from Bat Conservation International, an advocacy group based in bat-happy Austin, Texas.

Correct ion, Jan. 5, 2005: This piece originally stated that a U.N. official called the United States’ original tsunami relief efforts “stingy.” In fact, the official said that, in general, the world’s richest countries were tightfisted about giving international aid. Return to corrected sentence.