Gas Pains

The week's big news, and how's it's being spun.
Dec. 3 1999 9:30 PM

Gas Pains

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Protests continued at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. After Tuesday and Wednesday's violent clashes, in which police made more than 500 arrests and used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators, hundreds of people gathered peacefully outside the city jail and called for the protesters' release. Seattleites debated whether the police: 1) were ill-prepared, outnumbered, and too accommodating of demonstrations; 2) overreacted by using riot tactics on peaceful protesters; or 3) were stuck in a "Catch-22." The gloomy spin: Sensational demonstrations are obscuring substantive issues and embarrassing the United States. The rosy spin: We're showing the world democracy in action. (In "Frame Game," William Saletan explains how the WTO went from complete unknown to boogeyman, and in "The Dismal Science," Paul Krugman argues that the WTO's opponents have it all wrong.)

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Dozens of bodies may be buried in mass graves in Mexico. After receiving a tip from a former Mexican police officer, U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agents began excavating the sites near Ciudad Juarez, just south of El Paso, Texas. The graves are thought to contain at least 100 Mexican and American victims of drug-related violence in the early 1990s. The rosy spins: 1) This will likely solve some of Mexico's "most gruesome crimes"; and 2) it heralds a new era of cooperation in international law enforcement. The dismal spin: Poor law enforcement is what allowed these crimes to happen in the first place.

Government investigators penetrated security at eight major U.S. airports. Department of Transportation officials posed as airport employees and gained access to secure areas, including aircraft, in 117 out of 173 attempts. The Washington Post said the study showed that breaching airport security was "a breeze" and cited a DOT official who called the FAA's oversight of safety inadequate. The FAA downplayed the report, saying it has addressed the concerns and that passengers "[do] not need to be alarmed."

Northern Ireland's new coalition government took power. Under an agreement reached last weekend, a 12-member Cabinet with equal representation for Protestant and Catholic constituencies received governing authority from the British Parliament on Thursday. The pro-British Ulster Unionists dropped their requirement that the Irish Republican Army disarm before a government could be formed. Two of the Cabinet's members did not attend the first meeting. The pessimistic spin: This experiment in compromise faces "a bumpy ride." The optimistic spin: It's still the best chance yet for lasting peace. ("International Papers" examines the historic new government.)

Some Gulf War veterans exhibit signs of brain damage. Researchers found subnormal levels of a key chemical in the brains of 22 vets with "Gulf War syndrome." Newspapers said the new research: 1) "showed that scientists were narrowing in on chemical exposure--from pesticides … nerve gas, or an experimental drug given to troops--as the cause of the illness"; 2) undermines a Clinton administration report suggesting the complaints resulted from battlefield stress; and 3) could guarantee these veterans better coverage for treatment. But skeptics cautioned that the research was inconclusive and was based on a very small sample.

George W. Bush proposed a $483 billion tax cut. It would reduce tax rates at every income level, double the credit for children, and eliminate estate taxes. The Bush camp said the cuts' focus on middle- and lower-income families underscored the compassion in Bush's conservatism. But Democrats said the plan was the same old hat, benefiting the rich, threatening to worsen the national debt, and jeopardizing Social Security and Medicare. Republican opponents called it "something only the timid could love--simply more political expediency."

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Hsing-Hsing the panda died. Keepers at Washington, D.C.'s National Zoo euthanized Hsing-Hsing after deciding that kidney disease was causing him agonizing pain. He was the surviving male of the pair of pandas that was given to the United States by Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung after President Nixon's historic 1972 visit. His body will be preserved and displayed at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History early next year. Hsing-Hsing's keepers declared that they were mourning the death of an old friend. The Washington Post said that Hsing-Hsing's almost human personality should lessen the "sense of apartness that causes us to treat so many animals as a commodity, or a nuisance--in either case as 'things' to be killed or driven away." (Slate's David Plotz says good riddance to the slothful, boring bear.)

The National Academy of Sciences recommended formation of a federal medical-mistake-prevention program. Medical mishaps kill between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans per year--more than breast cancer, car accidents, or AIDS--and cost an estimated $9 billion annually. The NAS concluded that a government program that tracked and disseminated information on these errors would reduce patient risk. The medical community emphasized that "the number one cause of medical mistakes is not incompetence but confusion." The virtually unanimous spin: "There's no controversy here. … It's an ideal opportunity to increase quality and decrease costs."

The United States and Cuba are battling over a 5-year-old boy. Elián González was one of three people who survived the sinking of a 17-foot aluminum boat that was carrying 13 Cuban refugees to the United States. The Cuban government says González should be returned to his Cuban father, claiming that his mother, who perished in the shipwreck, had kidnapped him. The United States says the boy will be allowed to gain American citizenship after a year in the country. Cuba's spin: America's lax immigration policy for Cuban citizens promotes this kind of tragedy. America's spin: No, it's Cuban oppression that makes people want to flee.

Fewer American households are made up of married couples with children. A University of Chicago study found that this type of household declined from 45 percent to 26 percent of the total between 1972 and 1998. Fifty-one percent of children now live with their two parents, down from 73 percent in 1972. The changes were attributed to: 1) increased cohabitation; 2) later marriages; 3) greater acceptance of divorce; and 4) aging baby boomers with "empty nests." Newspapers said the statistics signaled the decline of marriage and "traditional" families. But researchers said that Americans are increasingly recognizing that these "modern" households can work.

Josh Daniel is Slate's West Coast editor.

Matt Alsdorf is a Slate editorial assistant.

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