Visual source: Newseum
Ross Douthat: This is a liberal war. Blame Bill Clinton.
This is an intervention straight from Bill Clinton’s 1990s playbook, in other words, and a stark departure from the Bush administration’s more unilateralist methods. There are no “coalitions of the willing” here, no dismissive references to “Old Europe,” no “you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Instead, the Obama White House has shown exquisite deference to the very international institutions and foreign governments that the Bush administration either steamrolled or ignored.And, years after their Presidencies, shall we compare their approval ratings, ability to end wars and their economic successes?
The terrible sequence of events in Japan — massive earthquake, and then a tsunami — make the nuclear crisis different from Chernobyl in 1986. The Chernobyl accident was not a consequence of a natural disaster, but happened at the hands of people. The design of the reactor was such that it lacked a protective containment; once it exploded, radioactive debris was ejected into the air. So far, at least, the Japan nuclear crisis does not appear to have reached this level of danger.Scary stuff. And a call for openness.
Still, Chernobyl is worth pondering for another reason. The accident demonstrated the importance of full transparency at moments like this. Chernobyl was a ramrod against the Soviet Union's whole system of obfuscation and secrecy. It reinforced the value of glasnost or openness in the mind of the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
When we try to understand the events in Japan, both now and in the months ahead, we ought to ask: have we learned the lessons of Chernobyl?
Some foreign media coverage of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has been so extreme it has fanned fears of a deadly radiation cloud descending on Tokyo and turning residents into walking zombies, before drifting across the oceans to menace the United States and Ireland.This was totally predictable. When you try to hyper-manage the news, events run away from you. If you can't trust the authorities, and if the authorities aren't talking, rumors start to fly.
According to another "fact," authorities have been warning those in a position to leave Tokyo to flee the city immediately, because another severe quake or an eruption at Mount Fuji could spark a meltdown at the "Shibuya Eggman nuclear reactor" — which in reality is a live house, or concert hall, in Tokyo.
Laugh if you want, but a large number of domestic and overseas critics charge that such fear-mongering is responsible for causing the international panic over the Fukushima plant, and for persuading many foreign and Japanese residents of Tokyo to leave, either temporarily or permanently.
Here's a 1979 piece, to follow both Hoffman's about Chernobyl (a must read) and Sunday's risk communication post about Fukushima. Written by Peter Sandman and Mary Paden for CJR, it covers the reporters' dilemma about Three Mile Island:
The typical Three Mile Island story seesawed carefully between the looming threat of disaster and the industrious optimism of the experts. Imagine yourself at your breakfast table Saturday morning reading this A.P. overnight (we’ve put the bad news in roman type, the good news in italics):There are lessons to be learned from both.
Scientists struggled to cool down the stricken Three Mile Island nuclear power plant today, but authorities said the chances of a catastrophic melt-down were “very remote” and assured 130,000 nearby residents they were safe.
While technicians tried to “bleed” a bubble of radioactive vapor threatening the plant’s damaged nuclear core, Gov. Dick Thornburgh said at a news conference late yesterday that no general evacuation of the area is necessary “at this time.”
After the tensest day since Wednesday’s plant accident, Harold Denton, director of operations for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, somewhat eased the mounting worries of local residents when he said there was “no immediate danger to the public.”
Like most T.M.I. coverage, this is fair, understandable, and accurate; concerned but calm. It is also almost mythic: paladins labor night and day to overcome the forces of chaos. Missing from the story is whether they knew how.
Last week, at a House hearing on financial institutions and consumer credit, Republicans lined up to grill and attack Elizabeth Warren, the law professor and bankruptcy expert who is in charge of setting up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Ostensibly, they believed that Ms. Warren had overstepped her legal authority by helping state attorneys general put together a proposed settlement with mortgage servicers, which are charged with a number of abuses.Gregory Rodriguez:
But the accusations made no sense. Since when is it illegal for a federal official to talk with state officials, giving them the benefit of her expertise? Anyway, everyone knew that the real purpose of the attack on Ms. Warren was to ensure that neither she nor anyone with similar views ends up actually protecting consumers.
And Republicans were clearly also hoping that if they threw enough mud, some of it would stick. For people like Ms. Warren — people who warned that we were heading for a debt crisis before it happened — threaten, by their very existence, attempts by conservatives to sustain their antiregulation dogma. Such people must therefore be demonized, using whatever tools are at hand.
One might think that the Japanese earthquake and tsunami would further our sense of humility in the face of nature. But the earthquake and the tsunami — as well as Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami and tragic earthquakes in Pakistan, Haiti and New Zealand — might also have the opposite effect. In the wake of these catastrophes, Americans could revert to the old-fashioned impulse to master nature.
"When you encounter large-scale natural disasters, you recognize how much of our security and well-being is secured by competent engineering," a liberal Washington journalist tweeted and told me last week. In other words, when nature turns on us once too often, we may decide it's better to fight back than to defer.