Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bin Laden's words no longer invoke fear

By DeWayne Wickham

Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader who presumably spends much of his time hiding from U.S. Air Force drones, has taken credit for the failed Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airliner in the skies over Detroit.

"America will never dream of living in peace unless we live it in Palestine. It is unfair that you enjoy a safe life while our brothers in Gaza suffer greatly. Therefore, with God's will, our attacks on you will continue as long as you continue to support Israel," the al-Qaeda leader says in an audiotaped message obtained by Al Jazeera, the Middle East news agency.

Meant to stoke fear, this latest bin Laden message is more revealing than frightening. Its release comes four weeks after Umar Farouk Abulmutallab failed to down the plane with his explosive-ladened underwear. While dissidents in places like Iran and Tibet use the Internet to send real-time messages around the globe, bin Laden took nearly a month to get out a recording of his claim to have been behind Abulmutallab's botched attack. He's either burrowed deeply into the mountainous region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, or thinks nothing good will come of him using Facebook or Twitter to boast of trying to kill a planeload of civilians.

Either way, I get it. Since al-Qaeda's devastating 9/11 attack, bin Laden's terrorist group has spent more time fighting for its life than attacking its proclaimed enemies. It thrives only in desert enclaves and mountainous hideouts, where bin Laden and his lieutenants preach world domination while living like moles. As bin Laden tries to instill fear in us with his taped words, he is left to constantly worry that a remotely piloted U.S. plane will discover his location and stuff a missile into that crawl space.

Of course, it's true al-Qaeda is still a serious threat. Fractured by the war in Afghanistan, pieces of it have shown up in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The terrorist organization has an especially worrisome presence in the lawless regions of Somalia and Yemen, the country in which Abulmutallab said he received training for his suicide mission.

"Yes, they retain the capability of striking overseas.," FBI Director Robert Mueller told USA TODAY last year. "They are still lethal." But while al-Qaeda continues to target noncombatants in its terror campaign, the U.S. and its allies have taken deadly aim at the group's leadership. The mounting death toll among members of bin Laden's inner circle seems to have left him largely detached from the scattered remains of his organization, which struggle to survive.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack was carried out by a well-trained, disciplined cadre of al-Qaeda disciples who managed to seize four jumbo jets in midflight and turned three of them into missiles that struck their targets. The other plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field as passengers fought to regain control of it. But the 2009 Christmas Day attempted bombing was left to a wide-eyed religious fanatic whose training appears to have been rushed and whose commitment to cause seemed to quickly wane under questioning by FBI agents.

While even a weakened al-Qaeda is capable of inflicting a damaging blow to Americans at home and aboard, bin Laden's words no longer invoke the fear they once did. With U.S. drones constantly searching for him, he has more to fear from us, than we do from him.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Haiti has teetered on brink on a long time

By DeWayne Wickham

The last time I was on the grounds of Haiti’s presidential palace in 1994, it was the country’s government that had collapsed. Now the palace, a Beaux Arts structure built by U.S. Navy engineers in 1918, has been toppled.

Felled by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck this Caribbean nation last week, the palace’s destruction is a chilling symbol of the broad collapse of the Haitian state.

Twenty years ago, Haiti’s hopes of emerging from decades of political feudalism were boosted when Jean-Bertrand Aristide became its first democratically elected president. But less than a year later, in 1991, he was chased from office by a military coup that was followed by years of bloodletting.

He was returned to power in 1994 with the help of 20,000 U.S. troops, deposed again and now waits in the wings hoping for a third turn at running his now-devastated nation. It was already the hemisphere’s poorest. Now Haiti teeters on the brink of a calamity that threatens its very existence.

With the country’s parliament and presidential palace leveled and few signs of a functioning civil service or security force, President René Préval, who succeeded Aristide, is the titular head of a phantom government. Control of the capital’s airport is in the hands of the U.S. military, which has assumed a lead role in guiding the multinational effort to resuscitate this nation of 9 million people.

But eventually there must be more than just a relief effort. A way must be found for Haitians to attain the stability on which they can build a future. That won’t be easy. Since its founding, Haiti has been the victim of unrelenting foreign intrigue and crushing domestic turmoil. A couple of years after Haiti declared its independence in 1804 – and a quarter-century after a regiment of free black Haitians fought for America’s freedom in the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Savannah – Congress imposed a trade embargo on the new nation. U.S. merchants should not do business with people whom “it is the interest of the United States to depress and keep down,” the bill’s sponsor said.

The U.S. didn’t recognize Haiti until 1862. Then in 1915, the U.S. military began a 19-year occupation of the country. During that time, the U.S. took over control of Haiti’s treasury and required citizens to submit to forced labor.

Throughout much of Haiti’s history, internal strife also has contributed to its troubles. Most of its leaders have been overthrown, assassinated or executed. Knowledge of all this, as well as the daunting tasks of rebuilding that lie ahead, may have caused President Obama to speak so compassionately to the Haitian people two days after the quake.

“Long before this tragedy, daily life itself was often a bitter struggle. And after suffering so much for so long, to face this new horror must cause some (of you) to look up and ask, have we somehow been forsaken?” Obama said.

His initial commitment of $100 million to help Haiti’s recovery is a good answer to that rhetorical question. And in getting former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to lead a relief fundraising effort, Obama gives Haitians reason to believe their country will stay on America’s radar longer than it takes to rebuild the fallen presidential palace.

Ultimately, that could be what Haiti needs to create a “more perfect union” like the one a regiment of Haitians helped this nation achieve.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Arenas bad act is a foul, but shouldn't be a career ender

By DeWayne Wickham

As knuckleheads go in the world of sports, Gilbert Arenas is an all-star.

Last week, just 18 months after he was signed by the Washington Wizards to a six-year, $111 million contract, Arenas was suspended without pay after he doubled down on an act of stupidity.

His first bad deed came last month when it was discovered he was keeping guns in his locker, a violation of NBA rules. Then while law enforcement and league officials were trying to figure out what to do about that, Arenas poked fun at his predicament by using his fingers to feign a gunfight with teammates during a pregame introduction.

"I'm a goofball and that's what I am,” the nine-year NBA player said of his antics.

But David Stern didn’t think Arenas was funny. "The possession of firearms by an NBA player in an NBA arena is a matter of the utmost concern,” the NBA commissioner said. Stern initially refrained from taking any action while police investigated accusations that Arenas and teammate Jarvis Crittenton pulled guns on each other during a locker room confrontation. But when Arenas mimicked gunplay on an arena floor, Stern got off a shot of his own.

Arenas' "ongoing conduct," Stern said, "has led me to conclude that he is not currently fit to take the court in a NBA game."

Stern is right. Arenas brought this on himself. The contrition he expressed after the commissioner issued his suspension came too late to stop the raid on his wallet. Now Arenas is certain to pay a stiff price for his mistakes - but it shouldn't end his career.

As far as we know, Arenas is guilty of little more than really bad judgment. By all accounts, the guns he had in his locker were unloaded. And his hand-simulated gunplay was a bit of ill-timed goofiness that harmed nothing more than the sensibilities of league officials. Although the District of Columbia has strict gun laws, as bad acts go in the NBA, Arenas' offense pales in comparison to those of Latrell Sprewell, Ron Artest and Tim Donaghy.

Sprewell, a one-time guard with the Golden State Warriors was suspended for 68-games in 1997 for choking P.J. Carlesimo, the team's coach. He was allowed to return to the NBA and played for two more teams before ending his career in 2005.

In 2004, Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest charged into the stands after a fan who doused him with a cup of beer. His actions sparked a melee between players and fans that resulted in Artest getting a 73-game suspension. He now plays for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Donaghy, a former NBA referee, served 15 months in prison for his role in a league betting scandal. He'll never get to officiate another professional basketball game, which is as it should be.

What Arenas did doesn't rise to the level of those offenses, which is not to say that what he did isn't serious. Gun violence is at epidemic level in far too many parts of this country - something that Abe Pollin, the recently deceased team owner, seemed to acknowledge when he changed the team's name from Bullets to Wizards in 1997.Instead of punishing Arenas with a lengthy suspension, the NBA should impose its own version of community service on him. Arenas can do the league and himself a lot of good by visiting schools in NBA cities to tell students about the harm that can be done when people mishandle guns.

For a goofball like Arenas, that would be a fitting punishment.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Black golf pioneer helped end America's apartheid

By DeWayne Wickham

By his own admission, 2009 was the best year of William Powell's life. It was also the last.

In his final months, the 93-year-old golf pioneer received the Professional Golf Association's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, was inducted into the Northern Ohio PGA Hall of Fame and named the Ohio Golf Course Owners Association Person of the Year.

Powell got his award on the eve of 2009 PGA Championship, along with congratulatory letters from President Obama and former President George H.W. Bush. This was long overdue recognition for the black World War II veteran who died 61 years after he broke one of golf's biggest color barriers.

In 1946, with seed money he borrowed from his brother and two black doctors, Powell began construction of a golf course in East Canton, Ohio. This was a year before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball. Clearview Golf Club opened in 1948. Back then it was only a nine-hole course that Powell opened up to people of all races and ethnicities - at a time when most golf courses in this country were closed to minorities.

Powell did this without fanfare. There were no journalists strolling his fairways to chronicle how black and white golfers got along in that newly integrated setting. Unlike Robinson, he wasn't toasted as a trailblazer, or lionized as a living legend. But he did become the target of racists who called his golf course "the nigger nine," even after it expanded to 18 holes in 1978.

"I wanted this to be a place everybody could play," Powell told me when I visited his golf course in 1997. "I wanted it to be a place where race didn't matter; where the only thing that matters is the game of golf."

That day I played Clearview with his daughter, Renee Powell. The course's head professional, she was taught the game by her father, who was a pretty good amateur golfer./ Renee is one of only three black women to have ever played on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. She told me how for many years her father worked nights as a security guard to earn enough money to take care of his family while he spent his days building Clearview. Powell's dedication paid off. He is the only black in this country to build, own and operate a golf course.

"Bill Powell will forever be one of golf's most unforgettable American heroes," PGA President Jim Remy said in a statement released by the golf organization shortly after Powell died on Dec. 31.

I hope he's right.

For much of his life, Powell struggled to keep Clearview open. While he invited everyone to play his golf course, not enough people showed up to give it financial security. Still Powell persevered and Clearview survived as a symbol of what one determined person can do to chip away at the rot a society produces.

History often forgets people like Powell, who are not always included among the pantheon of heroes who are credited with breaking the back of the American apartheid. That's understandable. He didn't topple any of this odious system's pillars, or stare down any of its architects. But he did crack one of its underpinnings - and, in doing so, made it possible for others to knock it down.

That's the thing that needs to be remembered about William Powell. In transforming a stretch of Ohio farmland into a place where all people were welcomed, he had an impact on this country that reached far beyond the game of golf.