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Analysis: Week In Review

Weekend Edition Saturday: October 26, 2002

Week in Review

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

We're following a number of stories that are unfolding today: the arrest in the Washington, DC, area sniper case, the death of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife and daughter and others on the plane, and the storming of a theater in Moscow early this morning after a four-day siege by Chechen rebels. Dan Schorr joins us.

Good morning, Dan.

DAN SCHORR (NPR Analyst):

Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And let's turn to the hostage crisis in Moscow first.

SCHORR: OK.

SIMON: It ended this morning when Russian special forces stormed the theater after Chechen guerrillas had said that they would begin to execute the hostages inside. Nearly 70 hostages died in that battle, but we should note that more than 700 apparently were saved.

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: What do you make of this end to the crisis?

SCHORR: Well, Scott, when I worked in Moscow some 40 years ago a Russian friend once said to me, `One thing about a police state, it's well policed.' And I thought of that when I thought of President Putin who had manifestly decided that he couldn't yield to the demands to pull Russian forces out of Chechnya and survive politically--that he could play with time but not if they started executing hostages and they had started executing hostages. That really left him with the option of storming the theater, which the Russians apparently did and rather skillfully, including a new wrinkle of pumping some kind of sleeping gas into the theater and a rather successful action apparently to disarm the explosives that were planted around the theater. You know, Putin, who had skipped a trip to Mexico where he was supposed to meet with President Bush in order to stay and supervise the operation, comes out of this looking pretty good, and with an argument that he now can make to Bush about why he asks that Bush support him against the Chechens as terrorists.

SIMON: Well, that leads to the next question: How do you feel right now how this might alter the issue of Chechnya and Russia? Because that was not a particularly popular involvement for the Russian nation among a lot of Russians. Does this change the perception of what that struggle's all about and their stake in it?

SCHORR: Well, that's interesting, and at this point I'll have to speculate a little bit, but I don't mind. Nothing succeeds like success. Russians respect what they call (Russian spoken), the strong leader, which Putin has now managed to show himself to be. In a strange kind of way, Putin shares with President Bush the luster of being a popular war leader. For President Bush the first outcome of that may be seeing Putin dig in his heels against the American/British/UN Iraq resolution that would authorize Americans to use force.

SIMON: Let's turn to events in this country. Of course, the death of Senator Paul Wellstone, his wife, his daughter, staff members and two pilots on a campaign aircraft...

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: ...private aircraft yesterday--a great many people on both sides of the aisle were admirers of Senator Wellstone and his outspoken and unbending principles.

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: There has been coverage and there will be more about the personal loss this represents for so many, but I do have to ask you the gritty political questions now. It's just 10 days before the election. The balance of power in the US Senate could obviously be at stake.

SCHORR: Right. Let me just mention, first...

SIMON: OK.

SCHORR: ...that in personal terms, even conservatives, as you suggest, mourn the loss of this honest, unabashed liberal who was willing to jeopardize his re-election in order to vote on principle against war powers in Iraq--political. Political terms one has to observe how fragile is our political system with the electorate deeply polarized, alienated voters, alienated from the system, so that the loss of one senator immediately raises the questions of whether this will now tip the whole balance. It shows you something about the volatility of our political system today.

SIMON: Governor Ventura in theory could appoint someone as an interim successor.

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: Right now it doesn't seem like he's inclined to do that. The Democrats get to name someone else to be on the ballot...

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: ...don't they? But would have to act quickly as I understand the law.

SCHORR: Exactly right. And I think that distinction has to be made, but not everybody understands it. There would be somebody named to succeed Senator Wellstone during the lame-duck session only, then there's the election of a senator and the Democrats have to decide whom they want to run. I'm inclined to believe that it's going to have to be Fritz Mondale, former Vice President Walter Mondale. I think for him it becomes almost a command performance unless he would like to face the prospect of having a seat lost to the Democrats and then being blamed for losing the whole Senate.

SIMON: It was quite close at the time Senator Wellstone died yesterday. He was perhaps a couple of points up on his Republican opponent Norm Coleman, but that's just what the polls say. It could have gone either way.

SCHORR: That's what the polls say. The experts indicated that he was on his way to winning.

SIMON: Yeah. It's more difficult for Mr. Coleman now to mount a campaign against a candidate who's a beloved elder statesman rather than someone who was often the only dissenting voice in the Senate.

SCHORR: Well, it's like New Jersey over again. You're campaigning against somebody and then that somebody isn't there. I'm talking about Torricelli.

SIMON: Of course, a great deal of attention has been focused for the past three weeks around the shootings in and around the nation's capital. And, of course, this week John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo were arrested there. They have had--obviously, as we speak now, have not been charged with that range of crimes.

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: But Chief Moose and other authorities in Montgomery County do believe, they said, that--of course, there will be a trial, but they have the people in custody who have been responsible for those crimes.

SCHORR: Yeah. And first of all, we're going back to acting normal, which means that there's a turf battle now going on between Maryland and the feds as to who gets first crack at trying him. And I hope they work that out pretty well. It isn't funny, though, that the police were looking for a white man in a white van and ended up with two black men in a blue Chevy? That somehow sounds strange. And you wonder about motive. There is no known connection with any terrorist organization. But the FBI says it was told by various witnesses that Muhammad spoke sympathetically about the 9/11 hijackers; also talked about the downfall of America. But in his own memos to cops, Muhammad seemed much more obsessed with money--trying to get $10 million, trying to get all the ATM machines in the country opened up to him. I mean, who does the guy think he is? A corporate CEO?

SIMON: By the way, I apparently misspoke myself. The state of Maryland has charged...

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: ...has charged the two with six counts of first-degree murder and, I guess, has developed the idea that John Lee Malvo, in fact, will be tried as an adult.

SCHORR: But don't leave the feds out of this. They'll find their way in.

SIMON: Well, it's going to be--does politics intrude into this? Does the local pros...

SCHORR: My dear, politics and a police action involving something so important--would you believe that somebody wanting to run for US attorney or something more would say, `I want a piece of this trial'?

SIMON: I wouldn't say it, but I thought I heard you muttering it just before we went on the air. But in the state of Virginia, state of Maryland, for that matter even the District of Columbia--and there was a shooting that might have occurred in Alabama for which, obviously, law enforcement officials--they followed that trail--believe that the same people are responsible. Local prosecutors will feel a compunction to go ahead and bring charges, you think?

SCHORR: Yes. Let me, before we go away, say one word about the media. All during this episode...

SIMON: Yeah.

SCHORR: ...Chief Moose was trying to keep the media at a distance, except for using television to convey messages to the sniper; asked the media to keep running an (800) tip number. It raises this perennial issue, which, obviously, I have a professional interest in, of press responsibility and what you disclose and what you don't disclose. The police asked the media not to give the description, the license number of that Chevy Caprice presumably in order not to tip off the sniper. Some cable changes did anyway, and as a direct result of that came a call from a truck driver who had seen the car in a rest stop. Now it doesn't always work out this way, but I think that on the whole disclosure is more helpful than secrecy. And I suspect that that tends to be on the truth. Of course, I got a certain professional bias, but that's what I think.

SIMON: We should explain that police were concerned that the people in the car might have heard that they were being looked for and they would dump the car and walk away.

SCHORR: That's right. But they had to make a choice of whether to do that or to let a lot of people know what they were looking for, as turned out to be the right way.

SIMON: Thanks very much, Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: Right.

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