Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York’s newspapers:
Could the Beirut Explosion Be a Turning Point for Lebanon?
The New York Times
The appalling negligence that left more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate sitting for more than six years at Lebanon’s port in Beirut, just waiting to explode, perfectly if tragically encapsulates the official corruption and incompetence in a country where almost everything that can go wrong does go wrong.
The huge explosion that resulted last week killed at least 200 people and left 300,000 homeless and a vast landscape of destruction. Beyond the human carnage, the blast also struck a devastating blow at a country already on the brink. A government structure designed decades ago to balance Lebanon’s mosaic of religions and cultures had become a coterie of sectarian cliques more interested in protecting turf than running the country.
Exacerbated by the pandemic, the chronic corruption and misrule had brought the economy to ruin. For months now, prices have been soaring. Bread and medicines are in short supply, trash has been piling up, the currency has lost 80 percent of its value since October and a once-glittering middle class has been sinking into poverty and despair. On the day of the explosion, protesters tried to break into the energy ministry to protest daily power cuts, which often limit electricity to a few hours a day.
It is no wonder that furious protests erupted, with demonstrators demanding no less than a clean sweep of the country’s ruling elites, up to the president and Parliament. “HE KNEW” was scrawled over one image of President Michel Aoun hoisted by a protester, an accusation that referred as much to the presumption that officials were aware of the time bomb on the city’s waterfront as to the chronic need to radically change how the country is run.
The demonstrations prompted Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet to resign on Monday. But the crisis is too deep to be resolved by a change of management. For one thing, Mr. Diab had been installed only in January to replace a prime minister forced to resign by protests last fall over the government’s failure to provide even basic services. Though he has since been asked to stay on as head of a caretaker government, Mr. Diab stepped down more out of frustration than contrition, declaring in his resignation speech that after witnessing the extent of corruption, he intended to join the protesters “and fight the battle for change alongside them.”
Foreign governments have rushed to offer humanitarian assistance. But it’s a measure of Lebanon’s loss of faith in its leaders that some commentators and demonstrators have warned foreign donors not to channel their funds or aid through the government. Over recent months, talks with the International Monetary Fund on a rescue plan for Lebanon’s economy have gone nowhere, as sectarian leaders have persisted in arguing for their own interests.
That gridlock traces its roots to the creation of modern Lebanon in 1943, when it was decided that certain offices would always be held by adherents of certain religions. The arrangement was reaffirmed and updated at the end of Lebanon’s long civil war in 1990, when seats in Parliament and various official positions were parceled out among the various Muslim, Christian and Druse populations. In those same years, the militant Shiite organization Hezbollah gained effective veto power over the government and drew Lebanon deep into the power struggles of the Middle East.
The immediate cause of the economic collapse was a shortage of dollars, which the central bank had been acquiring by offering ever-higher interest rates for large deposits. What amounted to a state-run Ponzi scheme collapsed when depositors stopped coming, soon driving down the value of the Lebanese pound and prompting long lines of people trying to get what dollars they could out of their accounts.
In November, the World Bank warned that if the Lebanese government didn’t act, half the country could soon be living in poverty. And that was before the pandemic: Human Rights Watch has since warned that millions of Lebanese residents, including more than a million Syrian refugees, were at risk of going hungry. But the government, or what government there is, has been incapable of overcoming its inherent gridlock.
The question now is whether the explosion, by so cruelly exposing Lebanon’s political and economic bankruptcy, can become a turning point in the country’s fortunes. Other Arab uprisings against entrenched power structures have shown how difficult these structures are to uproot, and Lebanon’s web of sectarian groupings is better adapted to tinkering with the power-sharing formula than trying to change it.
The best outcome, obviously, would be a government that commanded the respect and confidence of both the Lebanese people and foreign powers and institutions — most likely a government of technocrats and not of partisan politicians. With the United States under President Trump basically sidelined from most world affairs, the task of lifting Lebanon out of its quagmire must fall to European and Middle Eastern powers, as well as the I.M.F. and the World Bank. President Emmanuel Macron of France, whose country administered Lebanon after World War I and guided it to independence, has been consulting with Lebanese and regional leaders on the formation of a new government, and his efforts ought to be given broad international support.
But no Lebanese government will succeed in righting the nation’s profound wrongs unless new ways are devised to run that complex land. That’s a long shot. But if there’s nothing left for the bosses to steal, and nothing left for people to lose, it’s now or never.
Protecting LI’s drinking water
The state’s recent adoption of tough new drinking water standards for three emerging contaminants, though too long in the making, is welcome news, especially given the shameful inaction of the federal Environmental Protection Agency on water quality matters.
The state limit of 1 part per billion for 1,4-dioxane is the first standard in the nation for the likely carcinogen, and the 10 parts per trillion limit for the possible carcinogens perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is one of the toughest restrictions among the several states that have set limits. The standards are especially important for Long Island, which has dozens of wells with high concentrations of at least one of those substances.
These are the first chemicals to be newly regulated by the state since 2000. Given the rising number of unregulated emerging contaminants, it can’t take another 20 years before the next action. And now that water districts will be testing for these contaminants, the state should collect that data and publish it on a website that is easily accessible; the public has a right to know what’s in the water it’s drinking.
Now the focus shifts to actually cleaning the water, and that will be costly. Advanced oxidation systems to treat 1,4-dioxane must be individually designed and can cost up to $4 million per well, which the state has been helping offset with grants from a portion of the $3 billion set aside in recent state budgets for clean water initiatives, including cleanups. That must continue. Districts also can, and should, sue polluters to recover costs, a process made easier by legislation sponsored by State Sen. Jim Gaughran and signed last year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. PFOS and PFOA are treated with regular carbon filters, which cost around $750,000 to $900,000, still pricey but easily installed, readily available and already in place on many wells. Those costs could be borne by the districts.
But everything about this situation, logically and logistically, cries out for the creation of a regional water authority. One authority would be able to engineer these cleanups more efficiently and more cheaply than the dozens of small districts that provide drinking water in Nassau County, in particular. A regional water authority can get economies of scale not available to these fiefdoms, spread the cost of an expensive system over the entire district, more easily move water around when one well needs to be shut down for treatment, cut down on expensive administrative overhead, and hire professionals like chemists and water geologists as is done at the Suffolk County Water Authority.
What’s more, it defies common sense to split the management of a single shared resource, our precious aquifer, among dozens of smaller entities. That’s true not only for this problem, but also for others like saltwater intrusion and conservation of water in times of drought.
There is a better way to deliver water — cleanly, economically and efficiently. Let’s seize this opportunity.
We have to try harder to beat the pandemic
We’re all groping our way through this pandemic. It’s terrible for the people who get sick and their families, and it’s isolating for everyone else.
The financial consequences have been devastating already, and we almost certainly haven’t seen the worst of that yet. If the federal unemployment supplements get cut off, as it appears they will, the repercussions will tear through the national economy. We are already seeing that some local businesses closed during the shutdown will not reopen.
Meanwhile, we try (or we don’t) to stop the spread of the coronavirus that is causing the devastation. Although the rules are simple — stay 6 feet apart, wear masks, wash your hands — following them can be tricky when you’re also trying to live and work. Photos from Georgia, showing hallways packed with students not wearing masks, are an illustration of how bad things can get, as schools open, without an insistence on safety protocols.
It’s our nature to get close to other people to talk, whisper, shake hands, hug and touch. We have to resist all that. It’s also our nature to express ourselves through our faces, so covering them requires discipline. It takes more of an emotional effort than putting on shoes or gloves, although it’s just as safe.
People at events like the Food Truck Corral at the Shirt Factory in Glens Falls naturally drift toward mingling and chatting that could spread the infection, despite the efforts of organizers to follow safety protocols. The potential for unsafe contact grew when organizers put out picnic tables, with dividers separating diners, which encouraged people to linger rather than picking up their food and leaving.
The outdoor dining was legal, and under the best of circumstances, it could be safe. But the cumulative effect, with bigger crowds showing up every week, created lots of opportunities for contact that could spread the coronavirus, and the city ended up shutting down the event.
Critics of the city’s action point to big-box stores that have been open throughout the pandemic, and they make a good point. Enforcement of mask-wearing has been lax at these stores, and the number of shoppers allowed in has not been limited. But those mistakes should not lead us to abandon safe practices altogether.
What we need are clarity and strict oversight from government at all levels, so businesses and individuals are not left to interpret rules for themselves. It becomes difficult for business owners and employees to enforce rules when it’s not clear they have the authority of the government on their side.
It’s tricky, too, to make more personal decisions in the current circumstances. If someone sticks their hand out, do you shake it? If the cashier has his mask pulled down off his nose, do you ask him to fix it?
A story in Thursday’s Post-Star showed the sort of dilemma that can arise. A local man’s daughter and son-in-law traveled here from Illinois to visit him on the day that Illinois was added to New York’s mandatory quarantine list.
Technically, the quarantine didn’t start until midnight, but as some local officials said, the spirit of the law would require that the visitors stay in for two weeks. Instead, the man – the former Fort Edward supervisor, Mitch Suprenant – went out and about as usual with his visitors and even hobnobbed one day with a nurse from Washington County Public Health.
We can sympathize with Mr. Suprenant’s reluctance to force his guests to stay in the house, after they’d come all the way from Illinois. We sympathize with everyone who is losing money and business because of the pandemic and everyone forced to forego the activities they like best.
But we feel much worse for the thousands of people who have been infected and suffered from COVID-19 and those who have lost loved ones.
We feel no sympathy for those who refuse to follow pandemic rules that cost them nothing, like mask-wearing in public places.
Since guidance from government authorities has been chaotic – starting at the top – personal responsibility has become the most important factor in our response to the pandemic. We can beat it – or at least limit the suffering – by trying a bit harder. We don’t have to be perfect, but we have got to do better.
Adieu, Pete Hamill
The journalism world is a darker place today.
Pete Hamill, the street-wise newspaper columnist who for decades wrote eloquently and masterfully about all manner of topics, most especially his beloved New York City, died on Wednesday. He was 85.
Hamill was many things over the course of his successful career. In addition to being a columnist for the New York Daily News, the New York Post, Newsday, the Village Voice, New York magazine and Esquire, Hamill wrote screenplays, several novels and a bestselling memoir, “A Drinking Life.”
Not bad for a high school dropout from Brooklyn.
Hamill was a throwback to a time when reporters still worked on typewriters and smoking in newsrooms wasn’t just allowed, it often was encouraged.
An obituary penned by The Associated Press likened him to one of New York City’s “last great crusading columnists,” the kind who related to underdogs and little people while also mingling with the elite as his job required.
Hamill was self-taught and street-wise and, in an era now dominated by video and pretty much digital everything, he was still well connected to the printed page, the old-fashioned world of newspapers where he wrote about everything from baseball to politics, murders, boxing, riots and wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Ireland.
Mostly, though, Hamill wrote about his home city, offering reflections on everyday stuff like subway rides and stickball games and the days when Brooklyn had its own professional baseball team.
“I have the native son’s irrational love of the place,” Hamill wrote in his 2004 book, “Downtown: My Manhattan.” “New York is a city of daily irritations, occasional horrors, hourly tests of will and even courage, and huge dollops of pure beauty.”
As the New York Press Club noted in a statement following his death on Wednesday, Hamill served as an “inspiration to generations of reporters who reveled in his unique style of storytelling and his gifts as a writer and reporter who spoke truth to power.”
Indeed, the modern, “Fake News,” internet-first world could learn a thing or two from an old-school journalist like him.
“Pete was a giant of journalism, a quintessential New Yorker and a personal friend to my father and myself,” New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement. “I learned much from him and he inspired me. Pete’s death is going to leave a hole in the heart of New Yorkers.”
New York City lost one of its own on Wednesday. The journalism profession lost a legend in Hamill, an every person’s columnist who did what all the great ones have always done: use their voice to comfort as many of the afflicted and afflict as many of the comfortable as possible.
Hamill believed in the value of quality journalism and the power of the printed word. He demonstrated throughout his life undying support for newspapers and the people who produce them.
“Quite simply, I love newspapers and the men and women who make them,” Hamill wrote in his book, “News is a Verb.” “Newspapers have given me a full, rich life. They have provided me with a ringside seat at some of the most extraordinary events in my time on the planet. They have been my university. They have helped feed, house and educate my children. I want them to go on and on and on.”
We do, too, Pete.
Postal service delays cannot be tolerated
The Auburn Citizen
In early May, U.S. Rep. John Katko joined most of the New York state’s congressional delegation in signing a letter that called attention to the importance of keeping the U.S. Postal Service fully functioning.
“This is a national emergency,” the letter to leaders of the House and Senate said. “The American people rely on the Postal Service to deliver crucial goods and services every day, including more than a billion life-saving medications last year alone, millions of economic stimulus checks and unemployment benefits to help during this crisis, and 2020 Census forms for every household in America.”
Unfortunately, despite bipartisan support for emergency funding for the postal service and its inclusion in the coronavirus relief bill passed by the House of Representatives a few weeks later, the Senate has done nothing to help. And with a new postmaster now running the service who is in lockstep with President Trump’s dangerous and irresponsible ideas about how to manage the service, cuts are being implemented that will make mail delivery much slower and less reliable.
The postal service is as important as ever because of this pandemic. For many people with underlying health issues, it’s a lifeline that brings medication, Social Security checks and other critical documents and goods.
And it’s vital that the service is ready for a surge in mail-in voting, which is expected to be used widely this November because of safety concerns associated with the virus.
In short, this is an incredibly irresponsible time to be gutting this service.
The calls for halting these changes grew louder last week, but not nearly loud or bipartisan enough to make a difference yet. Unlike the letter Katko signed with colleagues from both sides of the aisle in May, a letter last week from 84 House members to the postmaster expressing concerns about these changes included just four Republicans. Katko was not among them.
We hope the congressman hasn’t decided to avoid this emerging problem, because it’s among the most serious threats affecting all of his constituents. As a member of Congress who prides himself on being bipartisan, he must view this moment and this issue as one where he breaks from Trump and the party for the good of the country.