One of those things

Some people say the glass is half empty, some people say the glass is half full, and some people say "Why the hell is there water all over the floor?"


"Hey, Cindy Sheehan!"


Mixed messages

On the first day back at work after Bush's second inauguration, riding on the Metro, written on the back of the seat in front of me in black marker: "expect resistance."

Days later, a young woman sat on a plastic milk crate at the top of the Metro escalator holding a sign that said, "I love you."

According to a note floridly scrawled in three colors on the shelter at the commuter train station, Rachel and Tim will be together 4-ever. I wish them the best.

For the duration of the trip to Washington, the digital sign on the train says, UNIT OK 663901.


The Death of Jean Charles de Menezes

The ability to make light of the death of Jean Charles de Menezes belies a horror that grows deeper as details of the incident emerge.

On the morning of July 22, de Menezes left his flat, which happens to be located in the same housing block where Hamdi Isaac lived. Isaac was suspected of involvement in a failed subway attack the previous day. The building was under intense surveillance, but the officer assigned to a video camera who could have identified Isaac was in the bathroom when de Menezes left the building.

De Menezes, a 27-year-old electrician, left the first floor flat he shared with two cousins, walked through a playground, and caught a bus to the Stockwell subway station. He boarded a subway car, where within seconds he was assaulted by a team of officers, held down and shot seven times in the head at point-blank range.

Witnesses said that the suspect looked "South Asian," wore a bulky jacket with wires visible, and ran through the subway station before jumping over the turnstile. Police initially issued a statement saying that "his clothing and his behavior at the station added to suspicions" of de Menezes.

No less than the chief of the London police declared that de Menezes was "directly linked" with "terrorist operations."

Not a word of any of it was true.

Immediately, some things about the incident didn't add up. Cops wasted no time releasing subway surveillance images of the four men suspected of responsibility for the July 7 bombings, which killed 54 people and injured more than 700. Where was the image of de Menezes? If the cops genuinely believed de Menezes was carrying an explosive device, why did they allow him onto a bus and into a subway station?

If the first victim of war is truth, its second victim is innocence.

De Menezes wasn't wearing a bulky jacket in warm weather (it was 65 degrees F that morning, but that's beside the point). He wore a light denim jacket. De Menezes walked at an ordinary pace through the subway station, pausing to pick up a newspaper, and passed through the turnstile. The guy with a bulky jacket and dangling wires who ran and jumped over the turnstile? Those were cops.

At least two cops boarded the train. One barked an order at de Menezes, who stood up but apparently made no threatening gesture. No doubt he was startled and confused, as anybody would be in similar circumstances. One cop tackled de Menezes, throwing him back into the seat. While one cop restrained de Menezes, a second reached forward, his gun about a foot away from his skull, and fired seven times.

To be sure, the cops were on edge. We've all been on edge since September 11, 2001. In London, the cops were trying to prevent another subway bombing.

What is most disturbing is the lack of shock over de Menezes' death. Many people seem to think that the sacrifice of innocent life is a fair trade for security. The irony of that concept is mindboggling.

Shooting "suicide bombing" suspects in the head is now standard operating procedure for many police departments in the U.S. and Great Britain. This is the approach recommended by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in a recent advisory.

What have we become if summary public execution is not only regarded as acceptable, but even necessary?


A Duty-Dance with Death

Rows of evening commuters settled in with cell phones and newspapers as the express train slowly lumbered out of Union Station. Rob sat across from me in his usual seat, fiddling intently with his iPod. The train gently swayed as the clattering wheels gained speed.

Around us sat the regular 435 crowd -- Close-Standing Man, with high water pants and a habit of invading personal space; Gregarious Guy, obese and overly friendly, loudly holding court at the far end of the car; the Furtive Novelist, who darts through crowds and makes copious notes on pieces of paper folded into a old book; Wild Bill, bearded in a style that hasn't been seen since the Civil War; the Bridge Bunch, playing cards on a briefcase perched on their knees.

Unfolding the Post, I turned first to the corrections and then to the obituaries. Reading the paper begins with a refreshing whiff of honesty, a candid public accounting of errors. Then there's a list of people who don't give a shit about it anymore.

The train rocked back and forth, trundling through wastelands north of the District. I'd just begun reading a Style story about a guy who wrote a musical about his experience being mauled by a bear, when the lights and air conditioning suddenly blinked off.

Rob tugged at his earphones and rolled his eyes upward, trying to sense change in speed that indicates a more serious problem.

"Not a good sign," I said.

"I don't think we're slowing down," Rob said. "The engine is still running."

"Who kicked out the cord?" said a voice from several rows back, eliciting a chorus of polite laughter.

Within minutes the lights and air conditioning came back on, filling the car with a comforting hum as people returned to their distractions.

"Close call," I said. "You never know about these trains. Amtrak treats the commuter service like a bastard stepchild. The track maintenance sucks."

Rob sipped the can of beer he had wrapped in a brown paper bag. "All it takes is a slight breeze for the pantograph to lose contact with the power line," he said. "Then the trains don't run at all. Snow or ice on the tracks I can understand, but wind? Ferchristsake."

"People are finally hearing about how bad the commuter trains are. They're so much worse than the Metro," I said. "I've got to put something about this in my blog. Trains can be stuck for hours. Like that 428 train last summer I heard about, when it was so hot. People say the cars were roasting. They were locked in during the heat…"

"I was there," said a voice from across the aisle.

A rumpled figure slumped in the far window seat. I hadn't noticed him before, thinking at first that he might have boarded at New Carrollton. But the express doesn't stop until BWI Airport, so he must have been sitting there since Washington.

He appeared to be in his late 50s, pale hairless arms peeking out from a short sleeve shirt, pudgy fingers folded on his lap. A cap was pulled down low, shading his eyes. His face, what I could see of it, was creased and weary.

The man had the appearance of a cog that keeps the machinery of government running, a drone relegated to the fluorescent bowels of the federal bureaucracy.

Maybe he was a itinerant network administrator, or an information specialist. Perhaps he was a displaced academic eking out a living as a subcontractor for a beltway bandit, grinding out proposals or fiscal analyses. It was difficult to envision him as anything but a repulsive non-person.

I looked at Rob. "What did he say?"

"He said he was there," Rob said.

"He must be listening to music," I said. "Anyway, it was goddamned hot, and people were locked inside the cars until…"

"I was there," the man said.

I examined the man closely. His eyes appeared closed, as though asleep or deep in thought. He didn't seem to be breathing, so still that I couldn't tell if he was dead or alive.

Rob served as an interpreter. "Where was he?" I asked.

"I don't know," Rob said. He leaned toward the man across the aisle. "Where were you," he asked.

"The 428," the man said.

"He said he was on the 428," Rob told me.

"He's just echoing things that we say," I said.

"Oh," said Rob.

"I was on that fateful 428" the man across the aisle said. "It was Friday, August 9 -- a blistering afternoon with all of the mugginess you expect from a reclaimed swampland. There were more than 800 souls on that seven-car train. When we left Union Station, none of us could have imagined the harrowing ordeal that lay ahead.

"The 428 isn't my usual train, but I left the office early to get a head start on the weekend. Half of Washington must have had the same idea. That train was packed. Every seat was filled, with people sitting on the steps. Standing room only, all the way down the aisle.

"It wasn't long before the first hint of trouble reared its ugly head. I'm not a superstitious person, but sometimes I think that train was just ill-fated. Bad juju. The lights flickered before we'd even left the station yard. As you note, my friend, this is often a bad omen. Most of the time, it's nothing. But this time, it was a flicker of hell.

"Somewhere around Odenton, the train stopped dead on the tracks. Just stopped. After a period of time, word filtered through the train that a fuse had blown. Since the power was out, the PA system didn't work. We were given very little information, and had no idea how long we'd be sitting there.

"The afternoon sunlight blazed through the windows. Heat inside the car shot up like a pressure cooker. Within minutes, the temperature was over 100 degrees.

"The train was stifling. There was no escape. Stepping out onto the tracks was out of the question. The conductors wouldn't even open the doors. Too much liability. So we remained locked in, and waited. Minutes slipped into an hour, and an hour turned into two.

"Waves of despair passed through the car as people received news of dinners gone cold, appointments missed, dates stood up. Children not picked up at daycare. It was an unmitigated disaster. I have TiVo, and that may be my saving grace.

"Men clawed at their neckties. Women tugged at damp straps and panty hose. Hair wilted. Sweat spots blotted through dress shirts. Rivulets of sweat poured down faces. It was like roasting in an oven. I craned my neck around to see who was the weakest, wondering how much longer until we devolve to depravity. The car smelled of perspiration and stale coffee breath.

"After two hours, the conductors came around and opened an emergency exit window, letting a fresh air waft into the car. Though saved from the brink of heat stroke, our ordeal was far from over.

"Eventually another train engine arrived to push us. We limped slowly toward the BWI station. That's when the storms moved in.

"The sky darkened angrily as we approached BWI. Knots of dark grey clouds appeared overhead. And then the heavens opened, unleashing a torrent of rain. Fat drops splatted against the window.

"The platform was already full when we arrived at the BWI station. They had to put us onto another train. We were forced off the train, herded like cattle onto the crowded platform.

"But there was nowhere to go. People huddled under the narrow awning to take shelter from the furious downpour. Some tried holding newspapers over their head. It was futile. Many of us were soaked to the skin. Not only that, but briefcases and backpacks were soaked too. And shoes.

"Moments earlier we had been begging for water. Now we were getting drenched. That's one of the cruel ironies of this 30-minute commute that turned into a hellish three-hour nightmare. We were wet for the rest of the ride," the man said in a low whisper. "And very tired."

Then the man fell silent. For a few moments Rob and I looked at each other, waiting to see if there was more to the story. There wasn't.

Rob sipped his beer.

"So," I asked Rob, "any plans with the kids this weekend?"


Monkey business

President Bush endorses teaching "intelligent design" -- creationism in disguise -- alongside evolution in public schools. Bush says that people "ought to be exposed to different ideas" so they can make up their own minds.

Great idea, but it doesn't go far enough.

Such a curriculum would be incomplete without theories about the world being supported on the back of a turtle, which appear in Native American and Hindu cultures, among others. Or the African story about the earth being formed by the deity Obatala using sand, seeds, a chicken, and a cat. Or the Siberian tale of Buga creating the first people out of iron, fire, water, and earth.

They're all just theories, right?

Astrology should be taught with astronomy, health classes include sections on homeopathy and faith healing, and all English classes teach ebonics as well.

It's important for kids to learn about December 7, 1776, when the Germans bombed Pearl Bailey.


Running for your life

One or two shots to the head to stop a terrorist suspect may be understandable. Perhaps three or four. But five…six…seven shots to the head?

Immediately, authorities said 27-year-old Jean Charles de Menezes was a subway bomber, later claiming that he was "closely tied" to the terrorists who committed those heinous acts. He wasn't.

Witnesses described de Menezes as "South Asian." Actually, he was Brazilian. It was suggested that he was in Great Britain illegally, and that isn't true either.

They say he jumped over a turnstile. Somehow I have my doubts about that too. Where are the video stills?

With minutes to catch the evening commuter train, I trot from the Metro through Union Station, backpack bouncing on my back. I hope nobody thinks I look too Arabic or South Asian or Brazilian.