May 9, 2011
Late on the morning of April 3, the expedition ship Alucia rocked violently on the South Atlantic Ocean in the middle of a squall. On the aft deck, the crew huddled together in rain slickers and gazed across the heaving seas to a yellow blur on the horizon. This was an unmanned reconnaissance submarine carrying 15,000 photographs that they were nearly desperate to see. But it had buoyed to the surface just as the squall sprang up, and with 30-knot winds and four-foot swells that splashed over the stern, it was too dangerous to retrieve the sub. So they watched and waited.
For eight days, the Alucia had been trolling the ocean near a spot known as the L.K.P., or the Last Known Position of Flight 447, the Air France jet that vanished in June 2009, about halfway between South America and Africa. In the nearly two years since, three other search teams went looking for the wreckage, but this was the Alucia’s first try. The ship carried three Remus 6000 submarines, some of the most advanced underwater search vehicles on earth, which swept the seafloor in 20-hour runs, then surfaced to deliver sonar imagery to the Alucia’s scientific team, who pored over the data in 12-hour shifts around the clock. So far, they had not found the plane, but the day before, one scientist pointed at something unusual on the monitor and said, “What about this?” And ever since, the air on the Alucia was charged.
Everyone knew the stakes. This wasn’t a scan of the Sargasso Sea or a study of salinity samples. The families of 228 passengers were restless for results. The search had already taken two years and cost more than $25 million. Another $12 million was committed to the Alucia this year, but French investigators had quietly decided that this year would be the last. If the Alucia did not find the plane, no one ever would.
As expedition leader, Michael Purcell was equal parts colleague and boss, with a raspy voice and a sonic laugh and a playful sarcasm, but he knew the Remus subs as well as anyone. Looking at the fuzzy mark on the monitor, he knew they had found something unnatural. It was too long and straight to be geologic. It was unlike anything else on the seafloor. On the other hand, if it wasn’t Flight 447, Purcell knew the disappointment would be palpable. As he prepared the photographic sub to return to the bottom for an 18-hour mission, Purcell whispered to another scientist, “I’m 95 percent sure that’s it, but man, if it’s not, it’s going to be a long two and a half months.” The sub went down at 9:45 p.m. At 2 a.m., Purcell was still awake in his cabin. He picked up his journal. “Tired but not sleepy,” he wrote. “May have found the plane today. Everyone is on edge.”
Four hours later, Purcell was up with the sun, and by late morning he was on deck with the crew, watching the Remus bob in the distance. A little after 1 p.m., they pulled the sub onboard and attached two thick cables to upload its data into the computers in the mission-control room. They drew the curtains around the room, so nonscientific crew members could not see in, and yanked the satellite uplink offline, so no one could leak the news. Then they crowded around the computer monitor as the first images of Flight 447 came onscreen: engines, landing gear and sections of fuselage, all unmistakably vivid on the ocean floor. But as they turned the satellite back on and began sending the first photos to air-crash investigators in France, the deeper implications of their discovery were just beginning to surface.
The vanishing of Flight 447 was easy to bend into myth. No other passenger jet in modern history had disappeared so completely — without a Mayday call or a witness or even a trace on radar. The airplane itself, an Airbus A330, was considered to be among the safest. It was equipped with the automated fly-by-wire system, which is designed to reduce human error by letting computers control many aspects of the flight. And when, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the ocean, Flight 447 seemed to disappear from the sky, it was tempting to deliver a tidy narrative about the hubris of building a self-flying airplane, Icarus falling from the sky. Or maybe Flight 447 was the Titanic, an uncrashable ship at the bottom of the sea…
May 9, 2011
UP CLOSE, the most unnerving thing about Marine Le Pen is not her obsession with Islam, her populism or her divisive politics—but the way she oozes charm. With a ready laugh and unaffected manner, this steely politician deflects awkward questions with an easy grace that makes her a rarity in French politics. The newish leader of the far-right National Front is an intriguing study in how to make extremist politics marketable—and in doing so, perhaps to reshape French party politics.
In the short run, Ms Le Pen wants to decontaminate the National Front, stripping it of the skin-headed image it had under her father, Jean-Marie. At the party’s annual May 1st rally, she surrounded herself with fresh-faced young women in jeans and T-shirts. Her father, a former paratrooper, perfected a line in anti-Semitic and xenophobic outrage. She shares much of his programme, such as support for the death penalty and job preference for French nationals. But she has junked the anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi sidekicks in favour of a subtler tone. “When I talk about the immigration problem, I don’t talk out of hate, or xenophobia, or Islamophobia, or fear,” she insists, but pragmatism. “We cannot afford to let everybody in.”
By turns funny and caustic, with a fine sense of oratory, Ms Le Pen’s skill is to defend her ideas with principles that all voters share. She is “not against Islam”, she claims, but against the “Islamification” of society that breaches France’s principle of laïcité(secularism). “I don’t believe that Islam is incompatible with Western values,” she says. “But sharia law is, and that’s what fundamentalists want to impose in France.” All of this is done with an unspoken appeal to common sense. Look at me, she seems to say, an ordinary divorced mother trying to bring up my kids at a tough time, how could you disagree?
Ms Le Pen is shaking the French establishment. Repeated polls suggest that she may well repeat her father’s feat in 2002 by securing a place in the run-off at next year’s presidential election. If she does, she will not win, but she could take almost a third of the votes. In any case, she will cause trouble by robbing support from both left and right, creating huge uncertainty ahead of 2012. In the long run, she has set her sights even higher: she wants to overturn party alignments and transform the National Front from a party of protest into a future party of government.
Across Europe, traditional divisions between left and right have blurred, Ms Le Pen argues, giving way to a new fracture between those who believe in globalisation, international governance and open borders, and those who believe in the primacy of the nation. In her eyes President Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF and a likely Socialist candidate, are “interchangeable”: standard-bearers for a globalised world view. By contrast, she wants a return to national sovereignty, a withdrawal from the euro (“before it collapses”) and NATO (“submission to America”), the return of border controls and an unapologetic protectionist policy to “re-industrialise France”…
The earthquake that struck Japan’s Sendai region on March 11 was the most violent in the nation’s recorded history. The temblor shook the ground for more than two minutes, tilting the earth’s axis and unleashing an enormous tsunami that drowned thousands in northern Japan and left a path of destruction in its wake. Adding to the calamity, power outages caused cooling pumps to fail at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, risking multiple reactor meltdowns and leading to mass evacuations.
The crisis—described by Prime Minister Naoto Kan as his country’s “worst in the 65 years since the war”—has led some commentators to predict that Japan will never recover. This is an absurd contention, as was already evident in the immediate aftermath of March 11, when the remarkable characteristics of Japanese society shone through. Accustomed to natural disaster, the Japanese people showed little panic even at the peak of the horror. Looting, which one often sees after earthquakes in other societies, was nonexistent. Japan proved itself astonishingly well prepared: the quake itself, it turned out, caused relatively little direct damage to buildings, even in Sendai, thanks to strict construction codes imposed after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which killed 6,000. Perhaps most striking of all was that the Japanese export machine was so little damaged. Production and delivery of many goods, ranging from computer chips to industrial components, were interrupted for only a matter of hours, though shortages have slowed things down sporadically.
But even before the earthquake, pundits often forgot that Japan remains Asia’s leading power and most successful society. True, as the press has trumpeted, the Chinese economy has grown larger than Japan’s and is now the world’s second-largest, after America’s. Yet China has ten times Japan’s population, which means that per-capita wealth in Japan is still ten times greater. And Chinese economic output is low-tech, completely different from the sophisticated products developed and made by Japanese industries. “Ultimately, we’re not in a race,” says Hideki Kato, one of Japan’s leading economists and president of the Tokyo Foundation, a free-market think tank.
Yet Kato doesn’t dismiss China’s challenge. “To have been overcome in 2010, even if those figures don’t mean much, has awakened the Japanese, given them a sense of crisis,” he says. And crises have energized the Japanese in the past, points out Naoki Inose, a vice governor of Tokyo and a respected historian. Indeed, they have provoked what many Japanese call the country’s two great historical “openings.” Will the disaster of March 11 and the rise of China together provoke a third…?
May 9, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.