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Reflections In A Blackout

August  20  2003

First, the lights flickered, then they went out. Then, they came on again. Then they went out, for good. August demand for air conditioning overloaded the circuits, I thought.

The hall was dark as I made my way down to "the nook," the guest studio at NBC's offices at 30 Rockefeller Center.

I called MSNBC to volunteer a live report from "30 Rock" on the blackout and what was going on below on 6th Avenue. They said they would get back to me. But when they called, the phone did not ring. No matter. The blackout was now an international story, from Detroit to Toronto to Connecticut. Fifty million had lost power.

My wife and I made our way down a darkened fire escape to emerge onto Sixth Avenue and walk the 10 blocks to Essex House. The restaurant was not serving, but we were handed bottles of water before taking the stairs to our room on the 7th floor. The electronic keys were still working. Then, it was a minibar dinner of cashews, pretzels, potato chips and a Snickers bar. Junk food was better than no food.

By morning, electricity was back, but cell phones were still not working and the planes not flying. There seemed no way out of the Big Apple. But when a car arrived to transport me to MSNBC, I told the driver to make it D.C. Five hours later, we were at 400 N. Capitol St. in time for the 6 p.m. show.

Yet during the night previous, as I looked out over the world's greatest city, suddenly gone dark, the vulnerability of our high-tech nation was transparent in the blackness that enveloped Central Park and the Upper East and West Side. Had this blackout lasted another 48 hours, the situation could have deteriorated with startling speed and gone ugly fast.

For the 8 million living there, food in refrigerators and freezers would have begun to spoil. With no electricity for stoves or ovens, nothing could have been cooked. Unless families had dry food on hand, scores of thousands would have had to go panic-buying at stores, where the shelves would have soon been empty.

With pumping stations shutting down for lack of power, the faucets would no longer work and the toilets no longer flush.

Looking down on Central Park South the night of that blackout, one saw, in the glare of the headlights, folks on rollerblades and bicycles. The next morning, a line of SUVs was at the hotel, picking up passengers and luggage, and headed for the bridges and tunnels out of Manhattan. If you owned a car and had a tank of gas, you could make it 300 miles south to where the electricity was on.

But the lines at the gas pumps were lengthening, and one heard of stations already charging $10 a gallon.

Hearing the sirens wail all night and wondering were the cops racing to rescue trapped subway riders, or save citizens from muggers or looters? I thought: If I lived here, Sullivan Law or no Sullivan Law, I would keep a gun and ammunition in the house.

Yet, unlike 1977, where the rioting and looting started as soon as the lights went out, this blackout was relatively crime-free. Had it lasted for days, though, I doubt it would have remained so.

This thought also came to mind: If millions of Americans are angry at having been deprived of the amenities of life for 24 hours, what must life be like in Baghdad. There, they have had no power, or power only a few hours a day, in a nation that has gone through 12 years of sanctions, from which estimates of the dead run to the hundreds of thousands, with the casualties highest among the elderly and children under 5. Do they blame us, hate us, for that?

Woodrow Wilson called sanctions the "silent deadly remedy." Their impact is invariably harshest on the most vulnerable of any society, rarely on the regime or dictator. And what benefit do we derive from our sanctions on Cuba, Burma, Iran, North Korea to justify the suffering we cause and to compensate for the hatred engendered?

The blackout was a wake-up call, the president said. We have to invest scores of billions of dollars in new power plants and power lines. But the U.S. government is $455 billion in deficit and over $6 trillion in debt.

Moreover, we are looking at huge new costs for prescription drug coverage for seniors and perhaps a $300 billion to $600 billion price tag for the reconstruction of Iraq.

Meanwhile, white-collar jobs, with high wages, are now following blue-collar jobs overseas, as the world's poor pour into the United States. Virtually every state is now a mini-California, slashing expenditure or raising taxes.

Now, we are told, we need to enlarge the armed forces to meet our expanding commitments overseas. Something's got to give.

2003 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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