That empty feeling
Reporters and editors get a particularly empty feeling when they don’t know what’s going on, and we had a lot of that feeling last week.
Thursday’s wave of attacks on the London transit system was the most obvious example. Was it another operation by the same band of terrorists who had killed 56 persons two weeks earlier? Or was it a bizarre copycat prank by another group with mysterious motives?
Early in the day, the second explanation made more sense. The group that set off bombs in three trains and a bus two weeks earlier clearly had known how to build effective bombs, while last week’s bombers appeared to be utterly ineffectual or not trying.
The fact that last week’s group went after a bus also made it look like a copycat action. It had been widely assumed that the July 7 bombers meant to hit four subway trains but one of them diverted to a bus because a subway line was closed. If these were the same people, why not go back to the original plan?
That reasoning began to erode when Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair told reporters the purpose of the attacks had been to kill. He provided precious little additional information, but we had to assume that by then his officers knew what the attackers had in their backpacks.
So why did all four bombs fail to explode, when the previous bombs had been devastatingly effective? Reporter Paul Martin in London found an explosives specialist with one plausible theory: The material used had been mixed at the same time as that used on July 7 but had degraded in two weeks to the point where it was useless.
We ran that by reporter Jerry Seper, who covers the FBI and knows a lot about police work. It took him about five minutes of research to determine that the explosive used in the July 7 bombs, acetone peroxide, does in fact degrade very quickly.
There was one other clue that the police, at least, believed the two waves of attacks were related: While giving up next to nothing about the details of their investigation, they said the forensic evidence recovered last week could provide a “breakthrough” in the earlier investigation.
Mr. Martin came up with one other nice bit of information Thursday night that was not reported elsewhere until the next day — that the police had already acquired good quality pictures of all four attackers on their closed-circuit surveillance cameras and would soon release them to the public.
But there remained other elements of the story that did not make much sense, including the decision to stage another attack on a bus. So like most other publications, we carefully hedged our first-day story to say it was not clear whether these attackers had been in the same league as those of July 7.
There were two other stories last week that left me gnashing my teeth, both involving Iraq. One was an exploration by reporter David R. Sands into what is driving an accelerating number of suicide bombings, and the other looked at death totals for Iraqi civilians.
Mr. Sands dug up fascinating material about where the bombers come from, their family backgrounds and the like. But when we went looking for hard numbers on how many suicide bombings there have been, we hit a brick wall.
The Associated Press doesn’t keep count; the U.S. military either isn’t counting or isn’t saying. Google, so often a savior, was useless. We did get one set of numbers from a professor in Chicago — 20 in 2003, 48 in 2004 and 50 through May of this year — but they strike me as too low. After all, there were 10 or 11 suicide bombings reported in one day this month alone.
Tracking Iraqi civilian deaths was no better. A report came out of Britain last week with some fascinating data, but the group had a clear anti-war agenda, and we wanted some independent assessments.
But again, the Americans aren’t counting or aren’t saying, the Iraqi government has not been in place long enough, and other estimates vary wildly. We wound up not using the story.
David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com.