America's Almanac Alert
- By Matt Bivens
- Jan. 19 2004 00:00
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An almanac, for those not familiar with the word, is a quaint book from a simpler time. Once, farmers and sailors found almanacs crucial tools -- they were chock-full of guesswork about the coming year, from long-range weather forecasts to guide planting and reaping, to exact predictions for each day's sunrise and sunset, each shore's high and low tides.
"Blum's Almanac," one of many titles, reports, "When the first printing press came to America in 1638, the second book off that press was an almanac." (The first was, obviously, a Bible.) Benjamin Franklin -- the founding father honored on the U.S. $100 bill -- drove the popularity of the books even higher by authoring the immensely popular "Poor Richard's Almanack," which included advice about how to live richly and die wealthy.
Almanac publishers have since added all sorts of official trivia -- the state flag of California, the capital of Montana, the area in square miles of Kansas -- making almanacs favorites of Nazi saboteurs.
Seriously. In 1942, German spies were landed on Long Island, New York, by a U-boat and soon after caught by the FBI. One of the spies was carrying "The Old Farmer's Almanac" in his coat pocket, and the government decided the book was providing aid and comfort to the enemy with its weather forecasts. The publisher of "The Old Farmer's Almanac," according to its official history, had to do some fast talking to avoid the wrath of a war-hysterical nation, explaining that it published not weather forecasts -- Heavens no, not in wartime -- but weather indications.
Those German spies were declared by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be "enemy combatants," and were tried as such by a U.S. military court. It is this very 61-year-old case that President George W. Bush now cites when he asserts the power to declare people "enemy combatants" -- including American citizens picked up, unarmed, on American soil -- and "disappear" them into places such as Navy brigs, or odd prison camps he's ordered established in the no man's land of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
So with our top government men poring over the old 1942 enemy combatants case, is it any wonder we'd rediscover the dangers lurking in almanacs?
Terrorists, the FBI warned in its Christmas Eve bulletin -- a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press -- use almanacs "to assist with target selection and pre-operational planning." (I bet they also take inspiration from Poor Richard's motivational sayings like, "Haste makes waste," and "Have you something to do tomorrow? Do it today.")
The editor of the "World Almanac" countered sourly that al-Qaida "certainly didn't need the almanac to locate the twin towers." But the FBI, unmoved, insisted all police officers keep an eye out any time they search or stop someone. Suspect almanacs should be reported to the local U.S. Joint Terrorism Task Force. "Especially," reported the AP, "if the books are annotated in suspicious ways."
Like if, in the margins of the page about how the state flower of Minnesota is the Pink and White Lady's Slipper, there's scribble reading: "Osama bin Laden hates the Pink and White Lady's Slipper! Die, Minnesotans! Die!" -- that should be reported.
Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes the Daily Outrage for The Nation magazine. [www.thenation.com]