Should we be surprised that some people moved quickly to exploit the terrorist attacks for their own enrichment or to advance personal or political agendas? Some reporters covering this unseemly aspect of the aftermath of terror could barely avoid displaying a curled lip. Others made effective use of satire or considered, measured prose to shame the exploiters.
CNET and the Wall Street Journal covered the outbreak of exploitative spams and scams mere hours after the crashes of the hijacked airliners on Tuesday. CNET passed along a warning from the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email not to fall for spammed appeals for donations. "Virtually no bona fide relief agencies request funds by sending e-mail to people who are not already involved in that agency," CNET quoted a CAUCE statement.
CNET also noted the rapid appearance of e-mailed teasers for porn sites and phony Web sites soliciting donations. CNET's reporters professed surprise at the quick rise of such sleazy exploitation, alluding to unnamed academics who were "shocked at the volume and immediacy of scams resulting from the terrorist attacks." The Wall Street Journal found more worldly - or perhaps more cynical - sources. "Fraud specialists say such activities are common following disasters," the Journal reported.
Two early reactions to the tragedy, one on Newsforge and one on Salon, inspired an online commentator known only as "jsm" to a brilliant height of satire. Writing on Newsforge, Eric S. Raymond had argued that "distributed problems require distributed solutions" - that is, the arming of all airline passengers. (Raymond is known as an advocate of Open Source software and, according to his Web site, "I am an armed man, prepared to use deadly force to defend my life and my freedom.") In Salon, conservative columnist David Horowitz wrote that "it's time to spend the surplus on national security now." (What surplus?) Writing on Adequacy.org ("News for Grown-ups"), "jsm" skewered such views this way: "Of course the World Trade Center bombings are a uniquely tragic event, and it is vital that we never lose sight of the human tragedy involved. However, we must also consider if this is not also a lesson to us all; a lesson that my political views are correct."
Paul Krugman's column in the New York Times struck a more dignified rhetorical note. Ending a piece about the likely economic impacts of the tragedy, Krugman inveighed against what he called the "disgraceful opportunism" he saw in some members of Congress: "Politicians who wrap themselves in the flag while relentlessly pursuing their usual partisan agenda are not true patriots, and history will not forgive them."
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