Weekly Review — June 22, 2010, 12:00 am

Weekly Review

[Image: Babylonian lion, 1875]

President Barack Obama premiered a new political narrative of the BP oil spill during a nationally televised address. Instead of portraying government efforts as a cleanup, Obama described a “battle plan”: the oil flowing from the destroyed BP wellhead was not an industrial accident but a “siege” and an “assault [on] our shores.” BP announced that it would cease paying dividends to shareholders and instead hoard money for use in future lawsuits. Americans remained in favor of offshore drilling, members of Congress sold their shares in oil and gas companies as quickly as they could, and Vice President Joe Biden confirmed that he was a politician and proud of it.NY TimesNY TimesNY TimesNY TimesNY TimesWashington PostDrudge ReportAfricans were accused of wasting “obscene” amounts of food, and a “cooker malfunction” in a Campbell’s Soup factory in Paris, Texas, forced the recall of 15 million pounds of SpaghettiOs with meatballs.USA TodayMy Way News via DrudgeAn American man arrested in Pakistan in possession of a pistol, a sword, night-vision equipment, and Christian religious books, who was believed to be trying to find and kill or convert Osama bin Laden, was found to have a history of mental problems.CNNAli Larijani, speaker of the Iranian Parliament, warned “certain adventurous countries” not to inspect his country’s cargo ships at sea.English News via Drudge

The Supreme Court of California heard arguments as to whether only people capable of procreating should be allowed to marry, and Catholics in New York State came out against legislation that would abolish fault-only divorce. “New York State has one of the lowest divorce rates in the country,” said Richard E. Barnes, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference. “While we see that as a cause for state pride, sadly some may see it as a problem to be corrected.”NY TimesNY TimesThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported that “female Viagra” makes women depressed, dizzy, and lightheaded but does not increase their sexual satisfaction, and Harvard scientists determined that American doctors will work harder if they are paid less.USA TodayNY TimesA study commissioned by Mayor Michael Bloomberg revealed that New York City’s administrators know far less about rats than previously assumed, and Andrew Cuomo, a gubernatorial candidate in the state, clarified his stance on pasta cookery. “As an independent Democrat,” he said, “I eat everybodyâ??s lasagna. I eat conservatives’ lasagna. I eat liberal lasagna.”NY TimesGothamist via eaterResearch showed that fat women have a much harder time finding sexual partners than do fat men, and childhood educators dismissed the importance of best friends. “Parents sometimes say Johnny needs that one special friend,” said Christine Laycob, director of counseling at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis. “We say he doesnâ??t need a best friend.”USA TodayNY TimesIn Munich, a young man dressed only in his underwear mooned a group of Hells Angels, threw a puppy at them, and then fled on a stolen bulldozer. BBC

Incidences of suspected fraud by American soldiers, mercenaries, and contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan were up 18 percent over last year, and a funeral-home director in Findlay, Ohio, was arrested for failing to wear clothes in the presence of a corpse.USA TodayCNNThe U.S. Department of Transportation debated the legality of serving peanuts on commercial airliners, and food scientists at Penn State University found that “supertasters” who “live in a neon taste world” experience salty and bitter flavors more intensely than their “pastel” non-supertaster counterparts.LA TimesCNNIn Chicago, the Honorable Richard M. Daley told local reporters that they hate Walmart because they live in the suburbs.Chicago News CoopA growing “epidemic” of Web pornography prompted the decency group Enough is Enough to lobby Congress in favor of censoring the Internet; as many as 60 severed human heads were discovered on a Southwest Airlines flight to Fort Worth, Texas; and Warren Buffett and Bill Gates established a foundation whose purpose is to shame rich people.Washington Times via DrudgeDFW via DrudgeLA TimesIncarcerated men were spending more time with their children.USA TodayIn Botswana, England’s Prince William agreed to blow a young boy’s vuvuzela. “There you go,” the prince said after playing the three-foot trumpet. “Iâ??ve embarrassed myself again.”Telegraph via Drudge

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I was tucked in a blind behind a soda machine, with nothing in my hand but notepad and phone, when a herd of running backs broke cover and headed across the convention center floor. My God, they’re beautiful! A half dozen of them, compact as tanks, stuffed into sports shirts and cotton pants, each, around his monstrous neck, wearing a lanyard that listed number and position, name and schedule, tasks to be accomplished at the 2019 N.F.L. Scout­ing Combine. They attracted the stunned gaze of football fans and beat writers, yet, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, continued across the carpet.

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Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

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The Black Axe·

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Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

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I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

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Murder Italian Style·

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The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

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A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

After not making a public appearance for weeks and being rumored dead, the president of Turkmenistan appeared on state television and drove a rally car around The Gates of Hell, a crater of gas that has been burning since it was discovered in 1971.

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