Hurricane season starts today. Since Katrina revealed serious flaws in the country’s physical and bureaucratic disaster-preparedness systems, Gulf Coast states and the federal government have been racing against the seasonal clock to shore up both fronts. By today, the Army Corps of Engineers hopes to have restored to pre-Katrina strength 169 miles of the 350-mile levee system that protects New Orleans, which would in theory guard against a weak Category 3 hurricane. Independent scientific commissions are skeptical that the new levees will offer even that modest protection. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have pledged to overhaul their disaster bureaucracy and response plans and add 1,500 emergency personnel over the next several months.
The Arab League, notably absent from Iraqi politics since it left the country during the Coalition invasion in 2003, returns to convene a national reconciliation meeting starting this week in hopes of finding common ground among Iraq’s warring sects. The league’s critics claim that its true motivation is offsetting growing Iranian influence in Iraq (it has been accused of holding Sunni sympathies). At a preparatory meeting in Cairo last November, Sunni parties pushed to recognize the insurgency as a legitimate resistance force, while the Kurds and Shiites, who dominate the Iraqi government, disagreed. Only one consensus emerged at that meeting: that the United States should set a timeline for withdrawal. Similar Arab League talks did manage to bring an end to Lebanon’s civil war in 1990.
As stumping for the midterm elections gets under way, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, in an effort to rally disillusioned Republicans, has promised votes on several divisive cultural issues. Today’s vote will attempt to revive President Bush’s proposal for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, an issue that last percolated on Capitol Hill just before the 2004 elections—a striking coincidence, surely. State-level gay-marriage bans were also popular in 2004, passing on all eleven ballots on which they appeared. Frist has promised another red-meat amendment—to “prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States”—later this month.
Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobics, tremble! By the reckoning of some numerologists and Rapture watchers, today (6/6/06) is the big day hinted at in Revelation: the beginning of the end of days. Even if the Antichrist fails to appear, a movie version premieres today: The Omen 666. The remake of the 1976 creep show about the devil brought to earth as a dark-haired changeling began production in Croatia, but had to be completed in the Czech Republic and Italy after local authorities and churches protested.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights—a long-standing embarrassment whose members have included Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Cuba—will be abolished today, a victory in Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s campaign to reform the UN. Members of the new Human Rights Council, which convenes on June 19, must gain majority approval from the General Assembly and have a clean rights record—a tougher standard than in the past, though not quite the two-thirds approval the United States and Annan wanted. The new body will have increased importance within the UN, as well as the power to sponsor interventions and suspend members for gross violations.
In what it hopes will be an end to years of violence and upheaval (most of them under the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who seized power in a 1965 coup), the Democratic Republic of the Congo will hold its first free elections since it gained independence from Belgium forty-six years ago. Though fighting continues in the resource-rich eastern provinces, a shaky peace has held since a 2002 truce ended the civil war that killed 3 million people. Joseph Kabila, the current president of the power-sharing transitional government, will usher in elections for a new leader and national assembly. The European Union, eager to prove it can play a part in global security, will send as many as 1,500 troops to back the 17,000 UN peacekeepers already on the ground.
Frequent fliers around the country can now enjoy the obnoxious pleasure of cutting to the front of airport-security lines. The Transportation Security Administration’s new Registered Traveler program, which today goes into effect nationally after tests at five airports, allows travelers to pay an annual fee (probably around $80) and submit to a “security threat assessment” in exchange for a card containing biometric information that spares them the typical routine of screening and wanding. At least seventy airports have expressed interest.