Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2002/ 25 Teves 5762

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There's something in the water -- TAMPA, Fla. | There's got to be something in the water the world is drinking (if water is what the world is drinking). The front page has become the repository of the news of the weird.

A suspected sometime terrorist from a mosque in London, who may have failed his studies at the terrorist academy since he seems to have set fire to his wrong foot, is arrested for trying to explode his shoe. One of the president's Secret Service agents is kicked off a commercial airline flight because he wouldn't fill in the proper blanks to take his weapon aboard. A California teen-ager, the predictable extrusion of the celebrated Marin County counterculture, is captured as an al Qaeda soldier in Afghanistan, ugly booty of the war on terror. Tom Daschle, desperate for something to hold against George W. Bush, proposes to raise taxes to fight the recession. Weird, really weird.

And here in Tampa, home of the U.S. headquarters of a war 10,000 miles (give or take a few hundred), an ocean and a continent away, a 15-year-old high school student demonstrates solidarity with Osama bin Laden by flying a tiny single-engine Cessna 172 into the 28th floor of a 42-floor Bank of America tower. He kills himself, dismantles the Cessna, breaks out several windows and thoroughly rearranges a few filing cabinets. Compared to a Boeing, the Cessna is a mere sewing machine with wings attached. There was no explosion, no fire; only a suicide note expressing "sympathy" for Osama bin Laden and a lot of unanswered questions.

Friends, neighbors and the newspapers leaped to call Charlie Bishop "a loner," which is what such figures are invariably called, but this time the description may even be accurate, as far as it goes. Charlie was the boy who stood apart on the street corner, where the kids waited for the bus to East Lake High, and then sat alone on the bus, staring out the window. "We never knew he flew planes or anything else about him," says one of his schoolmates. All that the kids at school seemed to know about him is that he yearned to own a Honda Civic, his favorite restaurant was the Outback Steakhouse ("no rules, just right"), and that his favorite movie was "Men of Honor," a story about the first black sailor admitted to the Navy's diver-training school.

One of his teachers, who keeps a photograph of her dog on her desk, recalls that once, when he noticed the photograph, he struck up a conversation about pets. "He told me that he had a dog, and dogs are a lot of company."

One neighbor recalls to the Tampa Tribune that Charlie was polite enough when walking his dog, a scruffy white terrier with a black ring around one eye, but another said no, Charlie was aloof, distant and even rude. "I said 'nice dog' a lot to his dog, but Charlie never said anything back. I would smile, but he wouldn't smile back."

Once, after September 11 when a teacher cautioned her class not to jump to conclusions about people because they were swarthy or followed an alien religion, Charlie thanked her, and remarked that no one could be sure what another person's background might actually be. "For all anyone knows," he said, "I could be part-Arab." Indeed, the family name - Charlie's father is thought to have long ago slipped out of his life - was once "Bishara."

The Tampa Tribune reported that investigators are looking into the possibility that Charlie might be of Arab ancestry and, if so, whether this in the current climate could have influenced his behavior.

The investigators, particularly the Floridians, quickly emphasized that Charlie was not only a loner, but the Bank of America caper was a one-man job. Despite the "sympathy" he expressed for Osama bin Laden and the terrorists, there is no evidence that he ever had any connection to al Qaeda or any other terrorist cell. And he's not really from Tampa: He was born in Massachusetts and moved here only two years ago from Atlanta, which, as everyone south of Richmond knows, is full of Yankees, strangers, oddballs, ginks and other undesirables.

All the evidence, in fact, indicates that Charlie has far less connection to Florida - or Atlanta or even Massachusetts - than John Walker had to Marin County. Walker grew up in Marin County, and from all accounts absorbed the Marin County Zeitgeist (they're fond of trendy foreign terms in Marin County). It's not at all clear that anyone has lived in Florida, where roots of any kind are all but unknown, long enough to absorb anything.

Charlie, like John Walker and maybe even George W.'s errant bodyguard, may just be the expression of the new America, where everyone thinks he can make up the rules - or waive the rules - as he goes along. Maybe "victim" has replaced "rugged individual" as America's beau ideal.

The defiant Secret Service agent, who tried to take his piece on to the airplane without crossing all the t's and dotting all the i's in the way government agents insist that everyone else must, insists that he was singled out because he looks "Middle Eastern." The pilot says that's not so, and so far American Airlines has resisted the pressure to make the apology that "victims" invariably demand as validation of the coveted victim status. (Blue-eyed blond-haired Minnesota ladies armed with .357 magnums can go right aboard.) These are weird times, all right.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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