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Staff Editorials

Ebola outbreak and U.S. national security

    It seems hard to fathom that a virus in Africa can be potentially dangerous to us here in the United States but Ebola is a real and emergent threat. Whether through the virus itself spreading to our shores  or by the collapse of established nations that allow terrorist groups a new stronghold, the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is on our national security radar screens -- and for a good reason.
    More than 5,300 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola since March. To date more than 2,630 have died in the biggest Ebola outbreak on record. The virus kills 90 percent of the people it infects and its outbreaks occur primarily in remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests, according to the World Health Organization. The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads in the human population through human-to-human transmission. There is no licensed vaccine for Ebola.
    President Barack Obama last week announced the United States’ plans to expand military and medical resources to combat the outbreak, constructing Ebola treatment centers with 1,700 beds, training 500 medical workers a week and deploying some 3,000 American military personnel - including doctors - to Liberia and Senegal. The Liberian minister said on Sunday the epidemic threatens to entirely “collapse” three states - Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
    Last week the U.S. doctor who contracted the virus and was subsequently healed, Dr. Kent Brantly, testified before a senate committee that the use of our military is legitimate to stop this outbreak. He said: “If we do not do something to stop this outbreak now, it quickly could become a matter of U.S. national security - whether that means a regional war that gives terrorist groups like Boko Haram a foothold in West Africa or the spread of the disease into America.”
    Liberia was in its 11th year of peace and the Ebola epidemic is striking just as hope was returning to that devastated nation. Only around 40 percent of the country’s healthcare facilities are operational and all schools are closed.
    Most doctors agree that the risk of anyone in the United States contracting Ebola is very small - you can’t catch Ebola just by being in proximity to someone who has the virus; it is not airborne like the flu. While the World Health Organization said it expects 20,000 cases within the next nine months, a group of American scientists said the outbreak could infect hundreds of thousands of people before it is brought under control.
    With that many people infected, we could see profound political, economic and security implications. The “ripple effects” the president spoke of include economic and humanitarian disasters that pose a threat to global security if these African countries break down. Terrorist groups could use the virus as a bio-weapon. The current outbreak is occurring near an always volatile region that has seen the rise of different terrorist groups. Boko Haram operates there and is the group that abducted more than 200 girls earlier this year.
    According to the Washington Post, the U.S. has  invested tens of millions of dollars in vaccine and therapy research over the last decade. And a Department of Defense spokesman, when asked if they worried Ebola would be used as a bio-weapon, replied that “the DOD maintains research interests both for protection against intentional use and natural exposure to many diseases that can impact the health of its personnel around the world, and that concern extends to viruses, such as Ebola.”
    They should. Back in the 1970s the Soviet Union had a program called VECTOR aimed specifically at researching biotechnology and virology, which is now believed to have had people tasked with creating Ebola and Marburg (a virus similar to Ebola) biological weapons. Funding research into vaccines is a sound protective measure and while we may be doing it out of national security considerations,  a vaccine could save lives both here and abroad.
    The best way to protect the United States is to stop the outbreak in West Africa.

Something must be done to stop constant Cove Road wrecks

    When a fully-loaded lumber truck overturned on Cove Road last week scattering boards all across the asphalt and causing the road to remain closed for most of the day, no one expressed any particular surprise, for a wreck at that spot is nothing unusual.
    The general sentiment was “thank goodness no one got hurt…. This time.”
    Our records don’t show any recent fatalities at the Cove, as it’s commonly known. But we regularly post notices about the road being closed while emergency crews clear wrecks on the S curves.
    The stretch of road causing all the motor vehicle grief is an extremely steep grade with sharp S-curves that, though well-marked, seems to surprise motorists approaching from the east.
    From an aesthetic point of view, it’s quite impressive to see the road snaking through the cliff above the former marble mines after after crossing Longswamp Creek (very often called Cove Creek). 
    But from a traffic, motorist point of view, it’s sheer lunacy that such a steep and narrow road serves as one of two major east-west traffic arteries for Pickens County (Hwy. 53 being the main one). Cove Road is extremely well used with both Bent Tree and Big Canoe gated communities tied to Jasper by this route.
    The road is also the only practical choice for many people as a daily commute. There are few options to detour off the route unless you are really familiar with the backroads of the county and none of those routes are efficient, winding well out of the way.
    The traffic woes of Cove Road escalate by the lack of alternatives and the fact that it is difficult to move cars, patients and, as we saw last week, lumber, out of the way to get traffic flowing again in the S-curves.
    Commissioner Billy Newton, who was lucky enough to serve as sole commissioner when multi-million dollar development deals seemed to fall out of the sky during the early 2000s, had identified doing something to address the S-curves as a top long-term project.
    He had general ideas that a dam could be put across the creek at the bottom and the road straightened by running it along the top of the dam, creating water reserves and fixing the traffic issues at the same time. Nothing came of this and obviously tackling something this large is a multi-year, phenomenally expensive scheme, unlikely to draw support now that the development wave has passed.
    When a rockslide occurred in April of 2011 and closed Cove Road for several days of cleanup, one county employee said the entire cliff was unstable and something major needed to be done. Several low concrete barriers were installed at the base that serve little apparent purpose but nothing substantial was ever planned.
    And again when a single overturned truck was able to shut down a major thoroughfare for a full day, there were calls for action. Several people opined that the road should not be used for larger truck; while others noted that some GPS and online mapping programs direct you down Cove when approaching from Dawsonville. If we could let the Google maps/Garmin folks know that unsuspecting truck drivers such stick to  Highway 53 it would be a start.
    We understand that a total reconfiguration of the S-curves is such a large, expensive and complicated project that the county, city of Jasper or  state can not just take some bulldozers and start grading. We fully realize that due to the very topography that creates hazard, addressing the Cove is a humongous challenge.
    But surely something can be done there to improve the safety -- even if it’s not a total reworking. At the very least we would like to see the need formally acknowledged on city, county and state drawing boards.

Be informed to know rhetoric versus reality

By Dan Pool
Editor
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    On Sunday we were out of coffee so I made an early morning Starbucks run to our local Kroger. While there I picked up a Sunday edition of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
    Growing up in the newspaper business, I remain a huge fan of “papers.” Though I read news online, there is no comparison to the accumulated stories packaged together. While it does seem a little strange to buy a Sunday paper produced in another state to get news on Georgia, it works okay – especially since our flagship newspaper the AJC doesn’t offer home delivery in Pickens County and is fairly hard to find.
    One of the big advantages of reading a newspaper versus surfing for news, is with a printed product in your hand, you tend to read (or at least skim over) more stories on subjects you would bypass online. We all miss out by doing this, as studies have shown we naturally seek the news that reinforces what we are already interested in, rather than expand into areas we are unfamiliar with.
    Several articles in the Sunday Chattanooga paper really emphasized how you  need to dig below the rhetoric and venture into new areas.
    First was an article cleverly subtitled, “Surly electorate poised to ‘keep the bums in’” – while Americans constantly grouse about how bad government is, incumbents keep winning re-election. In fact this article by the Associated Press noted that 365 incumbents out of the 435 member House and 18 of 28 senators are poised for another term.
    Second, an article on the Common Core quoting our former Republican Governor Sonny Perdue expressing surprise by how the program has gotten such an unearned rap as being a federal initiative. Part of Perdue’s surprise stems from him being involved with a group of governors who worked on the new testing standards with the idea of keeping the federal government out of state education.
“It’s just a situation that I don’t think should have become political,” the former Georgia governor said.
    Third was a great opinion piece “Friends, donors and countrymen” comparing campaign financing to a period in ancient Rome when those seeking to be emperor got the seat based on who could raise the most money to give to the Praetorian guard. They skipped all the in-between work of politics like websites and the endless piles of junk mail and literally bought the seat.
    Fourth, and I am not sure how this falls in line with the rest of the rhetoric, but everyone has heard that old warning that half of the marriages in America end in divorce. It has actually never been true. A researcher thought that number looked out of line. And if you think about it, are half the people you know divorced? A lot are, and the divorce rate is high, but it is closer to one in four first marriages end in divorce, according to later research. This research found that the earlier 50 percent divorce rate only looked at high risk groups.
    On a normal day reading news online I would probably not have read any of those articles except the one on ancient Rome -- I like history. I would more likely read some news and then check to see how the Braves wild card chances are looking.
    Now am I any better off having learned that a clean sweep of Congress will assuredly fail or that America’s marriages were given an undeserved black eye? Probably not on a daily basis.  But in the long haul, it is important being able to say, “hold on a second I don’t think that’s quite right,” when confronted with punditry and over-hyped commentary.
    With all the yelling and outlandish statements made online and on television these days, it’s important to recognize that much you hear is largely, in the words of Shakespeare, “It is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.”

Little town, big event

    Thursday night a vivid rainbow hung above JeepFest 2014’s home base in the field behind Ingles, providing a charming backdrop to the beginning of an event that would bring 1,300 officially registered Jeeps roaring into the small town of Jasper and hundreds more Jeepers who were on-hand as spectators.
    The Monday after four days of trail rides, obstacle courses and car crushes, the red dirt started to wear off roads near the field where cleanup was underway.
    Now that the dust has settled we’d like to congratulate the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office on a job well done, and take the opportunity to say we’re proud of the way our little town pulled together to make the event go off without a hitch.
    From the countless number of folks who volunteered to others who rolled out that unmistakable southern-charm to welcome the crowds, Pickens proved that just because the town is small doesn’t mean the thinking is small or that things here can’t be top-notch.  
    Not only did JeepFest 2014 raise thousands of dollars for the Georgia Sheriff’s Youth Homes, The Joy House and the Pickens Sheriff’s Foundation (an organization that was formed after a round of devastating tornadoes here and still offers emergency assistance and scholarships), it brought thousands of tourists into town who ate and slept here, and made being at home feel kind of like traveling.
    Progress staff members who volunteered Friday at the JeepFest t-shirt booth made a point to ask where folks were from. One couple drove from New Orleans. Another was from Asheville. A guy from Ft. Lauderdale said he left Tuesday and took over 1,400 miles to tootle around before he eventually wound up in Jasper. Very few people surveyed were from Pickens, and it’s exciting to think about people from across the country making our town their destination for a weekend. 
    Some locals might argue that events like these can be a nuisance and do little more than tie up resources and create traffic jams, especially for people who aren’t into Jeeps. One NPR report spotlights Traverse City Michigan, a small town with big events many times each year. Residents there complained to commissioners that they were tired of festival-goers hogging their parks and clogging up their roadways, but Pickens - which boasts just a couple big festivals annually - still has the luxury of viewing festivals as novel and fun. 
    In the same NPR article Dan McCole, assistant professor and tourism researcher at Michigan State University, says festivals are actually more in line with the way Americans are traveling and vacationing nowadays - shorter weekend trips. Many Jeepsters were from out of town, but close enough that the drive here was painless (Marietta, Alpharetta, Chattanooga).  
    Our otherwise subdued town came to life and we were given the opportunity to showcase Pickens and see people take pride in our community, like the guys who won the bid to crush the Sheriff’s car. All were from Pickens, and going into the bid one of them said he felt like the car crush needed to be done by locals to keep it in the family. Heck yeah. We agree.
    So, from the folks who organized the event, to the guys guiding trail rides, to law and emergency personnel who worked the streets to keep things safe, to  business owners and everyone else involved, good job on contributing to a great event. For a weekend our little town was on stage, and we think everyone can agree. Pickens nailed it.   

Rush to censorship online not in our best interests

    When social media lit up last week with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) video showing American journalist James Foley being beheaded, there was a quick outcry for the social media giants on which it appeared to take it down. Don’t watch it and definitely don’t share it was the call among Americans. The hashtag #ISISmediablackout went viral with Twitter users urging others not to share the video or any other graphic images released by the militant group.
    Twitter CEO Dick Costolo quickly announced that the company was “actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery.” Similarly, YouTube removed versions of the video posted on its site, saying it violated its policy on “gratuitous violence, hate speech, and incitement to commit violent acts.”
    Yes, it is horrible. Yes, it makes us sick to see it. But as a Boston Globe columnist pointed out, would Foley himself have wanted the censorship? Would he have asked for a media blackout or would he have wanted “decent people everywhere to know – and, yes, to see – the crimes being committed by the ruthlessly indecent killers calling themselves the Islamic State?” The columnist said Foley went to Syria to document and expose the horrors there and the 4-minute 40-second video of the last moments of his life show just that.
    The First Amendment says the government may not restrict our speech, but it has nothing to do with privately-owned social media companies. Social media networks have the right to permit or restrict content – just as we here at the Progress can refuse to print things we deem inappropriate. But how those companies, us included, manage free speech raises ethical questions. In a democracy, just who does get to decide what is free speech and who gets to censor it in the public domain?
    These media platforms ban beheading videos yet still allow a video showing St. Louis police officers fatally shooting a 25-year-old man outside a convenience store last week to remain on their sites.
    Sites like YouTube and Twitter should not have the power to censor what content we can or cannot see. In America, unlike in China or Russia, the suppression of disturbing or offensive content - as long as it does not incite violence - is a violation of free speech.
    The reason why Twitter is Twitter is because anyone can go on it and pretty much say anything they want. There is no guy in a suit with an editorial board telling him what he can or can’t discuss on-air or in a newspaper. Yes, there are many things on sites like Twitter that are hurtful, vulgar, and noxious. But it can also be persuasive, stirring, heartbreaking, inspiring, compelling and informative.
     And, unlike the Progress or news stations with editorial boards or owners who make decisions about what their readership or viewership wants to see, Twitter and YouTube open up unfettered access to information.        
    The government is not involved and private corporations with their own agendas and shareholders are not involved. It is, at its core, free speech by free people in unedited form.
    We shouldn’t give tech giants the power to control our knowledge and limit what we see, hear and discuss. Social media organizations which increasingly decide what gets shared and by whom complicates free speech in an increasingly digital world.
    There are times when it is necessary to see and hear the evil for then perhaps we will be encouraged to do something about it.