6 Famous News Stories That Forgot to Tell You the Best Part
If there's one thing we know about modern man, it's that our attention spans are only half as long as the life of a major news story. Which is good news when the story is about a Kardashian wedding, but bad news when it's a major event that actually impacts our lives. Because sometimes, the most important fact in a story doesn't emerge until months after everyone has gotten bored with it.
For instance ...
The Anthrax Attacks After 9/11 Were the Work of One Mentally Ill American Scientist
Just as America was starting to process the September 11 attacks, something insane happened. Two senators and several news organizations got letters in the mail containing a mysterious white powder that turned out to be freaking anthrax. It was obviously the second phase of the terror attacks -- the accompanying letters said so:
He really does not understand haiku.
Five people died, and 17 more got sick. Buildings were evacuated, and more than $1 billion was spent decontaminating every building that the biohazardous mail might have touched. Everyone from the Bush administration to your grandma thought the whole thing had to go back to bin Laden.
But no direct evidence appeared to tie it to al-Qaida. Months passed. Then years. We never got details about which terrorist cell orchestrated the attack, or how they got hold of a deadly bioweapon. Eventually, everybody kind of stopped talking about it. That's right -- we got bored with a story about terrorists sending weaponized diseases in the mail. Hey, we all got tired of Charlie Sheen, too.
Sheen prefers the more personal approach to spreading disease.
The Story You Didn't Know:
First, if you followed the story in the years since, you know that eventually investigators started to think that maybe it wasn't al-Qaida at all. They finally narrowed in on a suspect: American bioweapons expert Dr. Steven Hatfill. But Hatfill didn't do it -- in fact, he eventually got over $5 million from the U.S. government for their accusations.
Suspect No. 2 was a Dr. Bruce Ivins, and we say "was" because he committed suicide in 2008. And the reason he took his life, besides his long history of mental illness and depression, was that the FBI was on the brink of naming him as their chief suspect in the attacks. The FBI traced the anthrax spores to a laboratory where he worked, and not all that many people had access to them. So, what, was he a secret jihadist? Was he paid by al-Qaida? Or was he a right-wing anti-government type, like Timothy McVeigh?
Nope, he was 10 years old. We got this, everyone!
Well, here's where it gets weird. Dr. Ivins was actually one of the experts who helped in the aftermath of the anthrax attack (he worked at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases). In fact, the Department of Defense actually awarded him for his work. He was a churchgoing dad who juggled and volunteered with the Red Cross.
But despite his Sunday-school-teacher resume, there were some bad-guy-in-an-Oliver-Stone-movie qualities about Ivins' life as well. Like how he was so obsessed with an old unrequited romance from his college days that he stalked the woman's former sorority. We're talking about stalked-stalked. As in, he secretly made derogatory edits on the sorority's Wikipedia page under the name Jimmyflathead.
"Notable members: boobs."
Why do we mention that? Because it just so happened that anthrax spores from Ivins' lab showed up in a mailbox down the street from the sorority's storage facility. And while no one can account for where Ivins was the day the anthrax was mailed, we do know what he was doing in the weeks prior to that: putting in a ton of hours at the military bioweapons lab where he worked:
When his house was searched, the FBI found letters addressed to the same news outlets the terrorist sent mail to, including one specifically to Tom Brokaw. Which begs the question: Does anyone other than terrorists and morally outraged old people write letters to the news? Finally, there's the fact that the anthrax program Ivins dedicated 20 years of his life to was on the brink of failing in 2001. After the attacks, the program was suddenly revived, because holy shit -- anthrax!
The FBI closed their investigation in 2010, basically saying that we can never know for certain if Ivins did it, and they can't declare him guilty without a trial (you can't try a man who is this dead), but they have nothing solid that points to anyone else, so that's that. It appears that the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks wasn't a terrorist at all, but a random crazy guy straight from the government's own labs.
And if he really wasn't guilty of that, he's guilty of a far worse crime -- trolling Wikipedia.
The Defective Toyota Cars That Were Speeding Out of Control Had Nothing Wrong With Them
It wasn't so long ago that the news media started having an orgy over reports that newer model Toyota cars and trucks had gained sentience and accelerated whenever the hell they felt like it, like the Prius that went terrifyingly out of control on a California highway. The poor owner had to call 911 to get help stopping it, and the cops had to corral the wildly out-of-control car.
That's a brilliant excuse for the next time we're caught speeding.
At first, everyone thought the problem was that gas pedals were getting stuck on or under floor mats, but then some cars had issues without the mats. So, they thought maybe it was some other issue with the accelerator. Between 2009 and 2011, Toyota recalled over 9 million cars while they replaced parts in the hopes of fixing the problems and calming nervous customers who were afraid that at any moment their Camry would launch itself off a bridge. Nine million cars -- park them bumper to bumper and they'd wrap around the Earth.
Wrap the owners around the Earth and they'll only hold hands and start singing.
But the fear never went away -- in this video, ABC News had a science expert who demonstrated that with one quick wire short, not only could the Toyota accelerate to Back to the Future speeds while the brakes took a break, but that the onboard systems didn't record anything wrong with the car after the error. So maybe despite the recall, there was still some problem the computers couldn't detect, or worse, one the computers were intentionally causing out of spite.
The Story You Didn't Know:
For the most part, drivers were just hitting the wrong pedal.
"Curse you, inscrutable space-car!"
The Department of Transportation and the guys who put a man on the moon worked together to figure out what was the deal with these cars. It turns out nothing -- nothing was the deal with these cars. There was nothing wrong with Toyota's electronics, and even if the engines had gone to full throttle without driver input, simply applying the brakes was enough to overcome the engine every time.
That story about the runaway Prius that wound up all over the news? It was bullshit. That ABC News experiment showing a Toyota defect? You can do that with any car.
"Experiments showed that loosening a wheel killed 100 percent of unsuspecting Toyota owners."
Now, there were issues with brakes getting stuck to floor mats -- that was a real thing. But probably not a "Let's go ahead and recall 9 million cars" real thing. No, the real problem was pedal misapplication, also known as "getting the accelerator mixed up with the brake pedal because the driver got confused." The rest was just a news media that wanted a story.
The Unabomber Killed People Because He Wanted to Be a Woman
You know the Unabomber. He was that Harvard-educated technophobe who started the hoodie craze we're still enjoying today. And he also killed three people and injured 23 more with his bombs.
After years of this, the FBI finally discovered that the Unabomber was Ted Kaczynski, a lone crazy guy living in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. He published a rambling manifesto against technology, and apparently thought he could win the rest of society over to his side if he just exploded enough homemade bombs.
The Story You Didn't Know:
Before Kaczynski turned into a recluse, a terrorist and a fashion icon, he had a serious identity crisis. He wanted to get surgically changed into a woman.
Also, he looked like this.
In the early 1960s, Ted found himself constantly sexually aroused. Considering that he was in his early 20s and socially isolated from his peers, it's not hard to imagine. What was unusual was his response to the bonerthon. He decided that he'd only get relief from his sexual agitation by becoming a woman, so he made an appointment to start the process of sex reassignment. Because, of course.
"I'm not sure which bomb is the best to blow my nuts off with."
Now, whether it's 2012 or 1966, getting your dong cut off isn't something that's taken lightly, and before anyone gets the tiny guillotine out, an evaluation has to be made. After all, you wouldn't want to take such a drastic step with, say, a crazy person. But as Ted sat in the office of the doctor who would evaluate his state of mental health, something came over him:
"As I walked away from the building afterwards, I felt disgusted about what my uncontrolled sexual cravings had almost led me to do and I felt humiliated, and I violently hated the psychiatrist ... I felt I wouldn't care if I died. And so I said to myself why not really kill the psychiatrist and anyone else whom I hate ... What was entirely new was the fact that I really felt I could kill someone. I no longer cared about consequences and I said to myself that I really could break out of my rut in life and do things that were daring, irresponsible or criminal."
Yep, that's Ted Kaczynski's supervillain origin story. He walked into the office dreaming of getting a vagina and walked out the Unabomber.
That psychiatrist was just the worst.
The Russian Spy Who Was Killed by Putin With Radioactive Poisoning Had Lots of Enemies
You may not remember the name Alexander Litvinenko, but you probably remember his very weird story, because it seemed to have come from the pre-credits scene in a James Bond movie.
This is the photo you're probably most familiar with.
He was a former member of the Soviet FSB (successor to the KGB) who defected to the United Kingdom. In 2006, he drank tea that, unbeknownst to him, was laced with the radioactive metal polonium-210. He died a few months later, and the entire world gave Vladimir Putin an indiscreet nod, because who else could have done it? The man looks more like a Bond villain than any actual Bond villain. And besides, who the hell else would even think to murder someone with freaking radioactive material?
The Story You Didn't Know:
It helps to back up a bit and learn the rest of Litvinenko's story.
Starting with this picture.
The man had enemies. Lots of them. Litvinenko bragged that he was going to use his KGB knowledge to blackmail corrupt Russian higher-ups and mafia, some of whom were known for being goddamned Russian mafia. And P.S.: Soviet defectors were almost never killed, but the same can't be said about folks who screw with corrupt Russian businessmen.
In fact, Litvinenko told a Russian academic that he had a whole dossier on how a Russian oil company was taken over by the Russian state and other information on plenty of other entities who had run afoul of the Kremlin over the years, not to mention the Kremlin itself.
After all, he wrote Blowing Up Russia for Dummies.
But not everyone can get a hold of a radioactive substance like polonium, right? That's what made the whole thing so weird, that the assassin would make such a brazen "only someone with access to nukes could have done this" statement.
Well, not so fast. Polonium is actually used in some consumer products, specifically stuff to eliminate static electricity. Here's an anti-static bar full of polonium that you can order today. You could presumably poison yourself if you ate it. Don't. Obviously. But you could if you wanted to.
Now you can poison whoever you want, and Putin will take the blame!
EgyptAir Flight 990 Crashed Because of a Sexual Misconduct Charge, Not Jihad
On Halloween, 1999, an EgyptAir flight crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all passengers and crew on board. In the subsequent investigation, the black box indicated that there was nothing mechanically wrong with the plane, and that relief pilot Gameel al-Batouti was recorded saying "I rely on God" before disabling the autopilot and throwing the plane into a dive. The plane crashed 60 miles from Massachusetts.
Man, God really dropped the ball.
So, it had to be a suicide attack, right? September 11 was still a few years away, but everyone knew what an intentional suicide mission looked like. And even though Egypt's investigation concluded that there had to be a mechanical failure on the plane, Egypt was being run by a guy who sent his one and only political rival to jail for forgery, so it's not like we're talking about a transparent investigation. Sure enough, the official report on the American side recorded zero mechanical failures and ruled that al-Batouti had intentionally crashed the plane.
And even in 1999, when Americans heard "Gameel al-Batouti intentionally crashed the plane," they immediately thought, "Jihad."
The Story You Didn't Know:
Relief pilot al-Batouti could have been named Jim Bob Nutsflinger and he still would have had the incentive to crash EgyptAir 990. He didn't snap because he wanted to get 72 virgins in heaven, but because he'd just been reprimanded over sexual misconduct and demoted from his U.S.-to-Egypt route. In fact, he was told hours before the flight that this particular flight was to be his last. Oh, and the guy who was responsible for the demotion was on the flight, along with a shit-ton of other EgyptAir crew.
"So I'm just going to hand you this loaded gun so I can make insulting gestures about the size of your penis."
None of this information actually made it onto the official National Transportation Safety Board report, because the NTSB is not in the business of writing a soap opera script. Nor did the revenge theory make it into Egypt's official investigation, because according to them, al-Batouti was a martyr, and "America's goal is to hide the truth by blaming the EgyptAir pilot." The only reason why we know about the possible motive is because another EgyptAir pilot passed on the information to the FBI when he tried to defect from his country.
All we know for sure is that a guy with a history of flashing his privates at college students had a really bad day and apparently decided to take it out on 216 other people.
The Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster Almost Happened Again Two Years Later
Even if you don't remember the date, you probably remember where you were and what you were doing on February 1, 2003, the day the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed while trying to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere.
The cause of the accident was eventually traced back to a simple piece of foam insulation, about the size of a briefcase and weighing less than 5 pounds, which had broken off from the main fuel tank during launch. This had happened on several other prior launches, but that day the foam hit Columbia where it counted, right in the reinforced carbon-carbon tiling on the left wing.
Of course, NASA took steps to keep this from happening again, so when Discovery was launched on the program's return to flight two years after that shitty February day, it was assumed that the foam issue was solved. Obviously.
The Story You Didn't Know:
"Well, that doesn't look good."
In the final briefing before Discovery's 2005 launch, flight director Wayne Hale recalls getting news that after two years of rigorous testing, no one was sure how Columbia's foam got loose during launch. But they were going to launch Discovery anyway, because ... space? No one knows why NASA went ahead with the launch -- especially when the exact same foam insulation accident happened again. Foam got liberated during Discovery's launch and hit the wing. Just like Columbia. Boom. SPACE.
The good news was that the Discovery crew knew about the hit and could do a heat shield inspection when they got to the International Space Station. And that it appeared that the damage wasn't enough that the shuttle would meet with disaster upon reentry, which was great news for both the crew, the Smithsonian, where it was eventually housed, and the billions who avoided the terror of watching that happen again.
NASA eventually figured out that the foam was cracking because of an internal thermal cycle happening in the fuel tanks. They found this out five months after the Discovery crew had landed safely back on Earth. Yay?
"We have zero gravity on tap! It's a miracle we get anything done!"
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