Guthrie, former columnist for the Grants Pass Daily Courier, and Gutting, late of the Texas City Sun, were fired last month for criticizing President Bush. As surely as dew follows sunrise, dozens of newspaper columnists around the country wrote pieces denouncing the firings: "Democracy, blah, blah ...," "Freedom, blah, blah ...," "First Amendment, blah, blah ...," was the essence of their prose.
Which raises a question: Are these people completely out of their minds? Even before the terrorist attacks, autumn 2001 wasn't exactly the glory days of newspaper writing. Magazines had been closing all summer long. Newspapers were paring staff. Airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, and America pretty much completely lost its desire for eclectic, caustic opinions. Editorialists are in danger of extinction, and these people are carping about the First Amendment? Has the world gone mad?
To get a better handle on what he could possibly have been thinking when he criticized the president, I called Guthrie's home, but couldn't inspire him to respond. So I called my grandma, who lives around 15 miles south of the erstwhile columnist, and told her they'd fired the Daily Courier's opinion writer after he criticized the president.
"Good for them," Grandma said.
"But Grandma, I'm a columnist. What if they fired me?" I pleaded.
"Are you a patriot, Matthew?" she replied.
"Are you a patriot?"
"Um, well that word can have a lot of different meanings, Grandma ...," I said. And as I continued waffling and evading and equivocating with my dear grandmother, I realized that the greatest threat to editorialists in American history had emerged, and not a single person seemed willing to do a productive thing about it.
I'd have to go this one alone, I realized. I'd have to prove the value of opinion columnists to America.
I'd have to personally hunt down Osama bin Laden.
On Sunday, Oct. 7, 2001, ABC, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel played a piece of videotape, culled from Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, that leapt from the television screen. A fatigues-clad Osama bin Laden spoke into a microphone in front of a light-colored, sedimentary rock wall that appeared to be part of a mining excavation of some kind. Flanked by several lieutenants, bin Laden had an automatic rifle at his side and a smallish cave, apparently burrowed by humans, behind the left side of his head. Fissures in the rock wall seemed to emanate from the cave. "God has cursed the United States," network translators quoted bin Laden as saying.
"The curse," I thought to myself, "shall be yours."
I jumped into action, searching out video stills from the bin Laden tape, downloading them, and then storing the images as e-mail attachments. I sent out dozens of messages to geologists specializing in Central Asia, and to mineral experts versed in the gemstones of Afghanistan. I made phone calls to authors of geological texts, to seismologists, and to emerald wholesalers. Recognizing the troubles that all editorialists now faced, experts immediately jumped to my aid. They pointed to a particular, forbidding part of a forbidding country.
Along the craggy mountains west of Peshawar, Pakistan, through the rough limestone valley of the Jalalabad Basin, is Planet Earth's disaster zone. This is where the Indian and Asian continents collided more than 50 million years ago, shearing and chopping an ancient ocean bed into a giant, jumbled, rocky mélange. Even in the relatively flat valleys of this basin, moving any distance at all requires walking precipitously upward, or precipitously downward. The mountains here are astonishingly steep, a melodramatic version of the Northern Cascades, only with all the vegetation stripped off. There's no water, so travelers must carry canisters on their backs, and large ones, if the trip is to last more than a day. And the streams that do exist are unwelcome: Over eons they have incised canyons through the soft rock, canyons so deep and narrow they're all but impassible.
Dr. Roshan Bhappu, president of Mountain State R&D International of Vail, Ariz., is a mineralogist who has consulted for the U.N. and spoken at conferences on Afghan gems. He is familiar with this world. He plumbed his contacts at the U.S. Geological Survey and in the Pakistani academic community. He wracked his memory for clues as to the location of Osama's rock wall.
"That's a quartz and clay type excavation -- that's where emeralds occur. They've obviously excavated there. The host rock is brownish rocklike material, and the white part -- do you see that heavy whiteness with the gentleman on the left?" Bhappu explained. "Emeralds occur in that kind of formation."
A Pakistani by birth, Bhappu has made numerous trips into Afghanistan with the aim of helping local tribes gain a living from the marketing of gemstones. "The reason why they do find them [emeralds] is that they are in the softer material. That's metamorphic rock. You can see there are some pockets they've made. It could be an old mine. Emeralds would occur in this whitish and quartz veins you see there. When they see this whitishness, that's when they start. That hole, that's what we call gophering. That's what they do to find the emeralds. That kind of formation goes from Chitral in northern Pakistan to Afghanistan, very close to the Afghan border."
But Bhappu could take me no farther on the trail of bin Laden.
Police have long relied on geologists to help track fugitives. By taking dried mud samples from the bottom side of a '73 Cavalier, say, forensic geologists can determine where the car has been. Though an acre of land in rural Alabama may have mineral notes and chords in common with Oakland, the cacophony is never the same. Get mud on your chassis near Jack London Square, and you've inadvertently collected a unique microcosm of East Bay geology.