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Freeways to Perdition 

Wednesday, Aug 21 2002
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MY WIFE AND I DROVE AWAY FROM LAX RECENTLY AND spotted an Amber Alert bulletin illuminated above the Century Freeway. The signboard said something like, "Abducted Child . . . Green Ford Escort . . . Unknown License Plate" and a San Diego phone number. Moments later the radio reported that the girl had been found alive, although her father, Leo Worrell, who'd vanished with her, was still gone. Poor guy, we said, knowing that abducted dads don't qualify for the signboard. Sure enough, the alert was yanked by the time we headed up the Harbor Freeway.

The Amber Alert system rocketed to fame earlier this month for its role in rescuing two kidnapped Lancaster girls, yet questions are now being asked about its potential misuse. How much information should go up on those electronic highway boards and why? "Green Ford Escort . . . Unknown License Plate" wasn't a very detailed description to issue to a nation of would-be crime-busters armed with cell phones -- I know that after hearing such an announcement I wouldn't step into anything remotely green or resembling a Ford. (In the confusion following Jessica Cortez's abduction from Echo Park Lake, half the city was erroneously engaged in a communal manhunt for an African-American male walking a Chihuahua.)

Then, one has to wonder about the wisdom of involving the country's motorists in an interactive game while they're driving. The alerts use signboards that normally caution drivers about imminent traffic hazards by sending terse packets of when-and-where information that we quickly process. Child-abduction notices trigger far deeper emotional responses and require us to absorb more information, including phone and license-plate numbers. Sooner or later they will cause traffic accidents, some of them fatal. Will news of such accidents vie for space on the signboards?

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And why are only child-abduction notices being flashed over the freeway? With the media spotlighting a child-abduction per week, it may appear that this particular crime has become epidemic, yet the number of juvenile kidnappings investigated by the FBI has actually been falling over the past few years, from 134 in 1999 to 93 last year. Kidnappings are not deaths (though obviously they can lead to fatalities) -- wouldn't it protect society more to announce, say, the escape of an actual killer -- even if he be the murderer of an 18- or 50-year-old victim? Or to describe a car fingered in a hit-and-run death?

Amber Alerts are symptomatic of a country obsessed with prioritizing crimes while desperate to salve a guilty conscience about its own treatment of children. America does not simply have penalties for robbery, it has additional penalties when a firearm is used; likewise, the punishment for assaulting a police officer, letter carrier or some cities' bus drivers is higher than if you or I were merely the victims. Throw in a racial or homophobic slur during the beating, and the assault becomes a hate crime, making it a federal case with graver sentencing. If the target is over 65, it's elder abuse. So it hardly stands out that kidnapping a minor is regarded as a more serious form of kidnapping, one setting off bells and whistles over our highways.

This official concern with child welfare would be more convincing if our federal government weren't so loudly deficient when it comes to funding education, day-care facilities and food and shelter for homeless kids, etc. We've all read the appalling statistics about America's infant mortality rate (we trail 21 industrialized nations), birth weights (we're 17th) and gun violence (dead last). But it's easier, more bipartisan and, well, cheaper, to flash news of a child abduction above a highway.

In time, as our appetite for crime news becomes insatiable, other crises might join those of child abductions, however trivial. ("President Can't Find Keys . . . Dana Point Man Painting House Pink.") Maybe we'll even allow sponsoring businesses to display flashy screensavers when nothing's happening. Or, perhaps, if the alerts cause more havoc and death on the highway than they prevent, we just might think of using them solely for their original purpose.

MANHATTAN TRANSFER

MIRAMAX FILMS CO-CHAIRMAN HARVEY WEINSTEIN AND Cablevision CEO James Dolan's selfless suggestion that next year's Academy Awards ceremony be held in New York City has caused a lot of throat-clearing in Hollywood but no organized opposition. The move, it is argued by New Yorkers like Weinstein and Dolan, would help their city heal from 9/11 and find closure -- some $40 million worth of closure by many estimates. (Two possible Manhattan venues, Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, happen to be owned by Dolan's corporation.) The proposed Oscar move may only be the beginning, however, for the Weekly has learned of other requests that are now being finalized.

2002 World Series If the Yankees don't win the American League pennant, this plan, floated by George Steinbrenner, provides that Yankee Stadium host the first two games anyway. If the Yankees clinch the league championship, every game of the World Series will be played in New York.

2003 Indianapolis 500 The May classic's new course would primarily use FDR Drive and the West Side Highway, with the checkered flag positioned at Ground Zero. A New York Fire Department ladder-truck car would be the pace car.

2003 Iditarod New York will be transformed into a winter wonderland, thanks to snowmakers, as the famed dog-sled race is relocated from its traditional March run in Alaska to the Big Apple in April. The new competition would begin at the statue of Balto in Central Park and end at the Vanderbilt mansion in Hyde Park, via the historic Albany Post Road.

Also under consideration: The Boston Marathon, Tournament of Roses Parade and Zacarias Moussaoui trial.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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