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Published: Monday, 2/18/2008

Once again, Finkbeiner does the right thing but does it badly

IT WAS not uncommon during my years in the newspaper business to get a call from a public official wanting advice. Usually the caller was in a public relations bind over some alleged misdeed or perceived mistake and wanted to know how vigorously and how publicly to wage a defense.

Other than the editorials, I wasn't in the advice business and usually suggested simply that the Readers' Forum was an outlet that could be helpful if he or she so chose. Privately, I often thought to myself: Why keep it alive? This will pass.

So I wrestled with the mayor's controversy of the month, his contretemps with the Marines, and had pretty much decided to just let it go. The Blade had editorialized; my colleague Roberta de Boer had commented, writers to the Forum had begun to weigh in. Everyone, it seemed, from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, had an opinion. So I asked myself, do I really need to add to the dialogue?

With some reluctance, I think I do. Lord knows I'm not here as an apologist for the mayor. Sometimes I cringe along with everybody else when another episode emerges of good intentions gone bad. And as the keeper of The Blade's editorial flame over the years, I frequently led the chorus of derisive hoots from the sidelines.

Most of the time the man can't catch a break to save himself, largely because he is so often his own worst enemy. Did he use the f-word on radio last week or didn't he? On it goes. Even when he's right, something goes wrong, providing more material for the folks for whom Carty-bashing is great sport.

But I've looked at this thing from every vantage point - from the mayor's, from the Marines', from the public's - and I can't disagree with Mr. Finkbeiner's stance on urban-warfare training in the heart of a major city on a busy workday.

What I do quarrel with is the failure of his own people to advise him sooner than the Marines' day of arrival that they were coming, especially since they had traveled from Grand Rapids, Mich. He insists his folks hadn't advised him at all. He says he learned of it from a brief article in The Blade. Knowing how upsetting it can be to public officials to find out about something important to their job through the media, I can just imagine how that went down on the 22nd floor of Government Center.

I need to stress that I am an Army veteran who is pro-military, pro-troops, and pro-Marines, and I understand that in the reality of today's world, war is far different from the one my father fought 60-some years ago in Germany. Rarely do soldiers fight in foxholes any more. Instead they fight in hell-holes disguised as cities. Training for the warfare our troops will encounter in Iraq requires an urban setting. That means tall buildings, hidden alleys, abrupt corners. Urban warfare means fighting in the streets, and often door to door. You can't get all that at an abandoned factory or a shuttered school.

I also assume that with sufficient advance warning, most citizens will understand why the troops are there and will not be unnecessarily alarmed.

Most but not all. I've talked to people who remember past military exercises in Toledo and I've heard them describe the unsettling feeling, even the fright they felt, when they turned a corner to find soldiers in full battle gear, with weapons drawn, advancing toward them.

I have friends who served in the Marines. Some accept the mayor's decision but think it was simply bungled. No argument from me on that. Others just flat out cannot abide what they see as an insult to the Corps. I appreciate their distress. To me the Marines are the best of the best, putting themselves in harm's way without flinching. But to believe that the City's awkward response to the training exercise means Carty is anti-military is ridiculous.

It's sort of like the complaints that Carty is a racist. That's absurd as well. It's as simple as this: People who in his estimation don't perform to his expectations face his wrath. He doesn't see white or black. He sees red.

And in the case of the Marines, he saw a potentially scary and dangerous situation. Given what he considered minimal notice to a crowded downtown, he canceled it. Let's assume that Carty had decided to let the Marines come ahead. Let's assume that the Marines began their maneuvers on downtown streets just as some 14,000 workers were streaming out of their offices for the weekend. What if panic ensued and somebody got hurt, or worse, a tragedy occurred? Carty's critics would be all over him like a cheap suit for allowing the exercise in the first place.

Mayor Finkbeiner is adamant that the Marines should not train in the central business district. I am not. I get it that a downtown setting is important to the training mission. So why not simply schedule these things in daylight hours only on a Saturday or Sunday when the downtown work force is not around? If civilians are essential to the training experience, recruit volunteers ahead of time. Some of the folks who now live downtown might consider it an honor to take part in such an exercise and help their country. Perhaps The Blade and other news media could interview the military commanders in advance, explaining exactly what will happen.

Once again, the mayor has done the right thing badly. But at least his excesses are sins of passion committed on the city's behalf and in what he believes are the best interests of its citizens. We can't say that about the sins of passion of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.



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