Tim Chitwood: Sharks smell blood in the economy

September 14, 2013 

Last week's 9/11 reflections reminded me of what I remember most about that summer:

Sharks.

Right before 9/11, an apparent rash of shark attacks was all over the news. "Summer of the Shark," Time magazine called the summer of 2001. A near fatal bull shark assault on an 8-year-old at Pensacola Beach had everyone talking.

That August I was in what was then the Bibb City Barber Shop when a guy who scuba dives came in carping about sharks -- they so crowded Gulf oil rigs they made diving there dangerous, he complained.

The dang sharks were out of control, and the damn bunny-huggers wouldn't let you kill 'em, he lamented.

Everywhere folks fretted about sharks. Down at the University of Florida, International Shark Attack File Director George Burgess became a mass-media hotline.

Burgess, who typically got 300 media inquiries a year, got more than 900 that summer.

"I had more calls in those three months than I had in the previous three years combined," he recalled later, in a university news release. "Some of them were from radio shows in places like Montana, North Dakota and Idaho, where there hasn't been a shark since the Miocene."

The Miocene epoch was from 23 million to 5 million years ago.

Twelve years after 9/11, I still wonder whether any surviving airline passengers en route to the beach began that day worrying about sharks. Should they swim in the ocean? What about the kids? Most shark attacks occur in just 3 feet of water, you know. Maybe the children should swim only in the hotel pool. In the deep end. Where it's safe.

Drowning. Skin cancer. Alcohol-fueled dehydration. Oceanfront development busts tied to near-total economic collapse. Hurricanes. Oil spills. In the weeks before 9/11, these beach risks faded in the looming shadow of "Jaws VI."

Then came 9/11, and in a day everyone's terror came from over the sea, not under it.

In the years that followed, all hell broke loose over and over again, with the war in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the near-total economic collapse.

Amid the chaos and panic, financial scandals surfaced -- too many to count: Wall Street bailouts, rip-offs in overseas military contracts, home foreclosures falsely documented.

And despite all that economic despair among the working class, executives up the corporate food chain got bonuses, not penalties, for what they

had wrought. Promises to fix the system were as empty as the souls of the morally bankrupt.

Blood in the water draws all kinds of sharks, it seems: Grinning, hollow-eyed predators who circle their prey, selling worthless home mortgages as investments, gutting pensions and health benefits, spreading fear like a virus just to profit from snake-oil cures, building self-serving bureaucracies that threaten the public rather than serve it.

Unlike the sharks of 2001, these have not faded into the deep. They remain, hoping to catch us out of our element, bite us apart piece by piece, bleed us dry, and eat us alive.

And so, 12 summers later, it turns out the guy in the barber shop was right:

The dang sharks are out of control, and the damn bunny-huggers won't let us kill them.

Tim Chitwood, tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.com or 706-571-8508.

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