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Beware the Barbies at the Gate

January 24, 2002|NORAH VINCENT | Norah Vincent is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank set up after Sept. 11 to study terrorism

Experts have linked Enron's collapse and the resulting panic among corporate insurers to the fall of Kmart, which just filed for bankruptcy, the largest retail filing ever.

The ramifications stretch wide and take in iconic spokesperson Martha Stewart, the doyenne of American domesticity. Her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, got up to one-third of its pretax profit from merchandising, which is primarily the products sold at Kmart. What will happen now is anybody's guess.

This week, another blond goddess emblematic of 1990s opulence and American cultural preeminence-the unsinkable Tina Brown-also came to grief. The former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor, Clinton lackey and multimedia maven's latest project, the 2-year-old Talk magazine, just sank.

Of course, by itself, the downsizing of two Barbies doesn't presage doom. But as only the most recent mishaps in the current market plunge-the full force of which we've only just begun to feel-they matter. Prosperity, the kind that fueled the Martha Stewart lifestyle and Talk celebrity style, depends on security, both physical and financial. In these days of corporate failure and ever-impending terror, we can't forget that. American military presence abroad means the survival of much more than markets. Nothing less than our continued existence is at stake.

Sound alarmist?

Maybe. But while we may not think that Osama bin Laden's grand plan for our destruction has a prayer of succeeding, some of it already has. Razing the World Trade Center was more than symbolic. Bin Laden intended to hobble our economy, the basis for our global superiority and dominance. And while it's true that we were heading into a recession before Sept. 11, it is equally true that the disaster's fiscal ripple effect has hurled us down a well where every drop in the water makes waves.

It might be instructive to remember that Britain once was just a swath of weeds at edge of the Roman Empire. Back then, no one imagined that Rome would ever fall or that Britannia would one day rule the waves. And who could have foreseen that a few religious fanatics in a shabby colony called New England would, in turn, shrug off their keepers and run the world?

Nations and empires come and go, and we in the United States cannot assume that we will reign forever. Complacency often is the fatal flaw of emperors, and we have of late been shaken out of ours. But have we been shaken hard enough?

In his 18th century masterwork, 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,' Edward Gibbon wrote: 'The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest. Cold, poverty, and a life of danger and fatigue fortify the strength and courage of barbarians.'

Who will be our barbarians? Bin Laden? Enron Chairman Kenneth L. Lay? Miramax and Hearst, the corporate parents who pulled the plug on Talk magazine?

As Martha Stewart might say, a wake-up call is a good thing.

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