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Time to Take a Deep Breath

June 08, 2002

More fears seem to float about these days--some serious, some superficial, some founded, others not. But the collective national impact is a sense of uncertainty, an uneasy mental summer haze that keeps us from seeing as far as we'd like.

It's not 1929, but stock market investors see mounting irregularities and wonder what to believe. So they exit the market, which frightens others, who exit too or stay away. Not that many of us swapped kilowatt-hours with distant power systems, but the Enron sham and Andersen shredding cause us to doubt once-trusted systems. Wall Street analysts advise investors about stocks they, too, hold; guess what, they advise buying them. Outrageous earnings packages for unsuccessful executives make lucrative free agency for pitchers with 8-14 records seem downright parsimonious. Like spotting Titanic officers donning life jackets, finding out that corporate executives have been selling their own firm's stock doesn't inspire tons of confidence.

Whatever happened to the hunt for the Mr. Bigs of terrorism overseas? Now, predictably, Washington's perennial players hunt each other, leaking daily dirt and offering the latest I-told-you-so memo about 9/11 warning signs. The CIA and FBI, those dark-suited folks who were to protect us, now seem to have been secretly not talking to each other and not protecting anything but their bureaucratic behinds--not an ideal symbol of team spirit.

We have movies called "Panic Room," "Unfaithful" and "The Sum of All Fears." Even the Star Wars Republic is under attack, again, from evil forces. Our mayor can be invisible, an integral valley may want out, and the Lakers for a while looked shaky against Sacramento. What's still going up are real estate prices, which is only fine if you're selling.

Look, here's what's happened: As a nation and a people we took body blows last fall. They hurt. We saw assumptions--about tall buildings, about security, about evil people, about coming home from work--pulverized into dust and ugly black smoke visible from space. It makes you wonder--for a while anyway--what other assumptions could crumble. Who's at fault? Whom to suspect now? That's how terrorism corrodes spirits from within, moving from a noisy fear to quiet twinges of personal doubt, then waves of public suspicions way beyond evidence or reality.

Here's what we need: an effective prosecution of the battle against terror's infrastructure. A thorough, professional investigation of the pre-9/11 follies. (Is it too much to expect officials to seek election-year advantage by doing a good job instead of clever leaking?) Vigorous federal involvement to restore confidence by ensuring the stock market and financial reporting are fair and accurate. And, most important, occasional deep breaths by individual Americans whenever they sense that unease rising in the throat. This new war is different. It'll be fought by armed forces. But it will be won--or lost--in the good hearts and patient minds of civilians at home. That's us.

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