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A Spoonful of Jitters to Garnish the Hot Dogs

June 27, 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. Web site:

Next Thursday is our nation's birthday, and by the way we're leading up to it, you'd think it was doomsday. We've got the jitters, and bad. But who can blame us?

We've been deluged with the news of so many plots afoot, or potentially afoot, or in the planning stages, or as yet unhatched in some captured aide-de-camp's brain at Camp X-Ray, that the summer blockbusters seem like G-rated fairy tales. But the worst that 20th Century Fox's smash hit "Independence Day" envisioned back in 1996 has already come to pass. The Empire State Building is still intact, but the World Trade Center towers are gone and the White House might have been too if that fourth plane had hit. All we're missing are the aliens.

What will we do for entertainment this Fourth of July if real life has outstripped the special effects? Well, worry. That and obsessively envision the worst. Forget celebrating. I for one am glad I'm going to be in the mountains.

In an effort to make themselves look clever and efficient in fighting the war on terror, the feds have contributed mightily to this state of panic most of us are in. They're vigorously patting themselves on the back for catching "dirty" bomber suspect Jose Padilla before, they say, he'd even fully formulated his plan to build such a device. Not only that, they're keeping the buzz up about the effects of a dirty bomb (a conventional explosive that spreads radioactive matter), who could make one and how relatively easy it would be to do so.

The International Atomic Energy Agency got in on the gloom act Monday, announcing that almost any nation in the world has the radioactive materials needed to build a dirty bomb and that more than 100 of these countries do not have controls that are adequate to prevent their theft. Gee, thanks, guys. With that news under our belts, the nitrates in a few hot dogs won't seem so bad after all.

And then there's the White House setting an equally fear-mongering example. Not only did the authorities make a big fanfare of evacuating the White House recently when a private single- engine Cessna strayed into restricted airspace, they did a botched job of it, liberating the all-important press but failing to herd out the president and his staff.

It didn't help that another would-be sleuth, Michael Hamdan, felt compelled to throw his two cents into the pot. Hamdan claimed to have overheard a cell phone conversation between two men speaking in Arabic about the destruction of Las Vegas and thus concluded that the city of corruption was a likely bombing target for July 4. After Hamdan failed a lie-detector test, the feds announced that it was not a credible threat. Have a nice Fourth.

The worst part of all this hype and deflation of hype is that at some point we'll become desensitized, if we haven't become so already, and that will be much worse for all concerned. We've already started laughing off rumors of threats. Reports of a purported plan by Al Qaeda to dump 40 operatives and their weapons on Santa Catalina Island to launch an attack on Los Angeles were met mostly with nonchalance or derision.

This state of controlled panic isn't good, but staying home paralyzed by fear isn't the worst that could happen. It's when we sink back into our seats at the multiplex and laugh at terrorism scenarios that the terrorists--as everyone has been so fond of saying--will have indeed won.

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