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I’m too young to remember when the fear of nuclear war pervaded our schools. But I’ve seen the 1950s films of first-graders hiding beneath their little desks. I once saw a poster in a novelty shop that gave detailed instructions about what to do in an atomic attack. The last lines: "Put your head between your legs. And kiss your ass goodbye."
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge interrupted today’s regularly scheduled TV broadcast to announce that the threat of a terror attack has increased. We’re now at Threat Level Orange (High), one step below the highest level, Red (Severe). Ridge said this is the first time the government has raised the level since May 20, 2003.
Al Qaeda might use aircraft, Ridge said, much as they did on September 11, 2001.
Aircraft? Shouldn’t those be un-hijack-able by now? There’s heightened security at check-in. Pilots are armed, cockpits are sealed, passengers ready to pounce.
Ridge told us to carry on with our holiday celebrations per usual — but we must be vigilant. Report any suspicious activity or packages.
What does that mean?
If a box arrives from LAND’S END tomorrow, should I call the police? It might not be that sweater I ordered. Is "Land’s End" a message — the end of our land, our country? You can never be too sure when it’s Code Orange.
If I see a car full of Middle Eastern men, should I call the FBI? It could be a "team" headed for the nearest airport, to turn a routine flight into skyscraper-seeking missile. Or to down a jet with a rocket-launcher. What about a car with one Arab? Is she a suicide bomber? If I see a car with a regular-looking Joe in it, should I call the cops? Perhaps Al Qaeda got to him, threatened to kill his family…
If I see a woman board my bus with a nervous demeanor, should I shove her back down the steps, before she can detonate a dynamite vest?
If I see a suitcase unattended, should I have a bomb squad encircle it and blow it up, before it destroys our freedoms?
If I hear someone speak Arabic, should I follow him, to find where his terrorist cell hides?
If I see an Arab on a cell phone, should I knock it out of his hands, in case he’s coordinating an attack?
If I hear any Americans sounding too patriotic, should I rat them out, in case they’re Al Qaeda infiltrators?
I am an American. I want to be vigilant.
But being too vigilant could be too disruptive. I might be mistaken in any given instance, and hurt innocent people. Maybe I will just put my head between my legs, and kiss my ass goodbye.
Or better, I’ll carry on as usual — and disregard this alert as a bunch of bull to help an Administration that maybe feels it didn’t get enough bounce in the polls from capturing Saddam Hussein.
I might look at the other Orange Alert dates and get suspicious:
September 10, 2002: To keep us afraid, and from asking questions, on that first anniversary.
February 7, 2003: To distract us from the fantasies and lies in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN Security Council two days earlier, about Iraq’s (still AWOL) WMD.
March 17, 2003, the day President Bush declared war on Iraq: To keep us from protesting, to distract us from the fact the rest of the world opposed us, as well as from the fact that the last war, against Afghanistan, apparently hadn’t reduced the threat of terrorism.
May 20, 2003, after Al Qaeda attacked in Saudi Arabia and Morocco: To distract us from the fact that the murders of U.S. troops in Iraq were starting to make President Bush’s May 1 victory lap around the flight deck of the <U.S.S>. Abraham Lincoln look a tad premature.
Happy Holidays. Let’s hope there’s no terror attack. But if there is, and you survive, don’t call our government prescient. Call it incompetent.
BRIAN J. FOLEY is a professor at Touro Law Center in Huntington, N.Y. He can be reached at: BrianF@tourolaw.edu.