Here in California, we're used to living on the precipice of disaster that strikes without warning. We know earthquakes can happen at any time. Most of us have a pretty good idea what to do when they do. Our public officials could send out a warning every few weeks saying, "Californians! Be on the alert soon for a deadly earthquake!" -- but it would be stupid, since we don't know exactly when or where to expect the cataclysm. At first, such random warnings would only increase the prevailing level of confusion and dread; eventually, people would stop taking them seriously, stop trusting their government's alerts and stop worrying about the threat -- which, unfortunately, is not going away.
With their repeated vague warnings of imminent terrorist attacks, our national leaders risk achieving something similar -- a maddening of the country's mood, most likely followed by a growing disenchantment with the government's handling of the situation. In the worst boy-who-cried-wolf case, the public might start tuning out completely, which could be disastrous if the government really does ever need to get our attention.
Monday night, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a "terrorist threat advisory," telling both the general public and state and local law enforcement authorities that he had "credible" information there might soon be a new attack. One government official quoted in the New York Times said that the language in recently intercepted conversations among terrorist suspects resembled that used before Sept. 11.
But, um, hasn't the entire nation been "on alert" since the Sept. 11 attacks? Is there anyone alive within the borders of the U.S. who is unaware that, realistically, we can expect further attacks at virtually any time? Were those state and local authorities just dozing off at their posts before Monday night, and in need of a nudge from Ashcroft to get on the ball? Shouldn't anyone on any of the various front lines against terrorism who isn't on constant alert these days be fired?
It would, of course, be different if Ashcroft or the FBI or homeland security czar Tom Ridge had more specifics in hand. If the government thinks that a particular city or airport or bridge or mail center is in danger, by all means let it act to counter the threat, and warn the public with appropriate speed and care. But Monday, Ashcroft had to apologize for a lack of detail about the "type of attack or specific targets."
Without information about place or time or method of attack, for the government to broadcast general warnings repeatedly is bizarrely ineffective -- as state and local officials complained the last time this kind of alert was issued, on Oct. 11,and as New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani reinforced on Monday when he criticized the federal government for not sharing more information with responsible local leaders.
What are we citizens to do? Watch the skies anxiously for off-course jetliners careening into skyscrapers? Take precautionary antibiotics en masse (even when our doctors tell us that's precisely the wrong response)? When asked a similar question at his Oct. 11 press conference, President Bush jocularly suggested, "If you find a person that you've never seen before getting in a crop duster that doesn't belong to you -- (laughter) -- report it. (Laughter.) If you see suspicious people lurking around petrochemical plants, report it to law enforcement."
The White House transcript dutifully records the press corps' chuckles, but I don't think most of the rest of us thought it was very funny. You bet we're keeping an eye on stray cropdusters (at least those of us who know what they look like outside of "North by Northwest"), and paying attention to the handwriting on the envelopes we receive in the mail, and keeping our eyes open. Anything else would be foolish.
But -- aside from Americans who are professionals in law enforcement, bioterrorism or national security -- once we've chosen our own private methods of prudence in our daily lives, we've reached the limits of our feasible and sensible responses to the threat of terrorism. Receiving the attorney general's notice doesn't give us an opportunity to ramp up our levels of personal vigilance; it just amps up the ambient fear.
I suppose if the citizenry really took Ashcroft's warning to heart, we could all stay home from work, lock our front doors and review our insurance policies. But such over-reaction would merely hand our enemies another victory over our reeling economy. Any time al-Qaida wants to shut down the United States, all its operatives would have to do is pick up the phone and repeat whatever telltale phrases tipped off our government this week.
As the Bush administration's advice to the public continues to lurch haphazardly from "Go about your normal lives" to "Prepare for a new kind of war" and back again, these periodic electric-cattle-prod alerts are going to lose their strength very quickly if they prove empty. And if, instead, one of them proves prescient, and is followed by an actual attack of some kind, it's hard to see how the alert will help defend us any better. If we can't predict terrorist attacks any better than we can predict earthquakes, it's just not worth sounding the alarm.