Shoney's, terrorism and the price of vigilance

Anyone might overreact to a potential terror threat -- I almost did last year. But we should watch out for ethnic scapegoating, too, as we try to protect the nation from harm.

Published September 16, 2002 6:40PM (EDT)

I'm not saying I wouldn't have done what Eunice Stone did.

The same alarm that drove the Georgia woman to warn authorities about a terror plot she thought she overheard at a Shoney's restaurant on Friday caused me to come within moments of getting Yankee Stadium evacuated last October. Eunice Stone might very well have been a hero.

It's absolutely possible that three terrorists could've stopped off at a waffle house in Calhoun, Ga. Three men with Middle Eastern accents might well have begun a loud and elaborate conversation wondering what, if Americans were "mourning on 9/11," they'd be doing on 9/13. Three men wearing Middle Eastern headgear could have asked each other whether they "had enough" to "bring it down."

There was just one logical bar that had not been cleared, one question that Stone might've pursued before she phoned her local sheriff -- or that authorities might've pursued afterward, before they shut down part of South Florida's primary west-east artery for 17 hours.

Here's that one tough rational hurdle: This public conspiratorial conversation these malefactors had within earshot of Eunice Stone at the Shoney's restaurant in Calhoun -- they conducted it in English?

Fortunately for mankind, in every war there are morons. A Confederate operative left Robert E. Lee's entire battle plan on a picket fence during the Civil War. The Northern general to whom it was delivered ignored it. Erroneously convinced that Oswald Mosley was ready to hand over England, Hitler decided to stop lowering property values in his new colony and, instead, invaded Russia. Last December's shoe-bomber, Richard Reid, didn't have the smarts to go into the bathroom to ignite his sneakers in private -- he tried to do it at his seat.

But three Middle Eastern-looking men speak loudly about terrorism in public at a Shoney's restaurant in English? Not only are there al-Qaida cells in our midst, but there are apparently specific ones for evildoers so stupid they'd make Boris Badenov wince.

It proved that -- at worst -- these guys were pretty stupid, or pretty pissed off, or both. Police sources have leaked the theory that, upset by a dirty look from a Shoney's customer, they had decided to play him or her by talking terror. But nobody's proven that, and the students deny they said anything about terror at all.

It's a question of what you do with the evidence in front of you. If I'm in that restaurant on Sept. 12, and hear "mourning" and "bringing it down," I'm thinking of that day's top sports story. Alonzo Mourning of the NBA Miami Heat has had a relapse in his fight against kidney disease. One of his symptoms is a high fever. Maybe these guys are medical students, or sports fans, and they're speculating as to whether they have enough medical knowledge or medicine to bring down his temperature. Kind of a long shot, I know, but, as it proved, a much better guess than Eunice Stone's.

At least it explained the unaccented English.

Still, there was that thing at Yankee Stadium last year. We were a month out from the attacks and here I was at the first post-season baseball game in New York, on the home plate side of the visitors' dugout, chatting with my friends Alan Schwarz of Baseball America and Brett Haber from CBS Sports. I looked anxiously but without purpose toward the stands, and there it was, sitting next to the dugout railing: a briefcase-like bag -- with no owner.

"Hey, Brett," I said, pointing. "That yours?" Haber pointed to the bag slung over his shoulder. "Alan?" Schwarz seemed unconcerned and pointed to his own bag resting at his feet. The realization jumped across their faces almost simultaneously. "Ohhh, crap," I said.

Now there were three of us scanning the crowded field, looking for a reporter without a bag. We couldn't find one. Schwarz began to back away. "You're in charge here," he said. I ignored his Alexander Haig tone and located the position of the nearest cop and started my calculations. The stadium had just opened, so the evacuation would probably not induce panic. The odds of that bag actually containing a bomb were astronomically small. On the other hand, if I were a terrorist, that's exactly what I'd do. Enact the horrible deed, then follow it with smaller-scale atrocities in public places, soon, and repeatedly. At a sporting event, for instance: replicate or steal a reporter's bag, fill it full of whatever, and leave it amid a sea of people to whom it would not look unusual.

Still, that phrase "astronomically small" argued for a few seconds' delay. "Anybody know whose bag this is?" I asked, in a normal voice. A few reporters nearby turned and looked disdainfully at me. Now I shouted it at about half my full volume. Still, no response. I looked at Haber. Haber looked at Schwarz. I looked at the cop. Then a man with sunglasses and a soul patch spoke up. "I think I saw who put that there." The rescuer was Rob Dibble, the former pitcher and sometime ESPN commentator. He named its owner as a West Coast sportscaster, whose name I will keep secret because he got all the punishment he needed when I found him at the other end of the dugout, chatting up some woman reporter, and I walked him through the definition of "unattended bag."

So, under the right circumstances -- and at the right time -- there's a little Eunice Stone in all of us, including me. The part I hope isn't in all of us is the unavoidable element of ethnic profiling. If those three students had been of almost any other origin, up to and including Cracker-baiting Northern yuppies, one suspects Eunice doesn't make that phone call -- or at least asks herself why the terrorists would be speaking a language she can understand.

Even in anti-terrorist vigilance, timing is everything. Sixty years ago, Eunice Stone would've been inclined to let the three Middle Eastern-looking guys pass, and been on the Shoney's patrol keeping an eye out for Asians. Somewhere in this country in the last week a bunch of Japanese guys sat down at a table at a chain diner and talked about whether they have "enough power" to "make it happen," and nobody batted an eyelash. They were ruminating about what appears to be a fait accompli: that Japan's top baseball player, Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui, will join the New York Yankees.

Matsui is a home run hitter who is flirting with his league's Triple Crown, and he's decided to try his luck on these shores next year. A good source of mine who foretold of Ichiro Suzuki's arrival here says "Godzilla" so much wants to play for the Yankees that he'll sign for less than he might get elsewhere. The group of Japanese men who were talking about that development were reporters on assignment here from the Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper that owns Matsui's current team, the Tokyo Giants. I met them at Yankee Stadium the other night, and they spoke both Japanese and English, the latter with no evident accent. They were asking if Matsui will have "enough power" to succeed in the United States, and if under the new labor-management deal, the Yankees will still have enough spendable money to "make it happen."

You haven't heard about any of this, yet. That's partly because Eunice Stone wasn't sitting at the next table, and partly because we long ago stopped thinking every Japanese was evil enough to fly a plane into an American target -- or was dumb enough to hash it out in English.

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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