Kicking the apocalypse habit

Published January 18, 2005 11:45PM (EST)

Don't put away the duct tape just yet, but President Bush's second inauguration may be the first major American political event unclouded by terrorism warnings in quite some time.

"There is nothing that we've seen, not just today, but over the period of the preceding several weeks, that gives us any reason to even consider, at this point, raising the threat level," Tom Ridge announced last week. That's a very different story from the one government counter-terrorism officials routinely trotted out during the presidential campaign: "Credible intelligence from multiple sources indicates that al-Qaida plans to attempt an attack on the United States in the next few months," John Ashcroft warned in May, a month after Ridge himself speculated that the inauguration was a likely terrorist target.

Now that the election is over, however, that threat appears to have suddenly receded. According to Ridge, most of the "chatter" about possible attacks has died down, leaving the officials confident that an attack won't mar the inaugural revelry. This should come as good news to most Americans, whatever they might suspect about the motivations of earlier election-season warnings.

That said, an article in the most recent issue of Time reveals nostalgia at the magazine for those heady days when government officials regularly announced that Americans should brace themselves for a dirty bomb or nerve gas attack. Titled "Limousine Terror? -- Fears of automotive mayhem as the Presidential inauguration nears," the piece begins with a revelation: "As Washington gears up for the first Inaugural of the post-9/11 era, one potential security threat has emerged as a particular focus of concern: vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDS."

According to Time's reporting, a VBIED could be any vehicle laden with explosives (we formerly called those "car bombs," but we have to congratulate Time on using "VBIED" instead -- military jargon is snazzy, and suggests you know what you're talking about). Such a bomb could be used to disrupt the inauguration, Time notes, and a document attributed to an al Qaida operative arrested in Britain last year suggests that a limousine would make a good delivery mechanism. "Barriers have been set up to block any vehicle bent on destruction," the magazine concludes, and "authorities are on the alert."

Terrorist plans to attack the inauguration with exploding stretch Humvees would make a gripping story, but there's one problem: the inauguration "is not specifically mentioned" as a target, and there's absolutely no sign that terrorists intend to use a limo -- or anything else -- to attack the festivities. And as for the recently erected security barriers, anyone who has visited the White House in recent years can tell you that the practice of blocking off the areas surrounding important government locations isn't exactly novel.

In the absence of any new threat, it's hard to see the justification for a lurid headline like "Limousine Terror?"; a more accurate title would be "Terrorists Could Potentially Use Car Bombs to Attack the Inauguration, but There's No Evidence They're Going To." Obviously, though, the latter's a little less effective at scaring the citizenry -- and selling magazines.

By Jeff Horwitz

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