Quit shouting fire in a crowded theater

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Opinions: DAN K. THOMASSON: Quit shouting fire in a crowded theater Copyright 2001 Scripps Howard News Service

Special Report: America Responds Scripps Howard News Service

WASHINGTON (November 1, 2001 1:28 p.m. EST) - As a friend lay in the intensive care unit suffering from a heart attack, his wife informed him that he wasn't to worry but she had to leave because their house was on fire.

Sound familiar? Well, it should because that's the same message being put out by the U.S. attorney general, the chief of homeland security and nearly everyone else in the Bush administration who can't seem to stay off television.

Go right ahead and get on that airplane or visit your local post office or keep your appointment at the Capitol or another public structure or fill the arenas and ball stadiums. Just be aware that we have credible evidence (nonspecific, of course) that another terrorist attack may be on the way in the next few days. As if to punctuate the seriousness of this cautionary advisory (to use a bureaucratic term), Vice President Dick Cheney once again disappears.

The real conundrum here is why the president of the United States walks out into the middle of jam-packed Yankee Stadium, where one would think he would be vulnerable to all sorts of opportunities for disaster, while the vice president is hidden away from potential harm.

Shouldn't it be the other way around?

After issuing this second warning in the last few weeks, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge spent much of the week explaining why they did it at the obvious risk of creating wholesale panic. They said they had issued an alert to local, state and federal police to intensify their efforts and they wanted to make sure that Americans, in going about their everyday lives, understood why security had suddenly increased, and to be vigilant themselves.

This, of course, is as though most of us haven't thought of anything else and had not been constantly mindful of further dangers since Sept. 11. Ashcroft and Ridge both actually offered that explanation for their decision with a straight face. Apparently aware of the ludicrousness of what he was saying, FBI Director Robert Mueller couldn't seem to hand the microphone over to Ashcroft quickly enough on this one.

Interestingly, those who were supposed to be warned first - local, state and federal protectors - mostly heard about the threat when Ashcroft and Mueller appeared at a press conference to announce it, raising the question once again about the Justice Department's real commitment to sharing crucial information. Neither Ashcroft nor Ridge really answered questions as to why they couldn't have just told security authorities and forgotten about the rest of us.

There comes a time in these situations when one begins to wonder whether we aren't playing directly into the hands of Osama bin Laden and his homicidal maniacs. They don't have to do anything to keep us off-balance and on the run except to telephone one another and talk about a "big event," realizing all the while that we are probably listening and interpreting that to be code for some upcoming horrific assault. Why waste manpower and explosives and germs when they can accomplish part of their objective with just a little psychological warfare?

That, of course, doesn't mean those who subscribe to the works of al Qaeda aren't capable of the real thing whenever they get the opportunity. All of us need to be constantly aware that we no longer are immune from what much of the civilized world has been subjected to for decades. It is safe to say that few Americans missed that message last month and aren't on alert.

But there would seem to be questionable benefit from issuing these scary flashes without more specifics (except to let the terrorists know we know they're up to something and perhaps cause them to pull back) while at the same time urging everyone to go about things normally. The attorney general's somber countenance alone was enough to send us all scurrying for bomb shelters.

We may never know how many airline passengers failed to show up or how much business was canceled because of these warnings. It would have been far better for Ridge and Ashcroft to have urged everyone to stay inside for the next five days or so. Better still, they should have just kept the news within the law-enforcement community. In fact, why not do us all a favor and stop talking all the time, at least until there is something specific about which to warn us.

Quit shouting fire in a crowded theater.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 01, 2001


These same rascals shouting fire; if they didn't have a hand in starting that fire, at least were very busy looking the other way. Now, it's all they can think abou

-- don park (dpark@magick.net), November 01, 2001.

What a spoiled country we live in. We should take a page from Israel's book. They live with constant, non-specific warnings, and go about their lives reasonably normally. It should be obvious that alerts must be issued to safeguard the public. We're just going to have to knuckle down to this new shadow reality of terrorism--which has never before touched our shores--and learn to live with it.

-- Uncle Fred (dogboy45@bigfoot.com), November 01, 2001.

"Fire in a crowded theatre" isn't the image that came to my mind this morning as yet another set of headlines, by the coffee-shop checkout, read "FBI Warns of Credible Threat" kind of thing. What I thought of was the boy crying wolf. In the case of our protectors, the motive is not amusement, like the boy's, but instead is quite seriously intended -- nonetheless, we can only take so much before we start to tune it out, and the more so if nothing actually comes of it. It's a tough call to make, sure. Maybe the latest round of warnings should have gone only to the professional protectors. My SO, for one, is starting (only starting) to grumble that maybe, maybe, they are onto something, the conspiracy-theorists who suggest that this climate of fear is being created deliberately in order to create more governmental control.

-- L. Hunter Cassells (mellyrn@castlemark-honey.spamnot.com), November 02, 2001.

Hah! They have to cry wolf all the time. Look how much guff they took for not calling the WTC disaster. That is how government works, CYA, CYA, cover your ass. If anything does happen again, they can say they predicted it. The pressure is on the FBI to cover there ass so we'll have cry wolf warnings for perpetuity now.

-- Guy Daley (guydaley1@netzero.net), November 02, 2001.

Just getting everyone used to a police state.

-- Porky (Porky@in.cellblockD), November 02, 2001.

Seems like they're damned if they do and damned if they don't. I, for one, would prefer to be warned.

-- Tee (teefleur@yahoo.com), November 02, 2001.

Has anyone here ever read Orson Welles book 1984 (or seen the movie, since you are mostly americans)? Do you remember the images shown to the public stating that the enemy is always at the borders? This is how you control a police state!

-- Martijn Hazelzet (mph@netbox.org), November 03, 2001.

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