Baby-Sitting

journalism

THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE – December 2, 2001, Sunday

THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: 12-02-01;
Adventures in Baby-Sitting

IN THE DOZEN weeks since Sept. 11, the national mood has morphed so many different times — shock, sadness, jittery determination, fear, redoubled determination, redoubled fear, fatigue, re-redoubled fear, glee — that its movements have become impossible to predict. Go to bed during an outbreak of national giddiness and you might wake up in the midst of a dreadful new panic. But as the military victories began to pile up and the Taliban continued to defect, surrender, scatter and die, the mood on the home front seemed, for the first time in ages, placid. Even, dare I say it, normal. Almost, I worried, complacent: given that this nightmare began with an astoundingly cinematic image, I couldn’t help thinking of the third-act war and horror movie cliché: ”It’s quiet out there — too quiet.” It wasn’t just the lack of hijackings, or the slowdown in new outbreaks, or the virtual disappearance of the word ”weaponize” in the public discourse, which for a while there in October looked to replace ”monetize” as the 21st century’s voguish verbed noun. It was that the government, for at least a moment, began to ease back on the ”credible threat” alarms.

The first was the official explanation of why President Bush had been dispatched to a bunker near Omaha on Sept. 11: a phone call threatening an attack on Air Force One. ”I think it was a credible threat,” Vice President Cheney said, although it turned out that there probably had been no threat at all.

Ten days later the federal government began its full-bore campaign of fear disbursement by being both tantalizingly specific and uselessly general about who was in jeopardy. ”A film studio in California could be the target of a terrorist attack,” an F.B.I. spokesperson said of an ”uncorroborated yet credible” threat. The same day, John Ashcroft said that Boston might be attacked over the coming weekend. Or might not. Take care!

Then, when American planes started bombing Afghanistan on Oct. 7, the F.B.I. placed citizens and police forces ”on the highest level of alert.” Unfortunately, they’d been at ”the highest state of vigilance” since Sept.11; how do you turn up the dial to 11?

A few days later, the government seemed almost proud to announce its scariest, most general credible threat yet: imminent terrorist attacks — maybe somewhere in America, maybe ”against U.S. interests overseas,” possibly both. The next day, the government amplified that warning based on what were described in the press as ”additional credible threats.” And a scant three weeks after that, the government put out a superduper ultramaximum alarm, having intercepted Al Qaeda communications that suggested threats so credible they reportedly ”frightened the officials who read them.”

And how were we supposed to respond to these warnings? By leaving the country? Americans look to their government for usefully authoritative information. And when that fails, as it usually does, we expect them to offer Rooseveltesque, or at least Reaganesque, or even just Wizard-of-Oz-esque reassurance. They signed on to obsess over ambiguous specters of doom, not us. Given the terrorists’ mission to provoke as much fear as possible, in this war as in none before it, managing citizens’ anxiety ought to be part of the program. Instead, our leaders have implemented a new wartime ration: making sure that everyone gets a portion of the national panic. In exchange, citizens are asked to do their part — to experience fear on command, but to take no practical steps to address it.

For most Americans, the only personal experience of leadership comes from being a parent. Parents are the leaders of families. We do all we can to protect our children, teach or encourage them (or discipline them, as required). And when we have nothing more than an inconclusive hunch about a serious matter — about our jobs, our finances, our health or, for the last three months, our nation’s security — we try to avoid burdening our children with fears that won’t make them safer, with useless fears, fear itself.

Like certain scary bad parents one remembers from high school, the government has behaved in an oddly bipolar fashion. It has screamed about hypothetical and general dangers while letting real and particular problems fester: even as we were being advised to worry ourselves sick about possible new terrorist assaults, we were told that anthrax posed no risk to D.C. postal workers, not all of whom are still alive. And when the California governor, Gray Davis, issued the only credible-threat alarm that anyone could actually use — by staying off California’s big bridges during rush hour, if they chose to — the feds chastised him for fear-mongering.

As upsetting and probably misguided as the credible-threat alarmism was, I confess I found the subsequent period of relative quiet disquieting. I guess I had become accustomed to the alerts, which I now see had a strangely regular periodicity. The announcements came every 17 to 20 days, almost always on Thursday or Friday — Sept. 21, Oct. 11, Oct. 28. Even Tom Ridge’s noncredible-threat warning of Nov. 15 appeared precisely on schedule. Maybe at a time like this, any kind of predictability, even predictable anxiety, is comforting.