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Embracing a Sept. 10 Mentality


We've all had tense moments going through the airport screening line. Visions of a dank Turkish prison basement flash before you when the forgotten penknife is discovered in your carry-on. The screeners are under great strain, lest they let a weapon on board -- or, much worse, single someone out based on a Saudi passport. It's hard for all.

Example. There was a peculiar event in a Houston airport check-in line recently: A fellow shook his head no when asked if his luggage had a laptop; the X-ray machine found a laptop. He also had a Quran, which means nothing, and a clock with a battery taped to the casing, which is perfectly normal. The heels of his shoes had been hollowed out -- but perhaps he had intended to load them with Cheez Whiz for an in-flight snack. He also had a Middle Eastern name, which surely confirmed the senseless Islamophobia of the screeners, and bought him an hour with the rubber hose in a TSA office.

Actually, he was cleared for travel and allowed to board. Did you expect otherwise?

The FBI called it a "non-event," and we may presume they knew what they were talking about. It could have been nothing. It could have been an exercise to see what you can get away with nowadays. Perhaps next time it'll be a clock-case bulging with wires, a copy of "Jihad for Dummies," ticking shoe-heels -- but he'll tell the truth about the laptop. Cleared for boarding!

This would have been BIG NEWS a few years ago; today we shrug. Does this mean we've slipped back into the 9/10 mind-set? Well, you have to define what that means. We've been conscious of perfidy arising from certain parts of the world for a long time. The bad guys in "Back to the Future," after all, were Libyans seeking plutonium. (Libyans as bad guys! Almost prompts a nostalgic sigh, eh? Those were the days.) But if the 9/10 mind-set means we holster our suspicions, stop bracing for the worst every day, well, yes, that's where we are again. In the absence of sustained domestic attacks, it was inevitable we'd relax. Not even a competition bodybuilder can hold the flexed and pumped posture forever.

Everything's back to normal now; next year, we'll probably be allowed to carry box cutters on planes again. But it still doesn't feel quite right. Something was supposed to have happened by now. Something big.

We were scared about smallpox; half a decade later, we fret over sick chickens in Indonesia. We had a national panic attack over anthrax, but we learned to trust powdered doughnuts again. We feared suitcase nukes going off in major cities, aerosolized Ebola wafting through mall vents. We expected Osama bin Laden would either have been killed or conquered the world in true supervillain madman style, but he's an object of indifference, not fear. You can't find his face in the county fair shooting gallery.

We got our nerve back. It just doesn't feel like it, and for that you can blame the long, deep ache of 9/11. Oh, the economy is doing fine; tax revenues are up, the deficit's down, but the people ride in a hole in the ground reading stories about subway bomb plots. Still, we expect the summer holidays to pass without incident or alert; it no longer feels like a sign of progress that nothing blows up on the memorial day. On the other hand, we read of foiled plots and terror cell roundups, and it's a warning as much as a relief. These guys aren't going away. Ever.

According to Rolling Stone's political analyst, the New York tunnel plot was leaked by Karl Rove; he wanted to gin up sweaty fear for the next election cycle, and that silly non-story fit the bill. The murmuring sheeple out there in NASCAR land, you see, must have their adrenal gland tweaked every three months or they forget all about the "war" and content themselves with bidding on Vince Gill bobbleheads on eBay.

So some on the left believe. For them, it's not 9/10; it's 9/12 -- the day they decided to spend their time fighting the administration's response to the terrorist attack. But there's a middle ground between complacency and paranoia. It's probably where you're standing today.

July 12, 2006


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