The executive nomination of former Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas J. Ridge to be the nation's first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security was confirmed unanimously last week by the Senate.
Prior to the confirmation, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) pointed out that "the clearest indication of Gov. Ridge's character is something that you won't find on his resume. It is the story of his service in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War."
"Gov. Ridge was one of the few, if not the only, graduate of Harvard who served in Vietnam as an enlisted man, and he did so with great distinction. Infantry Staff Sergeant Ridge was awarded a Bronze Star for valor. These are impressive credentials that speak to the character of a remarkable man," Collins said.
At that point, a visibly impressed Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the Senate's longest-serving Democrat, rose to speak.
"I listened with great interest to the senator from Maine," he said. "If I were feeling otherwise, I would be almost persuaded - remembering that old Baptist hymn we used to sing in West Virginia, 'Almost Persuaded' - I would be almost persuaded to vote for him, if I had intended to otherwise. In this case, I think I will join her in voting for Gov. Ridge."
Ridge certainly has his work cut out for him as he begins his first full week as secretary of Homeland Security.
For the terrorists, it seems, are restless.
On Friday (Jan. 24), near Barcelona, Spain, authorities arrested 16 persons linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. Spanish authorities said the 16, mostly Algerian men in radio contact with Islamist extremists around the world, were preparing to launch chemical attacks on unspecified targets, given the stash of chemicals and resins, bomb components, detonators and remote controls that were recovered.
That same day, authorities in Italy raided the homes of three Muslims, having already arrested five Moroccans in the country for possessing explosives and detailed maps marking the way to a NATO installation.
Then, one of Saddam Hussein's offspring goes on television to repeat the sensational sound bite that if Iraq is invaded, Sept. 11 will resemble a "picnic."
Meanwhile, in the midst of all this, Capitol Hill's senators are debating a bill to restore funding for International Military Education and Training programs in Indonesia, home of the world's largest Muslim population. One senator after another voiced concern over evidence that members of the Indonesian National Army Force were behind one of that country's more recent terrorist attacks that killed and injured several Americans less than a half-mile from an Indonesian military outpost.
Come to think of it, said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), he and Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens had traveled to Asia last year.
"We visited Indonesia," he said, "where they had just brought into custody a Muslim cleric who was quoted as having said, 'Osama bin Laden is a lightweight.'"
As Ridge well knows, it will be difficult in this war on terrorism, in protecting our homeland, to distinguish the good guys from the bad. Even in this country.
Face it, America. In the eyes of some around the world, we're not who we think we are.
An overwhelmingly favorable impression of Americans has slipped, says the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. In fact, in 19 out of 27 countries where trends can be measured, Americans are no longer seen as passive, kind-hearted, law-abiding people.
Who or what is responsible for this negative perception?
President Bush, some contend, is increasingly giving America a "bully" image, what with his dogged pursuit of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Others say Hollywood is the real reason. Americans are perceived as overbearing, aggressive and domineering - if not downright criminal.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in one op-ed column last week in the Los Angeles Times, said, "thanks to Tony Soprano, 'Sex and the City' and young pop divas, Hollywood has given us our unflattering image."
Gingrich labeled "astounding" what Boston University professors Melvin and Margaret DeFleur found when surveying 1,259 teenagers from 12 countries about their attitudes toward Americans.
"Few of those surveyed had any direct contact with Americans - only 12 percent had visited the U.S.," he noted. "But they did have access to American television programs, movies and pop music, and based on that exposure, most of these teens considered Americans to be violent, prone to criminal activity and sexually immoral."
Turn on the TV news tonight and chances are you won't see any pictures from Afghanistan. How quickly we ignore.
Rest assured, thousands of U.S. troops remain posted inside Afghanistan, keeping the peace and mopping up after years of Taliban rule. That point was driven home during a special White House briefing on Afghanistan late last week, although as attendee Fred Gedrich of the Freedom Alliance reveals, it was somebody else who stood up to sing praise of the American soldier.
Ali Seraj of the Afghanistan-American Foundation.
"Everybody has to give credit to one group of Americans that nobody talks about, who are working very hard in Afghanistan and I want to give them their due," Seraj began. "This is the young American soldiers - boys and girls - and nobody knows this but I do because I work very closely with them.
"The last 12 months, they have rebuilt schools for almost one million Afghan children. They have rebuilt hospitals for almost three-quarters of a million Afghan sick people. They have dug wells for hundreds of thousands of people. We only hear about soldiers fighting on the battlefield. We never hear of the good they are doing. And these kids, every time I walk there and go there, I raise my hat to them," Seraj said.
"In addition to that, the American people are a very giving people. In my years of being on a speaking tour, when they ask me what do I think of Americans, I always say if I had to draw a picture, I would draw a picture of a heart."
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton told 500 delegates to the first National Fisheries Leadership Conference Jan. 23 that "help is on the way" for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 69 national fish hatcheries and that President Bush will seek a 16 percent increase - $8.1 million - in the system's budget for 2004.
"Another of your jobs is dealing with invasive species," Norton pointed out. "I came across one of the ugliest examples this summer (in a Maryland pond outside Washington) when I met the (northern) snakehead fish. This fish eats all the other fish in a pond and then crawls out and over to the next pond, where it also eats all the fish."
The secretary added on second thought: "Maybe it does belong in Washington after all."