Paul Greenberg

Any reliable field guide to the flora and fauna of American politics would surely include a hefty section on one of its perennials: hysteria. Rhymes with wisteria. Hysteria is much faster-growing; it can spring up in one news cycle and be gone by the next. But it can be just as hard to cut down if neglected and allowed to take subterranean root, where it finds unending nourishment in the darker depths of the American psyche, with its core of isolationism and xenophobia.

What drove the hysteria up the wall last week was the news that a company based in the United Arab Emirates was going to acquire a controlling interest in a British-based firm that operates major American ports.

Horrors! The hysteria index spiked, urged onward and upward by politicians from both parties who sensed a prairie fire of emotions building out there - and rushed to exploit it.

All the Rush Limbaughs of the left were soon in full cry, sensing a real issue at last, which they do just about every week, and they hadn't spotted anything this promising since Dick Cheney's hunting accident proved a less than impeachable offense. This time they were joined by the separate but equally blind xenophobes of the right, to whom all Ay-rabs look alike.

To get a really good political panic going in this country, the recipe is simple: Start with your regular base of fear and loathing, time its rise for a congressional election year, mix in presidential ambitions like Hillary Clinton's, call out the kind of demagogues who see the Fall of the Republic every time a new Supreme Court justice is nominated, and turn up the heat. Serve quick, before it cools.

Result: Demagogues of both left and right were soon inviting Americans to picture burnoosed terrorists slipping a weapon of mass destruction into a cargo container and devastating a great American city. (It's getting harder and harder to distinguish political discourse in this country from a B-movie.)

The only ingredients missing from this scary scenario were the facts. No need to mention that the United Arab Emirates has been an ally of this country in the war against terror, or as much of an ally as any Arab country can afford to be, cooperating in the arrests of top al-Qaida agents. Or that American military aircraft routinely refuel at air bases in the Emirates, though the emirs might not want that fact advertised.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.