The Van Ness subway station in Washington was closed the other night after "white powder" was found on the platform. Riders arriving at the station were not told why. Instead they were greeted by an officer who told them: "Get to an emergency room and get tested."
One rider, a professional woman, who is not easily rattled, was sure she noticed a toxic odor arising from the vents above the station. Her skin began to itch. She hailed a taxi home and sat down with her telephone.
An hour passed, and still she could get no straight story from the people at the other end of the city government's emergency numbers. Her skin continued to burn.
No one would even admit that a subway station had been closed, let alone a
reason. The next day she would learn that passengers on the train were told that they were not stopping at the station "due to an emergency," of a kind unspecified.
Finally, just before she was about to head for an emergency room, she got an intelligent voice in the mayor's "command center." It was a false alarm. She learned later that a prankster had left a hamburger sack on the platform, labeled "anthrax." Some joke. The itching subsided, and she realized the toxic odor had probably wafted not from a vent, but from her imagination.
Her story had a happy ending, so there's nothing to complain about, but the story testifies to the power of terrorism to escalate fear. You're not paranoid if you think people are persecuting you when they actually are. When you begin to imagine reactions based on fear, that's a disproportionate reaction. And that's exactly what the terrorists are counting on - a disproportionate reaction.
A young woman in my neighborhood saw a street blocked off for fire engines. When she could see no flames, she asked a policeman what's going on. She got the silent treatment. Then she was sure - well, almost sure - that she saw a worker in a white biohazard suits climb out of a truck. It all turned out to be another false alarm, but it was another example of how something ordinary can be eerily invested with anthrax anxiety in a age of terrorism, particularly when cops and other officers are too frightened to tell bystanders anything.
Germ scares are among the lopsided ways the weak fight the strong, to bump them off balance to get a bigger bang for their buck. There's even a new phrase to describe this new kind of terrorism. It's called "asymmetrical warfare."
"Until recently, the meaning was limited to the application of surprise force by a terrorist against a stronger force's vulnerability, " writes William Safire, commander in chief of language for the New York Times. "But ever since the Sept. 11 attack, Pentagonians have been applying (begin ital) asymmetric warfare (end ital) to the kind of commando and anti-guerrilla techniques, drawing heavily on intelligence data, to be used against Taliban forces in Afghanistan - using non-superpower strength to go after a weaker foe's vulnerabilities."
We're all playing on a new battlefield. A real and troublesome question, of course, is just how dirty we're willing to fight in an asymmetrical war. Spy work can be dirty indeed. A former CIA official tells NBC's Andrea Mitchell how difficult it is for our spies to infiltrate terrorist groups.
The tests the terrorists set for infiltrators might require his killing Americans - to prove that he's not a ringer. Are we willing to allow that?
Winston Churchill faced such a dilemma when the British code breakers in World War II learned that the Nazis were going to bomb Coventry. If he evacuated Coventry, so goes the story that is still the subject of controversy a half-century later, he would be telling the Germans that the Allies had broken their code. The course of the war would be changed, at a cost of many hundreds of lives. Churchill let Coventry be bombed.
War breaks the rules and requires both political and press restraints. When Gov. Thomas E. Dewey ran against FDR in 1944, he intended to accuse the president of having ignored decrypted messages that warned of Pearl Harbor. Gen. George C. Marshall, the chief of staff and architect of American strategy, quietly told Gov. Dewey that the messages, gleaned from intercepted cable traffic between the Japanese ambassador in Berlin and his foreign office in Tokyo, would harm the war effort. Dewey, a patriot first, kept his mouth shut.
It's easy to look at triumphs and mistakes in retrospect. But how far are we willing to go today in an asymmetrical war? That's a question that's hard to answer, but we may have to answer it, and soon.