When President Bush told all the nation this week -- except those poor saps stuck on the news-blackout networks of CBS, ABC and NBC -- "we have every reason to assume the worst," he wasn't exaggerating. Which is why, finding myself trailing a big white delivery truck as it made its way through a Montgomery County neighborhood last week, I was not inclined to give the truck a pass, figuratively or literally. Maryland police had just announced a sniper was terrorizing the region, quite possibly traveling with an accomplice, in such a white truck. In as much disbelief as alarm, I followed the truck as it turned onto the quiet street of a local elementary school. It pulled into the driveway, finally stopping outside the school's front doors, their large glass panes blacked out in accordance with a "Code Blue" lockdown.
Failing to find anything reassuring about the truck's parking place, I scared up a neighbor with a cell phone and we stood watching, poised to act -- dial? -- should something -- what? -- happen. Something did happen. The two men (check) in the white truck (check) were allowed to enter the building to make a delivery.
A delivery? Surely, this wasn't the time for business as usual. The sniper, having committed three murders during the morning rush, hadn't established a pattern (and still hasn't), and the day was young. Would there be more murders? More assailants? Was there a network, a gang, domestic or foreign, behind the killings? And -- the question on everyone's mind -- was there a jihadist connection to this brand of terrorism? The fact that an Al Qaeda training tape was discovered in Afghanistan last year instructing jihadis in the art of terrorism by sniper-shootings, not to mention assaults on public buildings such as schools, was at least something to give pause.
More than a week into the sniper-terror, we still don't know the answers to these questions. While the conventional wisdom now leans against Islamist involvement, last Thursday, a day of barely contained fear and chaos, it was anyone's guess. So why did the school take a delivery from two men in a white truck during this first real lockdown?
The neighbor pointed out that the truck appeared to be a county-owned vehicle, a fact later confirmed by the school principal. In an era of car-jackings and hijackings, however, this rationale is less than satisfying. It was an official United Airlines jet, after all, that crashed into the World Trade Center. The principal also told me the driver had "proper identification," which, under a Code Blue alert, amazingly, permitted him access to the building. Needless to say, Mohammed Atta had "proper identification," too. In other words, "official" uniforms, vehicles and ID cards don't always count for much in a world where commercial airline uniforms, security passes, visa stamps, and rescue vehicles seem to have replaced rubies and emeralds as the burglary-booty of choice. It is no novelty in the Middle East, for example, for Palestinian terrorists to dress in stolen Israeli army uniforms.
And with today's copying machines, a crafty fifth-grader could fake a passable ID -- if not steal one.
Judging by the glassy stares such thoughts elicited from neighbors, it seems that my line of deduction -- unremarkable, I thought -- required leaps of logic too fantastic for those around me. Maybe what had been largely unthinkable before Sept. 11 -- terrorism in America -- has become largely unthinkable again. "Terrorism? Here? In our town? Impossible." Could it be that the hole in Manhattan, the new chunk of Pentagon and the shrine in Pennsylvania have become so much scenery?
Of course not. But neither have they become evidence -- Exhibits A, B and C -- of what could happen again unless we decimate the Islamist networks and the regimes that support them. Not that it has to be skyscrapers or monuments next time; it could be schools or office buildings, as the Al Qaeda training tape suggests. And that holds whether the jihadi army includes the Beltway sniper or not.
That, of course, is only logical. And this is a time when only logic -- and a few hundred thousand brave American troops -- can save us. That is, it's logical to circle the wagons in the face of sniper-terrorism, whether it turns out to be foreign or homegrown. It's logical, also, for a federal judge to deny the Lackawanna Six bail.
(Well, five out of six ain't bad.) And it's logical to confront Iraq, now, on the evidence of its evil designs. As President Bush put it this week, "Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." The logic of such evidence may be tough to face; but never will it be as painful as the proof.