For a few days last week in the afterglow of the Democratic convention, it was possible to embrace American optimism and to believe that, but for a few tweaks here and there, the Earth would continue to turn on its axis in the customary way.
Then came Monday with the sort of portentous tidings that make Mondays forever our bane. Newspapers across the country led with the news that the Bush administration on Sunday had declared a ?high risk? of terrorist attack.
Officials based the warning on precise information that al-Qaida operatives had conducted reconnaissance missions at specific sites, including the New York Stock Exchange and the Citigroup buildings in Manhattan; the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington; and Prudential Financial in Newark, N.J.
In response, anti-terrorist officers were deployed, a thousand state investigators were put on the case, and security was tightened, causing jitters and inconvenience as people and vehicles were stopped for searches.
Then came Tuesday with reports that the surveillance information behind the alert was several years old.
Suddenly, conspiracy theorists and the Michael Moore wing of the Democratic Party gained traction with their charge that President George W. Bush strategically uses warnings for political gain.
Howard Dean, onetime contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, told CNN?s Wolf Blitzer on Sunday that Bush plays terrorism as his ?trump card? when politically expedient.
?His whole campaign is based on the notion that ?I can keep you safe, therefore at times of difficulty for America, stick with me,? and then out comes (Homeland Security Director) Tom Ridge,? Dean said.
By noon Monday, an e-mail from a former Clinton official crossed my electronic transom making similar charges.
Morris Reid, former aide to Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and now a managing partner of the Washington-based consulting firm Westin Rinehart, charged Bush with selectively highlighting threats as a ploy, saying, ?This is a blatant abuse of power and a clear-cut display of election-year politics.?
And so Americans might believe given the sketchy nature of intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq. But is this politics as usual, or is our American cynicism becoming the terrorist?s favorite tool? If we disbelieve or ignore available information, what do we gain?
The surveillance information in question, which was discovered recently in Pakistan, apparently was several years old but had been updated as recently as January, according to White House security officials. Given al-Qaida?s modus operandi, which is to gather information over a long period and update it shortly before an attack, was Bush wrong to issue an alert?
Ridge explained Tuesday that the combination of recent chatter and the specific nature of the recently discovered data convinced him that an alert was justified. ?We don?t do politics in the Department of Homeland Security,? Ridge said. ?Our job is to identify the threat.?
To whatever degree the information is old or new, reliable or misleading, it seems that Bush is damned if he does, damned if he doesn?t.
If, for instance, there were a terrorist threat and Bush said/did nothing, critics would damn him as they did following the Sept. 11 attacks for not connecting the dots. Or, if Bush issued a terrorist warning as he did this week and nothing happened, they?d damn him again for manufacturing fear for political gain, as they have done.
And yet what would be a reasonable alternative? And where does such cynicism lead? To a Kerry-Edwards victory in November? Then what? Do we trust terror warnings under a new administration? Do we cease to have terror threats because al-Qaida will have succeeded in its mission of derailing Bush? Are we safer then?
Logic gets lost amid such cynicism and paranoia. Except in the twisted logic of the bitterly partisan, there is no reason for Bush to fake terrorist threats, especially against financial institutions when he needs economic growth and stability for re-election. No real-world benefit accrues to him from threats that could shake market confidence.
What is nearly as frightening as terrorist chatter is the degree of cynicism that makes the war on terror political. As we count down the weeks to the November election, each political party attacking the other, the terrorist sets his clock by eternity, patiently biding time for his window, which some seem willing to leave open.
In the arsenal of terror, surely the cheapest and most effective weapon is our own self-defeating cynicism.