Two fears

Posted: Oct 16, 2001 12:00 AM
Most of us can live with fear -- not happily, of course, but you endure what you must -- and people are more resilient than our therapeutic culture has suggested lately. But while Americans are flinty and will be courageous as required, we ought not be asked to withstand more than necessary. There are two ways in which our government may be asking that of us. The first is political correctness. While it is very true that we cannot and should not declare war against all Muslims worldwide, and while we cannot and should not persecute, insult or harass Arabs and Muslims within our borders, we must take steps to reduce our vulnerability to those who mean us terrible harm. If we are truly facing the threat of radiation weapons, biological agents or chemical weapons, then we are dealing with threats to our very survival as a nation. And if that is so, then should delicacy about political correctness inhibit us from doing everything necessary to defend ourselves? The FBI, reports Time magazine, is urgently searching for a group of about 30 Arab men who have received licenses to transport hazardous materials. These men, some of whom spoke little or no English, enrolled in a driving school in Denver, Colo., in groups of two and three over the past two years. Each small group was accompanied by the same interpreter. They paid in cash, and after receiving their licenses, never looked for work. They have disappeared. Attorney General John Ashcroft informs us that there are at least 190 individuals associated with Al Qaeda inside the United States whom authorities have been unable to apprehend. Those are the 190 we know about. We keep congratulating ourselves on what an open society we are. Fine, but let's not congratulate ourselves into an early grave. There are thousands of Arabs in the United States at this moment on student and travel visas. They should all be asked, politely and without prejudice, to go home. This will work hardships in many cases, and that is regrettable. But, there is no constitutional right to visit the United States. There is no constitutional right for foreign students to study here. This is not a proposal for concentration camps or even preventive detention (and this would not apply to citizens of Middle-east origin -- though they, too, should receive some scrutiny). It should be done more in sorrow than in anger, because we know that only a tiny fraction of these people mean us harm. But we cannot take chances. This is no more than common sense. As for those missing hazardous materials drivers, the only answer is ethnic profiling. Every Middle-eastern-looking truck driver should be pulled over and questioned wherever he may be in the United States. There is a second fear that looms even larger: smallpox. Unlike anthrax, it is highly contagious and easy to transport. Unlike chemical weapons it is easy to distribute. It could easily overwhelm us. All Americans born after about 1972 are unvaccinated. As for those over age 30 who received the vaccine at birth, there is serious doubt that the vaccine remains effective, since booster shots would have been required every decade. Something like 30 percent of those who contract smallpox will die a slow and painful death. Our health systems would be rapidly overwhelmed by such an epidemic. The economy would be destroyed, and national morale could crack as nearly every family buried at least one member. The government was ahead of the curve (for once), appropriating several million dollars in the late '90s for smallpox vaccine. But even the most optimistic assumptions cannot get all 280 million of us inoculated in less than two years (three is more realistic.) During the Gulf War, the U.S. privately warned Iraq that if chemical or biological weapons were used against our troops, we would consider all forms of retaliation. That was a balance of terror -- just what we need now. Nations can be deterred, but can terrorists? Only perhaps, by this: the certainty that in the 21st century, an epidemic cannot be contained on one continent. Even without a threat of retaliation in kind, the terrorists must be given to understand, by whatever method, that once unleashed, smallpox cannot be controlled. And the Muslim world would surely be even more devastated by it than would we.