Loose lips sink ships

Posted: Oct 19, 2001 12:00 AM
Because we have not had a war on our soil in a very long time, we've lost sight of some basics. It is not a good idea to advertise your vulnerability to an enemy that is clearly seeking means of inflicting harm. Yet every newspaper, magazine, news Web site, television and radio outlet in America is carrying stories like this: "America is completely unprepared for biological attack, experts say." We have heard detailed descriptions of our lack of vaccines against a variety of pathogens (I've written about this myself, but only after taking care that nothing in the column would provide useful information to our enemies.) We've read about the vulnerability of our water supply, about how terrorists could rock our economy on its heels by attacking our crops and farm animals, about how terrorists could unhinge America's infrastructure by attacking our computers, about how terrorists may be able to put poison in our pharmaceuticals, about how little security there has traditionally been at nuclear power plants, tunnels, bridges, chemical factories, and on and on and on. Almost none of these stories is a good idea. It isn't as if local, state and federal authorities are not taking threats seriously. At this moment in history, it does not require a press drum beat to get the relevant officials to respond to true vulnerabilities. If someone has thought of an overlooked soft spot, the thing to do is to contact the relevant officials -- not broadcast this vulnerability far and wide. During World War II, vigilance about security was summed up in the phrase: "There's a war on." Further, all of these stories about potential soft spots in our defenses may be giving new and potentially devastating ideas to terrorists who are not necessarily all Rhodes scholars. I heard a so-called expert on bioterrorism on C-SPAN one morning discussing exactly in which buildings we keep our remaining vials of smallpox virus. An American caller from China had to phone in to say, in effect, "shut up." Many of these scare stories also do little to help the average American and do much to unnerve us. It was much the same with the FBI's warning last week that some sort of attack was imminent. What are Americans supposed to do with that amorphous warning? A warning without any content is simply an invitation to panic -- which, blessedly, most Americans declined to do. The non-stop anthrax stories, on the other hand, have ratcheted up national anxiety unnecessarily. Anthrax can be deadly, and those who deploy it against us are would-be mass murderers. But let's not lose our heads. It hasn't worked out for them. Only one person has died of anthrax, and while scores have been "exposed," only a handful have actually fallen ill. This is a long way from the nightmare we had conjured when the word bioterrorism first surfaced. The breathless updates on the result of each and every nasal swab only make us look more panicky and intimidated than we ought. It was the rare report that stressed the practical steps one could take to reduce risk (wash with diluted bleach if you've been exposed to anything). Unless there is some secret reason we don't know about, it looks like the House of Representatives erred badly by adjourning in the face of the anthrax scare. King George VI and his wife Elizabeth remained in London during the Blitz and inspired their nation and the world. By staying at their posts and going about their business, the U.S. Senate continued that tradition. Our news people have buried us in information about threats and vulnerabilities. It's time now for some focus on our strengths. We have the largest and most technologically advanced military in the world, and arguably the best trained soldiers. We have the ingenuity and flexibility to adapt to new kinds of conflicts. Our nation is more united than at any time in recent history. While we've dipped into recession, we have the accumulated surplus of a boom decade to ease that descent. Our allies have been commendably stalwart. Historically, we are slow to anger, but devastating when roused. And the spirit of Lincoln lives in every American heart. We know we are "the last best hope of earth." Those are not piddling virtues.