The battle ahead

Posted: Sep 21, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On Sept. 19, eight days after Osama bin Laden's murderous thugs hijacked four commercial airliners and killed 6,000 Americans, I flew to Washington from New York on United Airlines Flight 7285. It was a shocking experience -- not because of the new security procedures or the condition of the aircraft or the crew -- all that was just great. I was shocked because I was the only passenger. That's right, the (SET ITAL) only (END ITAL) passenger. Now I'll be the first to acknowledge that America has had a difficult and trying week. The live, "made for TV" broadcast of a Boeing 767 crashing into the World Trade Center's south tower -- while its twin burned beside it -- was horrific. So, too, was the live broadcast of those magnificent structures collapsing. The carnage at the Pentagon and the crash of United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania were, as the perpetrators intended, terrifying. Even the thought of that many aircraft being seized within minutes by people filled with hatred and turned into killing machines is enough to make any traveler ask themselves, "Is this trip necessary?" But only one passenger on a flight that the crew said would normally be at least three quarters filled? "Why?" I asked a captain, first officer and flight attendant, all veterans of the busy "Northeast Corridor," as the FAA calls the airspace from Boston to Richmond. "I guess people are too scared to travel," the captain and flight attendant both agreed. "But air travel is safer today than it was on Sept. 10," I protested. "Yeah," said the first officer, "but thanks to your pals in the media, nobody knows that." He's right. In the midst of the horrible events on Sept. 11 and in their immediate aftermath, the media -- both print and broadcast -- did a credible job of reporting. Generally, the broadcast news on radio and television, the cable news networks, and the papers, wire services and news magazines offered people around the globe a straightforward presentation of what happened as it happened -- and of heroic efforts to quench fires, save lives and of the government's response. We've all been inspired and saddened by the remarkable courage of passengers aboard at least two of the hijacked planes as they called loved-ones from the doomed flights -- and then fought back. But once these stories had played their course, and the only images left were those of exhausted rescue workers pawing through smoking rubble, the masters of the media changed course. By Sept. 17, a quiet consensus had developed among the networks to curtail broadcasts of exploding planes and collapsing buildings. That's when the newsroom "bookers" and editors began to seek out the critics, detractors and fear-mongers to "explain" all this to the American people. Within a week of the attacks, my media "pals" were continuing to scare the hell out of the American people, instead of trying to reassure them. If you've read a book on terrorism and have something really frightening to say, then apparently you qualify as a "terrorism expert." Over the last several days, we have seen a parade of "Chicken Little" characters purporting that bin Laden and his cronies are about to unleash Anthrax, Botulism and/or Smallpox on a defenseless nation. We've heard these "experts" tell us that Sarin gas, a nerve agent, is not only possible but likely. One even warned against "suitcase nukes" that could be smuggled into the United States. And it's not only the broadcasters. On Sept. 16, in an article about biological and chemical weapons, The New York Times trumpeted that "satellite photos show dead animals at a terrorist training camp in eastern Afghanistan." On Sept. 17, a Washington Post headline screamed, "Bioterrorism: An Even more Devastating Threat." On the Sept. 18, The Associated Press wire hyped a story on the "Shortage of Anthrax Vaccine." And the Reuters wire blared, "Attack on U.S. Raises Specter of Germ War, or Worse." It's time to get a grip. Before trotting out the next "expert" on television, we should be told whether he or she is hawking a book or is party to some company selling "security services" or otherwise profiting from the fear they are spreading. Rather than buy into all this, and hiding under a rock, we should heed the president's words in his address to Congress Thursday night. Osama bin Laden threw his best punch on Sept. 11. His brutal attack was well planned and damaging. Some potential perpetrators are still at large because the flights they planned to hijack were grounded by the president's swift decision to ground all civil aviation. Some of his al Qaeda supporters are still loose here in the United States and elsewhere. But they're on the run. There are serious problems with other terrorist groups and states that support terrorism -- but there is a new international consensus for fighting back. We're not invulnerable to bio-toxin, nerve agents or loose nukes -- or even the much more likely threat of car and truck bombs. Airport security isn't perfect -- but it's better than ever before and getting better. And no matter how many dead goats we see from a satellite, America is safer today than it was on Sept. 11.