Through the looking glass

Posted: Aug 06, 2004 12:00 AM

GEORGETOWN, S.C. -- Last week, I left Ar Ramadi, Iraq, and headed home for a little R&R at the beach with those I love the most.

 I was glad to return from the anxiety, uncertainty and weariness of war in a place where violence is routinely the means of resolving disputes. I thought I was coming back to the calm, quiet stability of my native land where reason, the rule of law and political discourse are used to settle differences.

 Now, after a week at home, watching the news, listening to the radio and reading the newspapers, I feel like Louis Carroll's Alice, who stepped through the looking glass from a world that made sense into "Wonderland," where nothing made sense.

 Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to be home, surrounded by friends and family, enjoying a respite from the peril, ferocity and fatigue that is a daily reality for our troops in Iraq. Here on the beautiful beaches of South Carolina, the greatest hazard I face is sunburn. On the streets of Ramadi, U.S. soldiers and Marines risk death if they fail to put on 25-pound "flak jackets" and 5-pound Kevlar helmets before going on patrol in 125-degree heat. For them, the War on Terror in Iraq is dangerous and deadly.

 While American troops have gunfights with well-armed foreign terrorists, local insurgents and criminal gangs, they are simultaneously training Iraqi police and national guardsmen, rebuilding schools and infrastructure, stimulating small businesses and helping the institutions of democratic government to take root. Everyone with whom I spoke in Iraq -- from local government officials to lance corporals manning .50 caliber machine guns atop armored Humvees -- agreed that real progress is being made. Yet, here at home, Americans are besieged by bad news and conspiracy theories. In Iraq, the war on terror made sense. Here, it does not.

 While I was in Iraq, U.S. forces discovered a terrorist plot to kill the governor of Al Anbar Province -- the county's largest political jurisdiction. Alerted by the intelligence report, U.S. troops, the governor, the commander of the Iraqi National Guard and the chief of the provincial police made appropriate plans to deal with the threat. The result was a five-hour gunfight that killed more than 30 terrorists and resulted in the capture of 25 more. And though 14 U.S. Marines and soldiers were wounded, everyone agreed that the operation was a resounding success. Unfortunately, that's not what's happening here.

 Before I left for Ramadi, a senior U.S. intelligence official told me there was "great concern" that Islamic radical terrorists were planning a major attack within our borders before the U.S. presidential election. Citing the Madrid train-bombings in March three days before the Spanish elections, he said Jihadists "timed the bombings to influence the elections and get the Spaniards out of Iraq." He then ominously added: "They succeeded. Spain pulled out of the coalition. The Spanish troops left the coalition. Are we next?"

 Maybe. While I was in Iraq, covering those who serve on the frontlines in the War on Terror, U.S. intelligence agencies discovered a terrorist plot to attack U.S. financial institutions. As a result, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the terror alert in Washington, D.C., New York City and Newark, N.J. Ridge issued the alert based on what he termed "unusually specific" information about where terrorists would next like to strike and pinpointed specific targets.

 One might think, in the aftermath of the 9-11 Commission Report, that such a warning would be reasonable, logical and prudent. But here on this side of the looking glass, less than three months before our elections, some people don't see it that way.

 Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, campaigning for the Kerry-Edwards ticket, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer last Sunday, "The president is basing his political campaign for re-election on the notion that he ought to be re-elected because terrorism is a danger, and his case to the American people is, 'I'm the only person who can get us through this.' So of course this is politics."

 Howard Dean isn't alone in advancing conspiracy theories to describe every action taken by the Bush administration. New York City Council Speaker Gifford Miller said, "I would hope they are not playing politics with this announcement." Newark mayor Sharpe James warned "that with homeland security, you can't separate the politics from the security." And adding grist to the conspiracy mill, in an editorial this week about the 9-11 commission and the terror alerts, the editors of The New York Times complained that they had to "fight suspicions of political timing," and concluded that raising the terror alert "does nothing to bolster the confidence Americans need that the administration is not using intelligence for political gain."

 Maybe it's just a summer of conspiracies. Michael Moore's movie "Fahrenheit 911" is loaded with conspiracy theories about ties between the Bush and bin Laden families. "The Manchurian Candidate," starring Denzel Washington with a cameo by Al Franken, is a story about soldiers who were "brainwashed" after the Gulf War by an evil conglomerate -- Manchurian Global. The goal of the movie is to give legs to the conspiracy that the Bush administration is a puppet of Halliburton.

 If all this sounds crazy to you, you're not alone. In Iraq, the war on terror made sense to me and to those doing the fighting. Now that I'm home, on this side of the looking glass, it's all upside down. Alice, call home. The Mad Hatter is loose in the land.