A silver symbol of our sticky situation


BOSTON - The way things are going, they ought to update the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. The authors just weren't imaginative enough.

They got the concept right. "The principle behind this book is a simple one: You just never know."

But what you just never knew in 1999 was the easy stuff: how to fend off a shark, escape from killer bees or deliver a baby in a taxicab.

The only time they come close to antiterrorism advice is when the authors said what to do when you're in the line of gunfire. First of all, "get as far away as possible." Thanks for the tip.

The worst-case scenarios today? Chemical warfare. Biological attack. Dirty bombs.

And what have the new tipsters at the Department of Homeland Security suggested for our personal defense? Water, plastic wrap and duct tape.

You just never know.

In half a century we've gone from duck and cover to duct tape. In the 1950s, the government told us hide under the desk in case of nuclear attack. In the 1980s, a Reagan aide said we'd survive nuclear war, "if there were enough shovels to go around." You just dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and throw dirt on it.

After Sept. 11, the president's instruction to all Americans was to go shopping. Now, in the inexorable momentum toward war against Iraq, it appears the shop is Home Depot. Even in suburban Connecticut a man is shrink-wrapping his entire house. You just never know.

Well, I adore duct tape, that staple of campers and high camp humor. Sealing off a room, scoff the experts, may not protect you against chemicals, let alone radiation. It can't even save my "safe room" from a draft. But anything that can patch pipes and, yes, remove warts is never a total waste.

Nevertheless, I'm afraid that "duct tape and cover" is a symbol of terrorism's victory. What greater delight to our enemies than the image of Americans packing up their survival bags, coloring their anxieties orange? And what stronger adhesive for an administration that wants to wrap the war on terrorism and the war against Iraq into one indivisible package?

The other day George Tenet, the head of the CIA, told the Senate and the country that al-Qaida was planning terrorist attacks. He said, "We place no limitation on our expectations on what al-Qaida might do to survive." Within minutes, we heard the crackly voice believed to be Osama bin Laden call for solidarity with Iraq and "martyrdom operations against the enemy."

A State Department official, commenting on the timing, told a reporter, "It's exactly what we wanted. It is, in effect, al-Qaida saying we are linked with Iraq." What we wanted? Listening to the tape, it's clear that the religious fanatic and the secular dictator are by no means soul mates. Have we discovered a link between Iraq and al-Qaida, or have we have finally forged it?

You just never know.

I do not dismiss the possibility of another terrorist attack; I assume it. Frankly, I'd feel safer donating my personal safety budget to the pursuit of bin Laden or sleeper cells or, for that matter, to the local firefighters and police officers who haven't yet received the promised federal funds to fight terrorism.

But I am also aware of where we stand: The head of al-Qaida is still apparently on the loose. We're fighting in Afghanistan. North Korea is building nukes and has missiles than can reach the United States - care for any duct tape, Seattle? And yet we are hell-bent, full-speed ahead on the way to a pre-emptive strike against Iraq.

When asked whether war put us at greater risk, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer dismissed that line of thought as "blackmail." He said, "The United States will never accept that line of reasoning." Does he think a cornered Saddam Hussein is less dangerous than a contained one? Pass the duct tape.

I fear that this administration is using the best-case scenario in planning for war. A quick victory, a democratic Iraq, a war that will decapitate terrorism rather than disperse it, a joyful Middle East. We all go to the seashore.

But lately I've returned to the pages of a different handbook, Barbara W. Tuchman's The Guns of August. It tells in minute detail the fateful decisions that led up to the tragedy of World War I. In her words, "war is the unfolding of miscalculations."

This may be well be our August. The war is now cast as inevitable, unavoidable. We are told to prepare, not protest. So here we stand, wrapping duct tape, that most malleable of products, into a national security blanket.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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