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Soap and Other National Disasters

By Talia Milgrom-elcott

If you think the Ad Board engages in some sketchy practices, listen to this recent incident of national fame: a week and a half ago, the F.B.I. released a "terrorist threat advisory" and a composite sketch of two men believed to be driving a U-Haul truck filled with enough ammonium nitrate fertilizer and diesel fuel to blow up several small homes or one larger government complex--a bomb potentially on par with the one that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City only two years ago. After catching the men, the armed Federal agents discovered--much to their embarrassment, I would imagine--that the two men were traveling industrial cleaners and that the "ammonium nitrate fertilizer" was only soap. It was soon determined that the two cleaners posed no danger.

The motivating force for the red-alert was a phone call from a "credible" man who believed that he saw potentially explosive nitrate in the U-Haul of two men who were also buying diesel fuel, a necessary second ingredient for any high-quality bomb. Once the F.B.I. issued the terrorist advisory, hundreds of people from across the country called in leads to help with the search. (What a pity that the men were only loading their truck with the gas necessary to run their equipment and not conspiring world domination.)

After sending the two nice men along their way and canceling the highly unusual report, the F.B.I. went about the messy business of explaining their mistake and justifying their extreme response. Officials explained that the report, received from a credible source (the description "credible" was repeated numerous times--justifications, Dr. Freud?), came only a few days before the fourth anniversary of the shootout near Waco, Tex., an ideal time for another incident. Furthermore, William Carter, spokesperson for the F.B.I. in Washington explained, "Recent tragedies resulting from criminal terrorist acts require a heightened vigilance."

Ultimately, the officials decided that although this specific incident was a false alert, the speedy response of Federal agents and the massive public involvement was a sure sign that the methods of dealing with terrorism are smooth-running and effective. As Oliver B. Revell, a private security consultant in Dallas, Tex., who was deputy director of operations for the F.B.I. from 1985 to 1991, summed up: "The system worked."

I don't know about you, but that was not the feeling I got from the report of this debacle. First, two innocent men were incorrectly identified as major terrorists. Their composite sketches were emblazoned in police stations and news organizations across the country; they were hunted down and detained from work, all because of one supposedly "credible" phone call. The alarm, it seems to me, had more in common with delusional paranoia than with reality. Nonetheless, this case of mistaken identity and mistaken crime is preferable to the counterfactual possibility (as my economics professor loves to elucidate) of lackadaisical standards of crime prevention. At least the Feds took national security seriously--if perhaps too seriously.

Concern No. two, though, is more fundamental. If the Feds are exonerated from any wrongdoing--they were, after all, dealing with a potential threat--then we must turn our attention to the other actors in this saga: the citizens who reported the terrorist industrial cleaners and called in soap "leads" to the Bureau. In a country that is regularly bemoaned for its diminished civic participation, this mass public action seems strangely incongruous. It is a sad state of affairs when it takes a threat to national security to galvanize the citizenry to action. People don't take the time to vote in national elections or to engage in civic life, but they will eagerly participate in a cinema-level terrorist hunt.

The trigger-happy response of the people speaks to one of two possible trends. The first is a national tendency toward the (melo) dramatic that has overtaken our public culture. Why believe that two men in a rented truck are going about their business if you can instead imagine that they are dangerous terrorists on a secret mission to destroy American society and that you are the savvy by-stander who saw the truth and averted national disaster?

The second, more disturbing issue is a pervasive sense of fear that has overtaken our everyday lives. In the wake of national tragedies and terrorist scares, it no longer seems unreasonable to see terrorists lurking inside every U-Haul truck. The most lasting legacy of the Oklahoma bombing and last summer's TWA explosion over the New York skyline is a deep feeling of vulnerability and a heightened desire for caution. In this environment, every suspicious person is a threat and every credible threat must be dealt with seriously.

Although the images of mistaken identity and overly-armed and misdirected Feds seem rather humorous, the terrorist alert and the national response over soap actually reveal a sad state of affairs in our country. Wouldn't it be nice to open the morning paper and read of community safety or school initiatives garnering similar levels of action?

Talia Milgrom-Elcott's column appears on alternate Fridays.

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