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'HIGH ALERT' BREEDS FEAR



Published: Fri, November 2, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



'HIGH ALERT' BREEDS FEAR

Orlando Sentinel: Federal officials walk a fine line when they appear before the nation, issuing vague warnings of another imminent terrorist attack on domestic soil.

Such precautions may be necessary for counterintelligence and investigation-related reasons. A public "alert" may convey to terrorists that the government knows of their plans and will respond accordingly. The information may be purposefully non-specific to protect government informants.

But federal officials run the very real risk of unnecessarily paralyzing the nation with fear -- further damaging an already shaky economy -- when they refuse to provide any details of terrorist threats. Information is knowledge. And knowledge breeds informed decision-making. How should Americans respond when President George W. Bush urges normalcy one minute and law-enforcement officials promote paranoia the next?

Vague alerts: When government officials put the nation on "high alert" -- as they did Monday, for the second time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- they must provide Americans with as much information as possible about the nature of the threat. What situations should Americans avoid? What should they be on the lookout for? How can they assist law enforcement in the worldwide quest to quash terrorism? How, too, should local law-enforcement agencies -- already stretched to the brink -- respond to such vague alerts?

"Trust us" just doesn't wash.

Already, new polls show that Americans are beginning to lose confidence in government's ability to protect the nation, whether the international alliance now fighting the terrorists will hold, and whether the United States can capture or kill terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

If America and its allies are to win the war against terrorism, then government must hold tight the hearts and minds of its citizens. That won't happen in a vacuum of reliable information. Government leaders must explain their actions, trumpet their victories and admit their failures. Ignorance, after all, breeds mistrust and contempt.

Mr. Bush and his counterterrorism experts must instead reassure Americans that government is responding to the threat, that potential targets have been identified and forewarned, and that law enforcement is taking specific and appropriate measures to secure local communities.

The alternative is to create a nation of isolationists, people who fear leaving home to enjoy the very freedoms that so define democracy. In a worst-case scenario, government leaders could be perceived as crying wolf. That could further alienate Americans from their elected officials and leave the nation even more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Should that happen, terrorists won't have to wage another battle on American soil. They will have won the war.




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