US caught between alarm, calm

Even as Bush urges Americans to resume daily lives, warnings from his team underscore the need not to undersell the new risks.

As the United States struggles to recover from the events of Sept. 11, Washington is facing a difficult task of national leadership: how to reassure Americans that they are largely safe, but that the nation still risks dangerous terrorist attacks.

It's a mixed message that requires something of a mixed communications strategy. Thus President Bush last week traveled to Chicago's O'Hare airport and urged wary fliers to "get on board." Days later, Attorney General John Ashcroft warned of unspecified future terror activity, perhaps sparked by any US military retaliation in the Mideast.

The situation is so complicated - and the US has so many top officials - that the administration won't always be able to find the proper balance between comfort and caution. Some analysts judged Mr. Ashcroft's warnings too vague to be of use, for instance.

But in the weeks and months ahead, the confidence of US citizens in the government's war against terrorism may depend crucially on whether they believe leaders are telling them the truth about the nature of the road ahead. In that regard, sugar-coating might not be helpful.

"It would be foolhardy of us not to prepare for this changed world," says David Murray, an expert in risk assessment and director of the Statistical Assessment Service in Washington.

To this point, the role of President Bush himself has been one of comforter-in-chief. He has continually urged a return to normal routines, perhaps in part because a decline in consumer confidence threatens further damage to the already sputtering economy.

Promoting air travel has been only part of it. He's pushed for a return to eating out, too: Recently he had a well-publicized meal at a Washington steakhouse with the city's mayor, Anthony Williams.

Bush warned bluntly of war in the days following the terrorist attacks. But he has largely refrained from discussions about whether such a campaign means US lifestyles will have to be curtailed.

How much hardship?

His hope is that in this battle Americans will have to "make no sacrifice whatsoever," he told a reporter on Sept. 15.

In contrast, John F. Kennedy struck much more dire themes in his warnings to the nation during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. "Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline" lay ahead, he said at the time.

The situations were different, of course - the nation's very existence seemed at risk in 1962 in a way that it does not today, despite the scale of the destruction at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

And the Bush administration isn't just telling Americans to not worry, and be happy. But it's other officials, as opposed to the president himself, who have shouldered most of the burden of delivering bad news.

Thus Attorney General Ashcroft, as the nation's chief law enforcement officer, has been blunt about the problem: There are likely terrorists in the US that haven't yet been caught. The obvious conclusion is that there is a "very serious threat" of continued attacks, he said last week.

The context of Ashcroft's words may have created some unfortunate reactions, however. Coming while memories of the September attacks are still fresh, and without much qualifying information as to where or when terrorists might again strike, they may have fed nameless, unspecified fears.

A rush for gas masks

Primary among these worries: weapons of mass destruction. In particular, the specter of biological or chemical warfare has arguably agitated a significant minority of the population.

Last Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card noted in a broadcast interview that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network has "probably found the means" to acquire bio- or chemical weapons.

Some in Washington, at least, have reacted strongly to this threat. Sally Quinn, an author and wife of former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, wrote a column this week in which she unapologetically described an effort to find gas masks for her family.

Some spouses of top government officials are doing the same, she claims, whether their husbands or wives know it or not.

Bioterrorism is a real threat, note experts. How acute that threat is depends on the person you talk to.

But most agree that if nothing else, the best defense against it is a collective effort to expose terrorist networks, or collective civil-defense efforts.

"People are running out and buying gas masks, and other things of marginal value," says William Waugh Jr., a Georgia State University professor of public administration and author of books on emergency management. "It would be helpful to get people to sense this is a long-term thing."

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