Connecting neighborhood dots

As an average citizen trying to do my duty in the war against terrorism, a key issue looms large every day: How vigilant am I supposed to be?

The messages coming out of Washington are not very specific. President Bush, John Ashcroft, and Tom Ridge all continue to emphasize that we are facing a dangerous enemy, new attacks on America are being planned, and everyone needs to remain alert.

All well and good, but the Beltway policymakers are operating at the macro level. I'm experiencing daily life from the micro level. The FBI has been excoriated for allegedly failing to "connect the dots" as it searched for evidence of terrorist activities. As I stroll along Main Street, there seem to be dots popping up everywhere, but the problem is knowing if any of them are connectable.

A few days ago, I stepped out of a cafe and saw a man talking on a pay phone. Why was he doing that? I have read numerous stories about how pay phone usage has been severely eroded by the widespread use of wireless phones. But pay phones offer a high level of anonymity, so they are still popular with people conducting illegal enterprises. Perhaps the man I saw was exchanging information with a cohort about the construction and detonation of a "dirty" nuclear device.

A short time later, I was picking up some dry cleaning when a green van pulled into the parking lot and came to a screeching halt. The driver then made a quick U-turn and sped off in the opposite direction. There was a bumper sticker on the van that displayed the emblem of the US Marine Corps and the slogan "Semper Fi." It seemed like exactly the kind of trick terrorists might use to deflect suspicion from a vehicle that was packed with dangerous substances.

Back at my house the same afternoon, I looked out the front window and saw a truck driving slowly along the street. It was emblazoned with the name of a local package delivery firm I had never heard of. Was someone casing my neighborhood?

I was immediately reminded of the original TV version of "Mission: Impossible." On that show, Greg Morris and Peter Lupus often fooled security guards in foreign countries by donning gray coveralls and driving a panel truck labeled "Compana de Gaz."

I didn't report any of these incidents to law-enforcement agencies. Was that a mistake? Did I fail to connect the dots? When does personal vigilance in pursuit of homeland security slide into the realm of paranoia?

I have a feeling that a big part of my mission in the months and years ahead will be to figure out the answers on my own.

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