Americans and a dangerous world

Despite missile and terror threats, experts urge vigilance and alertness, not panic.

The week when duct tape was called up to help fight the war on terrorism, and much of the West Coast learned it could be within range of a North Korean missile attack, may go down as the week the United States began to understand what the phrase "orange level" threat truly means.

In recent days a confluence of events has produced something of a national sense of foreboding, particularly in the northeast and other areas thought likely terrorist targets. Any one of them - UN conflict over the confrontation with Iraq; North Korea's nuclear belligerence; the drumbeat of warnings that terror strikes are imminent - is serious enough by itself. Taken together they might make some officials long for the stability of the cold war.

The 19th-century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz warned commanders to "beware the vividness of transient events," meaning that it is easy to overreact to the news of the day. Today that might be good advice for every American.

But to guard against overreaction does not mean to ignore it. "The important thing is to seek precautions and to live a normal life. I think it is plausible to do that," says Marc Gopin, an expert on conflict resolution at Tufts University's Fletcher School.

In some instances the threats that the US public heard about this week were not so much new as newly said. The happenstance of the scheduling of congressional hearings gave the heads of the FBI and CIA multiple forums from which to emphasize their views about the dangers posed by both a resurgent Al Qaeda and North Korea, among others.

US intelligence agencies have warned for several years that Pyongyang might test and deploy its Taepodong 2 ballistic missile, for instance, and that the missile might have an intercontinental reach. But to point out that such a weapon might be able to strike California and other points on the US west coast, as director of Central Intelligence George Tenet did on Wednesday, is to put a vivid face on that danger.

Mr. Tenet added that North Korea's recent rush to nukes has taken place in what he terms an "upsurge" in the desire for nuclear weapons. Once some states see their regional rivals acquiring such capability, they might want them too.

"The 'domino theory' of the 21st century may well be nuclear," said Tenet.

What he did not say was that the US reaction to North Korea's actions might in itself boost that trend. The US is angrily confronting an apparently nonnuclear Iraq. It is treating an apparently nuclear-armed Pyongyang with great care.

In the mid-to-longer term, North Korea is at least as grave a danger to US interests as Iraq.

"The problem with North Korea is the unpredictability with this wild gambit he's playing ... I think it's a very serious threat," says Marc Goppin of the Fletcher School.

But the threat most Americans were concerned with this week was Al Qaeda. The government's warning that ordinary households should prepare a "safe room" capable of being sealed up with plastic sheeting and filled with food and water prompted mob scenes at hardware stores in some areas of the country.

Experts debated whether the plastic would do any good. The consensus seemed to be that if given the proper warnings - a big "if" - Americans might protect themselves for a period of time from chemical, biological, or radiological attack via such methods.

But the main purpose of the warning might have been to ready the nation mentally for coming challenges.

"I think we should always be in this mode because this is the reality of the world today," says Bruce Hoffman, a Rand Corp. expert on terrorism.

During the last Gulf crisis, terrorism seemed regionally contained, something of concern mainly to those who lived in the Middle East or perhaps the capitals of Europe. The realization that it now has worldwide reach had been a shock of cosmic proportions in America, says Mr. Hoffman.

Meanwhile, North Korea is acting up, and France and Germany seem more concerned about a threat to world order posed by the United States than by Saddam Hussein. The end of the Cold War has seemed less an end of history than an unfreezing of it.

"Twelve years ago we won the Cold War and we were on top. Now we don't think we feel like we're on top anymore," says Bruce Hoffman of Rand.

Yet the US seems increasingly not just the world's lone superpower, but its main target. That feeds a national uneasiness, according to Hoffman.

"Today we see great disorder with not much to be entirely complacent about," he says. "We see many threats in many places, and threats across the entire conflict spectrum."

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