Age of Anxiety. (Editorials)

Article excerpt

A spate of recent terrorism events--the bombing of a French tanker, the destruction of a nightclub in Bali, an FBI warning of a "spectacular" Al Qaeda action and the surfacing of a new Osama bin Laden tape indicating that the Al Qaeda leader is still alive--has pushed up the already elevated national anxiety level. The New York Times reported that Gothamites are "more fearful" these days, even though the crime rate has dropped. "All across the political spectrum," says Fred Siegel, a history professor, "there is just an uneasiness, a sense that something is happening, though people can't put their finger on it." Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly attributes the uneasiness to fear of terrorism.

In the recent election, George W. Bush strummed voters' anxieties in sync with political adviser Karl Rove's score, derived from polls showing people believe the GOP is stronger on national security than the Democrats. And just this week Bush won passage of his Homeland Security Bill, even though its most immediate results will be to remove job protections from thousands of federal workers and line the pockets of GOP corporate contributors.

In the same issue of the Times was this headline: "Are You Safer Today Than a Year Ago?" Good question. The battered Democrats should have asked it. The response of Tom Ridge, Bush's domestic security adviser, was a Pollyannaish: "Every single day, the nation gets safer." Really? Consider:

* A US attack on Iraq will very likely provoke more terrorism in the form of retaliatory strikes against the United States, as even the CIA has warned. This, of course, was part of bin Laden's threats on the recent tape. The war will foment anti-American rage among radical Islamists and provide added incentives for suicidal hits by Al Qaeda and other groups.

* The Administration's Iraq war is eclipsing what should be the main effort in the war on terrorism--knitting together a smart, agile, global antiterrorist network of national intelligence, police and financial agencies. Instead, the Administration invests its diplomatic capital in co-opting the United Nations and bullying UN members to line up behind the unpopular anti-Saddam crusade. Many allies spend more time and energy trying to contain us than in combating international terrorism.

* The focus on Iraq has overshadowed the greater dangers of Russia's very real, very insecure nuclear arsenal and North Korea's possible one. More Nunn-Lugar Act funds are needed to deal with the former, and more diplomatic talk, the latter.

* The looming threat of war--now on, now on hold--contributes to the pervasive uncertainty and uneasiness, fueling concerns about casualties, costs, higher oil prices, a sagging economy and a roller-coaster stock market. Americans worry about losing their jobs, that their 401(k) won't be there when they need it. The consumer confidence index dips. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan lists war jitters among the factors contributing to the sluggish recovery.

* Al Qaeda and Taliban forces show renewed signs of life in Afghanistan, indicating the job still isn't done. Gen. Richard Myers recently suggested that the United States ought to be devoting more effort to reconstruction than to military operations (America has spent billions on the war and thus far $850 million on humanitarian aid and reconstruction), and the CIA has concluded: "Reconstruction may be the single most important factor in increasing security throughout Afghanistan and preventing it from again becoming a haven for terrorists. …