Elsewhere in the Triangle, vigilance is no less thorough. Raleigh officials set up a 72-hour command post in the basement of City Hall after the U.S. launched its Iraq campaign. Durham residents wandering into City Hall must show an ID; absent one, they'll need an appointment and an escort. The News & Observer published a full-page disaster preparedness guide, which offered useful snippets on what to do in the event of biological and chemical warfare. (Example: "Many people will suffer from watery eyes, twitching, choking, breathing trouble or coordination loss. Watch for these signs.")
Most of the preparation, for obvious reasons, is being done behind the scenes. Given the potential for disaster, one can surely believe that getting within thwacking distance of Shearon Harris or any other nuclear power plant by air, land or sea hasn't been possible for more than a year. Few know the extent of the Department of Homeland Security's Operation Liberty Shield, which calls for stepped-up protection of bridges, railroad hubs and other vital transporation links. And a source inside KCI Tower Systems of Hillsborough says his company is building towers in the Southeast for the feds (he wouldn't give precise locations) equipped with "sniffers," which can detect chemical and biological weapons. The towers, according to the source, can also monitor cell phone conversations.
Imagine the consequences, visible and invisible, if Tom Ridge announces Code Red.
Thus far, the increased security has netted zero terrorists in the Triangle. That's not surprising, as even law enforcement types acknowledge that we're probably not very high on the target list, though no one wants to admit that we're too insignificant to interest the forces of evil. N.C. State may envision itself as a world-class institution of overriding importance, but it's probably not considered Ground Zero in the caves of Afghanistan. Yet the beauty of the latest wave of paranoid precautions lies in those odds--the phantom deterrent effect can always be claimed, even as it can never be measured. Duck and cover your ass.
The increased vigilance will likely continue at least until the feds relax the emergency color code from orange to yellow. But why end it there? Who will be the one to shoulder the blame for relaxing security, only to have a bombing or other terrorist act on their watch? The idea of a 72-hour command post or color-coding scheme assumes that terrorists will act recklessly, on emotion, doing their nefarious deeds when we're most prepared to stop them. It would indeed be nice if terrorists were so incredibly stupid, if a phalanx of fanatics had attempted to smuggle explosives on airplanes in their shoes the minute airports started demanding that travelers run their footwear through X-ray machines. Unfortunately, most are not. The key to Sept. 11, after all, was the element of surprise.
So it makes no sense to ease off the security gas pedal or do anything short of jamming it to the floor, unless it made no sense to begin with. But no one seems willing to risk the accusation of being soft on terror, no matter how absurd or gonzo the current measures may be.
The fact is, if terrorists had infiltrated our borders in appreciable numbers, they would have struck when we were most vulnerable--shortly after Sept. 11, when the president was beating his chest and blustering about eliminating terrorism from the planet. How easy it would have been at the time to undermine the already shaky confidence of the American people by taking action. In Houston, for example, where miles of exposed petrochemical pipelines traverse the city and many more miles of railroad track carry hundreds of tank cars loaded with ammonia and other deadly substances every day, wreaking havoc with a surgical explosion would have been both simple and cheap. Nor would any such action require a monumental, World-Trade-scale disaster to have the desired effect. Think sniper.
Still, there's no shortage of problem people roaming the streets. A handful are doubtless foreign nationals with a pathological hatred of the United States, itching for vengeance. The overwhelming majority, however, are loyal, patriotic Americans who also happen to be murderers, rapists and thieves. Well before terrorism entered the national lexicon, communities had an extensive, quite functional security apparatus to deal with such characters. Human experience shows it's impossible to plan for every criminal eventuality in advance. Locking down every public institution in North Carolina won't make us any safer from our own citizens, let alone the minions of Osama Bin Laden. Searching every car on I-40 won't stop a determined foe.
That doesn't keep our fearful leaders from trying. Among the many recommendations of both national and local officials, citizens are being urged to report suspicious activity to the police. This, according to authorities, includes people taking pictures or conducting surveillance (as though the average Joe knows what surveillance looks like). If citizens take this to heart, it won't be long before would-be snitches are deluging law enforcement agencies with calls they'll dutifully have to track down, in the interest of terrorism prevention.
The tangible result of all this will be a massive drain of personnel and financial resources away from demonstrably needed services, including the prevention, investigation and prosecution of garden-variety crime. If asked, of course, officialdom will claim that nothing will be sacrificed in the interest of heightened security. Such pronouncements are disingenuous at best. The cost to North Carolinians has not been calculated beyond the general assumption that it's already in the millions, with millions more to come. This at a time when the state faces its worst budget crisis in memory, forcing cuts in education, healthcare and other essential services.
The more subtle effects are perhaps more insidious. The panic and siege mentality that has taken hold in the public conscience, the dissolution of trust and faith in one's neighbors, the idea that They Walk Among Us, is rapidly transforming the social and political landscape in a way that only two groups would find desirable: those interested in establishing a police state, and the terrorists themselves.
Only a cynic would suggest that the directives to be prepared for chemical attacks or dirty bombs, report outsiders to the authorities or otherwise watch your back is a strategic ploy to instill fear in the populace and grease the wheels for unsavory actions at home and abroad. Only a conspiracy theorist would believe that the administration engages in domestic psy-ops. And only an abject pessimist would conclude that people are blindly swallowing the fist-sized pill that's been prescribed as the antidote to the terrorist threat. But it's time for folks to get out of the reactive mode, establish sensible priorities, use sound judgment and play the odds.
At least in some circles, sanity is prevailing. Several states have refused to join the federal color-coding alert system, preferring to assess threats themselves based on facts, not vague rumors fed from above. Duct tape and plastic sheeting have become household jokes, if not household supplies. In Chapel Hill, UNC police chief Derek Poarch says he's not following N.C. State's lead in conducting random vehicle checks. "I don't know what their reasoning is," Poarch says. "We're not doing it, and have no plans to do it."
It may be too much to ask those responsible for the current, laughable response in North Carolina to show a little backbone, a little leadership, a little critical thinking, commodities in woefully short supply throughout the ranks of authority. But the cost of playing the lemming on terrorism is way too great to avoid the question. We may already be hurtling off the cliff.