Duct and Cover

Al Qaeda's credibility vs. our vulnerability


Washington's Home Depots ran out of plastic sheets yesterday while I was doing the crossword puzzle, and that means that I'll have to face terrorist attack protected only by my yanked-down shower curtain. According to the pictures in the paper, spooked local shoppers were making a run on duct tape while I was making a sandwich, which means I'll have to seal my windows with the none-too-adhesive—if uselessly decorative—black duct tape that won't even keep a cardboard box closed. It even says here that Lynda Webster, the wife of the former FBI and CIA director, has cached a supply of charcoal. Charcoal? I didn't even realize I'd failed to stock up on charcoal.

I'm not recommending indifference in the face of security warnings. By all means be prudent and stock up on everything the government says you should have in your "safe room," plus those items the government's squeamish list-makers didn't mention, like enough chamber pots.

After all, the pressure is on whatever terror network is out there to try something. Somebody who may or may not be Osama bin Laden has released yet another audiotaped threat, and the government wants me to have enough fresh batteries. Fine.

But what interests me more than my canned-tuna shortage is the credibility bind of the world's Wahhabist terror psychotics. Bin Laden himself was caught on videotape some time ago preening over the slaughter of American office-workers and airline passengers; he interpreted his struggle with the West in terms of "strong horses" and "weak horses." You remember the tape: a quiet dinner among lunatics. Bin Laden at the time characterized himself as the "strong horse" of the race because his side had courageously killed a great many men and women at their desks, even as he laughably sought compliments and praise from a visiting Wahhabi sympathizer.

But bin Laden's nag has been trailing in the dirt for some laps, and it's not just Americans who can see that. People in the Middle East and Central Asia are acutely aware of it as well. Bin Laden's people were kicked out of Afghanistan handily enough, and have had to bide their time powerlessly in the middle of a borderless nowhere taking the occasional potshot, glorifying themselves with the occasional decapitation, or pointlessly incinerating vacationing Australians in Bali.

Now comes the impending American invasion of Iraq. The United States will establish a powerful presence in the region from which many unpredictable consequences are likely to flow. But one of the most important aspects of American control of Iraq will be that the U.S. can then distance its economy from Saudi oil. That in turn presents a long-term threat to the money that reportedly flows from Saudi Arabia to underwrite Wahhabist hate and terror. It no surprise that bin Laden (or his imitator) has enunciated common cause with the secular socialism of Iraqi Ba'thism. Bin Laden staked his long-term jihad on the unwillingness of the West to defend itself. He appears to have been right about much of Europe, but not about the United States. Whoever is running his organization needs to act, if indeed it can. Its popular credibility, so apparently important to the Wahhabist cause, could hang in the balance. Bin Laden's (or whoever's) outfit may well attempt something, and people in Washington, New York and elsewhere should obviously take the precautions they think appropriate. As for me, I'm sticking with a lesson I learned here in Washington's grade schools. During the Cold War, I was instructed from time to time to hide under my desk as part of "Duck and Cover" drills. This would happen in classrooms from which I could see every structural rib of the nearby Capitol Dome. It soon occurred to me that if nukes started landing in the neighborhood, the act of crawling under my desk was as undesirable as it was futile. I'm no more inclined today to seal myself in an airless inner room for days on end than I was to hunker uselessly under my old desk. While I can't see the Capitol Dome outside my window these days, with a little trouble I can make out the obelisk of the Washington Monument, and I'll just stay in sight of that.