Bush's Little Shop of Horrors

Where Fear Is Always on Sale—and the Truth Is Made to Order

Pat and Susan Smith keep a getaway car. Actually, it's more like a truck, a four-wheel-drive Suburban ready and waiting in the garage, with the 40-gallon tank filled with gasoline, just in case. Since the big attacks in September and the wave of FBI-issued terror alerts that have followed, the Smiths have been planning escape routes.

"Everything has changed," says Susan, 39, from her home near the Pentagon. "We don't feel secure anymore."

The White House statement in Time this week—that the U.S. remains vulnerable to an attack possibly deadlier than anything we've seen before—will do nothing to soothe a public expecting the worst. Down in the garage, next to 20 gallons of bottled water, the Smiths now keep a box of supplies. Inside: canned green beans, corn, and carrots; a manual can opener; crackers; first aid bandages and antibiotic ointment; iodine pills to ward off the effects of nuclear radiation; and a pocket knife for hunting. "There are people out there that hate Americans," she says. "They want to kill us, and for no reason."

Susan and those like her suffer from Acute Prolonged Stress Syndrome, according to Dr. Rona Fields, a Washington, D.C., psychologist who specializes in trauma and terrorism. The cause is uncertainty. A feeling of helplessness. Inability to control the future. The resulting symptoms of fear and anxiety are more common these days, according to Dr. Fields, who attributes them in large part to the constant, occasionally confusing terror alerts issued by the FBI.

The threats are credible, but not specific, say the feds. And the warnings are serious, yet seemingly futile. Stimulus, with no response. Every time John Ashcroft rings the terror bell, Fields says, more patients find their way into her office, and the mental health of the nation suffers.

"It's a vicious cycle," she says. "We're put on a state of alert, like we're given an electric shock, but we're not given any way to reduce the pain."

The FBI, so far, has issued a lot of shocks. Since September 11, there have been, count 'em, 43 terrorism alerts, according to the Bureau. Some have shaken more nerves than others. In December, Ashcroft told the country to be on "high alert" until early March, after the Olympics. But before the closing ceremonies, the FBI called for "the highest state of alert," reminding citizens to be vigilant and releasing 13 fuzzy photos of men with dark skin and long last names. After so many vague alerts, many based on uncorroborated evidence, it's fair to ask, What's the point? Why spook a country that's already spooked?

The FBI press office says agents acquire the information, analyze it, then huddle with other branches of government like the CIA and the Office of Homeland Security to decide if it should be made public. That's all. "We're not trying to instill fear," says a spokesperson. "Terrorism is a reality; that's the fear."

For those on the woolly left, however, and a few academics and Washington insiders, there's another force driving homeland security: politics. "It's second nature for any system of power to try and inspire fear," Noam Chomsky, the noted linguist and author of 9-11, tells the Voice. "Bush's managers realize they only have one card to play. Would you direct him to focus the attention of the population on tax cuts or other gifts for the rich? Or on the Enron scandal, or the deliberate destruction of a decent environment for our grandchildren? Or would it be preferable to construct the image of a noble hero driving evil from the world while the population huddles in fear of monsters from whom our dauntless savior will rescue us? No choice."

Bush shows no sign of taking his foot off the nation's—and the world's—adrenal glands. In February, the Pentagon extended its $100,000-a-month contract with the Rendon Group, a global PR firm hired on a no-bid basis to fight the psychological war abroad. Details are classified, but in the past, the company has provided focus groups, Web sites, news leads for foreign reporters, and government contacts for an exclusive, international client list that includes the CIA, Monsanto, and the trade agencies of Bulgaria, Uzbekistan, and Russia.

During the Gulf War, Rendon furnished Kuwaiti citizens with American flags, and also boosted the CIA's effort to oust Saddam Hussein from power, producing videos, radio skits mocking Hussein, and a traveling photo exhibit. The campaign urged Iraqi officers to defect, according to PR Watch, a Washington nonprofit. Rendon also worked closely with the Iraqi National Congress—they even crafted the anti-Hussein group's name—and according to a 1998 ABC News report, channeled it over $12 million in covert CIA aid during Clinton's tenure.

Rendon is only one arm of the current administration's psychological war on terrorism. Another PR campaign, headed by Charlotte Beers, the former Madison Avenue CEO turned State Department undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, aims to produce pro-American television shows, featuring celebrities and sports stars, with "emotional messages." Her office "is a vital new arm that will combat terrorism over time," she told Advertising Age.

In the Arab world, however, media critics aren't convinced the ad campaign will stick. "The United States lost the public relations war in the Middle East a long time ago," says Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News. "They could have the Prophet Muhammad doing public relations and it wouldn't help."

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