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Closer to home, an omnipresent enemy and a climate of fear have always served to unite fractured societies and reinvent politicians' mandate for power.
"These terror alerts are just another way for us all to come togetherin an albeit superficial way, and reaffirm our moral ties to each other," says Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at NYU. "We are all closer together because we are not like the Axis of Evil. It's public unity, an act of moral cohesion, but for a political end."
This phenomenon may explain why Shrub, a year after squeaking into the White House on a few hanging chads, is now being considered next to Abe Lincoln and John F. Kennedy as the greatest American president, according to an ABC News poll. His rise is fueled in part by a nation's fear, but he'll have to keep pumping out warnings in order for them to work. "Think of each alert like sex, just the morning after," Conley says. "The afterglow is nice for awhile, but it quickly disappoints.
The Bush administration likes to brand the fight against terrorism as a new kind of war, with new enemies and new rules, but using fear to push policy has been an actual play in the White House book since the Truman administration began commissioning behavioral studies on "emotion management" during the early days of Cold War hysteria.
In 1948, Truman oversaw a secret and unusual study, Project East River, which looked into ways of using paranoia to control behavior. The results, according to political scientist Andrew Grossman, who uncovered reams of information for his book, Neither Dead nor Red, were simple.
"Fear is good, panic is bad," Grossman says. "The Project found that fear could be usedchanneledto mobilize the people and push Cold War policy. With panic, however, they figured the shoe might fall off."
To prevent hysteria, the Project suggested calibrating the unease of the public by performing "ritualized training behavior," or civil defense. This meant duck-and-cover drills, bomb-shelter preparation, and asking citizens to keep a careful watch on others. Such measures gave people a sense of control over their fate, just as Pat and Susan Smith's getaway Suburban helps them believe the effects of doomsday catastrophe can at least be outrun.
Truman established agencies to oversee these programsthe U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration (think Office of Homeland Security) and the Civil Defense Corps (think Bush's Freedom Corps) to teach civic vigilance. "It was social control," says Grossman. "Much more powerful than propaganda."
Just as the Bush administration signed up with the Rendon Groupand briefly floated the idea of a media-twisting Office of Strategic InfluenceTruman's Civil Defense Administration kept its own PR team. Between 1952 and 1958, the agency produced over 250 million pieces of literature, like flyers, pocket guides, and training manuals. The basic message: Through civic vigilance comes nuclear salvation. The office also hit the road to sell civil defense with a traveling circus called Alert America. With three motorized convoyseach boasting 10 specially painted 32-foot trailersAlert America could travel into 82 cities in a year and reach over a million citizens. "SEE THE INSIDE STORY OF ATOMIC WAR," howls one of the Truman posters, above a cute picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud.
The problem, however, isn't the propaganda messages hidden within these freaky relics of the Cold War, but in emergency planning between federal and state agencies. In Truman's day, local agencies began to develop their own civil defense corps. Soon the federal and state policies overlapped, and bureaucracy grew bloated. With friction between agencies, the effectiveness of emergency response systems suffered.
Under Bush, local police have already begun complaining the FBI alerts make their jobs tougher. The means in place for public warnings are patchwork, at best. In late February, to combat the confusion, homeland security director Tom Ridge announced the development of a new terrorism alert system. Ridge gave few specifics, but public-warning experts say a four-step program is under consideration, and alerts will be labeled with vocabulary the public can easily understand: Critical, Serious, Alert, Ready. The catch, according to Ridge, is that each state's governor must sign off on the plan, or the scheme won't work.
But in the minds of citizens, the long-term effects of numerous alerts, stacked on top of each other, will be either mass anxiety or mental inoculation. "If the FBI's game is stimulus-response, they haven't followed through with the reward," says Dr. Fields. "There could be serious psychiatric consequences."
She brings up the example of lab mice. If given an electric shock, the animals will do anything to reduce the pain. That's how they learn, just classic conditioning. But if the mice are given no way to stop the shockjust as a citizen can do nothing to prevent a terrorist attack with the FBI's informationthe critters go crazy.
Humans interpret information differently from mice, Fields says, and some will simply shrug the alerts off. Others will experience lasting anxiety.
The Smiths' oldest son started sleepwalking after September 11, and the family turned to Fields for help. They couldn't eliminate the threat of terror, she told them, but they could calm their panicky nerves. Take precautions, she advised. Do something, anything, besides panic. Be vigilant. Be prepared.