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.”
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 together—in 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 used—channeled—to 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 programs—the 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 Group—and briefly floated the idea of a media-twisting Office of Strategic Influence—Truman’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 convoys—each boasting 10 specially painted 32-foot trailers—Alert 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 shock—just as a citizen can do nothing to prevent a terrorist attack with the FBI’s information—the 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.
Susan, at first, could not sleep. The sound of fighter jets floating over the Capitol made her tense. Now she finds the sound of the roaring engines soothing. “You can say George Bush is taking this too far,” she says. “I don’t think so. He has a purpose. He really has a plan. And it doesn’t hurt to become aware of the fact that there’s evil out there. And that evil is targeted at America. Don’t let the anxiety take over. Empower yourself!”