Share this article

print logo

MIXED MESSAGES ON RISKS AND REVELRY

Fear of terrorism is putting Uncle Sam in a bind as an anxious nation waits to greet the new millennium.

The federal government, issuing a stream of cautious terrorism warnings in recent days, is trying to send a delicate two-part message -- urging the public to be alert for potential catastrophe while assuring Americans that everything is under control.

This mixed message has been evident in virtually all the public warnings and alerts issued by government leaders as the year 2000 approaches. The message seems to be: Terrorists may be lurking, but don't panic or stay home.

"They are trying to strike a balance between alerting people and encouraging them to be extra-vigilant, but not giving the terrorists a victory by cowing people into changing their behavior or not enjoying the holiday season," said William Barr, who served as attorney general in the George Bush administration.

The difficulty with such a two-pronged message, some experts say, is that it runs the risk of becoming meaningless, leaving the public uncertain about just how serious the threat is and whether to attend the season's festive gatherings.

The most recent example came Thursday, when the FBI warned that individuals in Frankfurt, Germany, might be planning to send bombs in small parcels addressed to the United States.

The information is "unsubstantiated," the FBI said, and the public was being notified only "out of an abundance of caution," but that did not mean the threat was not serious. "Questionable packages should not be handled, and local authorities should be notified," the bureau said.

There were these other scares on Thursday:

Citing the increased threats of terrorist attacks, the U.S. Energy Department ordered extra security precautions at the nation's nuclear weapons production and development facilities, as well as other DOE installations.

FBI agents in New Jersey arrested a man who allegedly threatened in an Internet chat room to use a truck bomb to blow up a tunnel leading into New York City. Though the FBI said the threat appeared to be a hoax, bomb-sniffing dogs and extra police were assigned to guard the heavily used Lincoln and Holland tunnels.

A 25-year-old man was arrested Thursday at Newark International Airport after telling a customs agent he had a bomb. Police said no bomb was found after a search.

Khalid Mateen of Elizabeth was boarding an Air Canada flight bound for Toronto at 3:15 p.m. When asked by an agent if he had anything to declare, Mateen said he had a bomb in his bag, said Port Authority spokesman Alan Hicks. Charges are pending, Hicks said.

As agencies began receiving reports over the past few days of potential violence aimed at U.S. citizens in this country and abroad, they found they had two priorities.

On the one hand, they wanted to encourage citizens to attend festivities. The Clinton administration, after all, has invested substantial energy in New Year's 2000, sponsoring a series of "millennium evenings" at the White House and planning an America's Millennium Gala at the Lincoln Memorial on Dec. 31.

Several cities, including Seattle and Las Vegas, have dramatically scaled back their estimates of tourists expected to attend long-planned public New Year's and millennium parties. Merchants in Las Vegas described a run on such disaster-related items as gas masks and bulletproof vests.

The Washington gala, to be hosted by actor-musician Will Smith, will include remarks by President Clinton, performances by well-known artists and an original movie by Steven Spielberg.

The last thing the administration wants is for people to stay away from that event and similar ones designed to create a feeling of well-being about the nation and its accomplishments.

Authorities also do not want to prompt a flood of calls to police by a petrified public. Nor do they want to give any ideas to violent fanatics.

On the other hand, concrete incidents have alerted federal agencies to real threats. Ahmed Ressam was arrested in Washington state last week when authorities allegedly found bomb-making materials in his car after he crossed the border from Canada.

On Thursday, prosecutors persuaded a federal court to hold two other suspects in jail who had been arrested earlier this week at a Canadian border crossing in Vermont. Prosecutors say they have linked one of the suspects, Lucia Garofalo, to the Algerian Islamic League, which they say has terrorist leanings.

Meanwhile, Jordan has arrested 13 suspected terrorists purportedly planning attacks against the United States.

Some suggest the agencies are issuing the warnings in part so that, if a tragedy does occur, they cannot be blamed for not warning people or for not being on top of the situation.

"It is done in order to say afterwards, 'We told you, and we did our duty, and it's too bad if you were injured or killed or damaged,' " said Emilio Viano, an American University terrorism expert. "It's a reflection of the type of times we're living in that people want to cover themselves, to minimize the finger-pointing in case anything happens."

But as people are told both that there is no reason to stay away from large celebrations and to keep an eye out for suspicious packages if they do attend, there is a risk the message will become meaningless, some say.

"I think it is muddled, but there is no way out of it," said Viano, who serves as an adviser to the crime prevention branch of the United Nations. "The government, for obvious reasons, has the duty to inform people. On the other hand, they don't want to offend the tourist industry."

The president expressed this duality in an interview with CNN's Larry King on Wednesday.

"My advice to the American people would be to go on about their business and do what they would intend to do at the holiday season, but to be a little more aware of people and places where they find themselves," Clinton said.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart acknowledged that "there is something of a balancing act here."

Over the past week and a half, alerts have been issued by the State Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the armed forces, the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies.

These warnings have supplanted the fears of a Y2K computer glitch among some segments of the public. "There is a certain psychosis developing, and I hope they tone it down in the next week," Viano said.

There are no comments - be the first to comment