- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2001

It is certainly a cause for worry when the attorney general of the United States shows up on national television, ashen-faced and puffy-eyed, heaving heavy sighs before going into a hastily called news briefing on terrorism the way John Ashcroft did on Monday. A religious man, Mr. Ashcroft looked like he might have said a little prayer as he went before the cameras. The world appeared to be resting on his shoulders it was very easy to feel sympathy for him.

Even so, you wonder how useful Mr. Ashcroft's warning really was. "The administration has concluded," he said, "based on information developed, that there may be additional terrorists attacks within the United States and against U.S. interests over the next week." Warnings are much appreciated these days, of course, but against what? Who knows? "The administration views this information as credible, but unfortunately it does not contain specific information as to the type of attack or specific targets," said the attorney general.

Mr. Ashcroft's intentions may have been good, but everybody around here is already as alert as they can be, while still being functional at the same time. If we all end up on tranquilizers, we won't be alert at all. And the United States has already been through one general warning from the FBI on Oct. 11, though nothing happened at the time. Yesterday, the director of homeland security, Tom Ridge, echoed Mr. Ashcroft's remarks to the effect that "credible information from multiple sources" here and abroad indicates that Osama bin Laden may be about to strike again. But, again, he declined to provide any specifics. Sorry, but we really don't need this.

Information about an immediate threat is clearly important for the police, and Mr. Ashcroft did say that 18,000 law enforcement agencies had been placed on "the highest alert." It is also important information for the terrorists, who will hopefully abandon their dastardly deeds, knowing that the U.S. government is hot on their trail. But there could have been better ways to relay this message perhaps as a strongly worded threat of "don't you dare."

Indeed, what are Americans to make of all this when the president at the same time signals he is determined to go about business as usual. Last night, Mr. Bush attended the third Giants-Diamondbacks game of the World Series in Yankee Stadium in New York. It's great that the president is confident enough to venture out among tens of thousands of baseball fans, but he might try to convey a little of that spirit to members of his Cabinet, who look like they need it. That goes for a lot of news organizations as well, who are not shy about feeling hysterical. (Please see related editorial opposite.)

It is not surprising that Americans are feeling more pessimistic about the government's ability to handle the terrorist attacks than they did a month ago. According to a survey released yesterday by CBS News and the New York Times, 53 percent now believe the government has not done enough to prepare for biological attack, and less than half thought the government was telling them enough about what is going on with the anthrax attacks. The war in Afghanistan is still receiving high levels of support, 88 percent, but only 28 percent are now confident that we will kill or capture terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Just 25 percent think the war is going well. For the president, the good news is that 87 percent of Americans approve of the way he is doing his job, an extraordinarily high number, comparable only to the first President Bush's ratings during the Gulf War. The other good news is that the president has assumed the leadership mantle. The bad news is that, unfortunately, it does not quite extend to members of his Cabinet, perhaps for the reasons stated above.

Monday, the president presided over the first meeting of the "Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force," which is to focus on detaining, locating and prosecuting terrorists in the United States. Given that nine of the hijackers came into this country on student visas, the process of issuing those documents will come under particular scrutiny. Immigration in general will also be a target for the task force. You cannot possibly argue with the idea that U.S. borders need tighter control in the wake of what happened. That's a given. And yet, there remains a nagging doubt that the domestic war on terrorism could victimize innocent people of Middle Eastern extraction. The fact that we are on edge does not excuse our laws and regulations from conforming with Americans' principles of justice.

So, Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Ridge need to keep their heads cool, do their jobs, avoid fanning hysteria and quit issuing ominous warnings that are of no use to most Americans.

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