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Terror's greatest enemy is the truth

Published Sep. 16, 2005

If you hesitated, even for a moment, while making your vacation plans, they got you.

If you were held up on your last trans-Atlantic flight while your luggage was X-rayed, had to give up some of your leisure time to sit around the airport after an early check-in time or switched destinations or airlines with personal safety in mind, they got you.

And if you are leery about entering a governmental building or delayed for a moment in your course by having to empty your pockets for a security employee, they got you.

That's how terrorism works.

The people who die in a terrorist attack are its immediate victims, but the plan is for all the rest of us to become subsequent victims. Politicians scramble for answers _ any answers. Rumors become facts, become rumors, become facts with strobelike rapidity, and early assumptions solidify into accepted axioms without ever having been forged in the crucible of examination.

And they got you again.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, it was treated as an almost foregone conclusion that Arab groups somehow were involved. Nobody has been convicted yet, but if those charged are indeed convicted, it will turn out that the only ethnic group involved was one composed of unhyphenated people with very peculiar versions of what being an American is about. If anybody got around to saying, "sorry," to Arab and Arab-American residents, merchants and schoolchildren, it somehow got lost in the shuffle.

In the aftermath of the crash of TWA Flight 800, a vaguely worded threat made in a letter to an Arabic-language newspaper surfaced briefly and then disappeared _ as did a call to a Tampa television station from somebody claiming to be a spokesman for Jihad.

Come on, folks. Anybody can write vague predictions that can be applied to later facts with "gee-whiz" awe. What do you think horoscope columns and psychic hot lines are about?

And if you don't think any moron can pick up a telephone and make a telephone call saying anything he or she wants to, you should answer my telephone for a week. My favorite this month is the guy who says the Holocaust didn't happen, but if it did, it was a Jewish plot to make Hitler look bad.

When disasters like Flight 800 happen, we all _ all _ jump in to make things worse.

Conditioned by years of television drama, we want a total resolution within an hour, at least four minutes before the final commercial, or, at the very east, after three episodes, which is pretty much the optimum miniseries length.

Conditioned by years of spy thrillers, we suspect, or even think we know, that every inch of the Earth and every moving vehicle are under constant surveillance by eye-in-the-sky technology that makes finding the bad guys as simple as calling directory assistance (back in the old days, when it still worked) for a telephone number.

The fact that investigations and identifications take months or even years, and even then frequently are inconclusive or wrong, isn't part of our fiction-trained national psyche. And every moment we spend worrying about whether this is a terrorist act, makes the last confirmed terrorist attack that much more effective.

And we will listen to whomever is available to fill the void, be it politicians, real or phony eyewitnesses, or low-level functionaries who somehow think their rumor mill is better than everybody elses.

My experience in 29 years of reporting tells me to avoid things said by guys who arrive on Day 2 of a disaster wearing suits. And, as a rule of thumb, I assign credibility on a scale inversely proportional to the value of the suit.

The people who are most reliable at such scenes tend to be guys in coveralls or in plain-white shirts with pocket protectors who almost always are overlooked because all they will tell you is that it is too soon to know, and nobody wants to hear that.

But, by listening to the suits, I have heard crime victims and plane crash victims here in Pasco County misidentified as to name and even gender.

I don't think it takes a genius to figure out why it is taking longer than anybody wants to make positive identifications of hundreds of victims of a catastrophic plane crash, and I think we should keep in mind that careful identification also could be key to the investigation.

Before I put my family on a trans-Atlantic flight (and I soon will), I also want some answers, but I want the right ones.

Every time I listen to a wrong one _ they just got me again.