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A nation on the edge

By Nancy Gibbs

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Politicians may flirt with reviving the draft, but they are too late; it's already happened.

Some citizens willingly enlisted, some were conscripted, some gathered on Saturday to conscientiously object--but when Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge put the country on heightened alert, he began our basic training. Watch for men with nicks on their faces; they may be freshly shaved jihadists. Report suspicious bags. The soda bottle in the subway could be cyanide. France says it wants more weapons inspectors? We now have millions of them.

America has been one big neighborhood-watch group for 17 months, but this was only the second time we have gone up to code orange, and for once the warnings seemed to get specific. Pressed to give odds in a private briefing for Senators, one source says, Ridge put the chance of a major attack some time in the next couple of weeks at 1 in 2, though his spokesman denies he was that precise.

Still, lawmakers were inspired to ask him if they should send their families out of town. Officials don't have much color in their faces as they talk about what they know and what they fear. "I can't tell you how depressing those briefings are," says a senior official who hears all the most ominous stuff in the intelligence meetings that start each day.

The tension rose even higher when America came under attack not just from enemies but from old friends. Friday's stormy U.N. session showed the depth of official foreign resistance to America's Iraq policy; Saturday displayed the popular opposition, as protesters from Calgary to Copenhagen denounced America as the greatest threat to world peace. A country like ours, held together not by blood or borders but by the ideas that drew our optimistic ancestors, takes attacks on its motives personally.

The ferocity of the global debate may not change attitudes here toward war, but it changes the calculations of its cost. Meanwhile, that optimism is showing signs of wear. Americans proved themselves tough and resilient after 9/11, but last week's alarm left people asking one another, Is this just the way it's going to be now, and forever?

On Sept. 11, a disaster brought us together, but anticipating the next one seems to be doing the reverse. All around the country, people see the same facts and run in opposite directions. You can find panic in a small Tennessee town and insouciance in midtown Manhattan, and vice versa. Some view taking precautions as a patriotic duty; others see it as complicity in a fearful campaign they want no part of.

For some, the prospect of war with Iraq makes everything more frightening -- why take action that might cause our enemies to multiply? For others, it seems only more necessary as the threat feels more real and the enemy more cunning.

Some fear that the government is not doing enough to equip the police or seal the borders; others believe that it is doing too much, shredding civil liberty in pursuit of security. Some people are relieved that at least the intelligence agencies seem to be sharing some of what they know; others suspect that they are just trying to cover themselves because of how much they don't.

So even as FBI agents visited chemical plants and checked customer lists, we learned that sarin gas smells like Juicy Fruit gum and cyanide like bitter almonds. Scientists in Colorado just got a Pentagon grant to design plants that can guard our houses and malls: the idea is to engineer the plants genetically so that the leaves suddenly change color when exposed to biological or chemical agents.

In New York City and Washington, rumors were viral, spreading by word and wire; a friend calls a friend to say her ex-boyfriend's sister's friend's father is a top New York City cop and told his daughter to "avoid the subway for the next 36 hours." Members of Congress were warned about possible assassination attempts, even as missile batteries were scattered all over the capital, and at one Safeway store there was not a bottle of water left. Parents sent their kids to school with valentines, and laminated emergency contact lists.

During World War II, people were exhorted to knit socks for our soldiers. REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR. PURL HARDER, the posters said. The War on Terror poses a special challenge, as it's difficult to make the public feel involved -- no tinfoil collections, no sacrifice of silk stockings to make parachutes, no national meatless days.

After Sept. 11, the President told people to go shopping. This time officials actually provided a list. "We have to give people something to do," Ridge told lawmakers, which is how duct tape officially became a staple, like flashlights and Band-Aids.

This week Ridge will roll out the Ready Campaign, which offers advice about terrorist threats and the promise that "with a little planning and common sense, you can be better prepared for the unexpected." But in private there were arguments about whether to raise the alert code, and there will be more about when to lower it, a debate over its value in protection weighed against its cost in panic.

"If we're going to have any shot at the safety part of this, we're going to have to have people feel the need to pass on information," argues a top official who is in no hurry to drop back to code yellow. "We've got to learn about this threat and manage it."

People take the advice with varying measures of bemusement. "I'm not all that worried," says Marguerite Marz, an educational wilderness leader in Dallas, "but I felt I'd be stupid if I didn't follow the government guidelines. I got the last roll of 6-mm plastic at Lowe's."

A mom in Maryland bought shower curtains instead of plastic sheeting, figuring she could use them once the world returns to normal. The country's largest duct-tape manufacturer was running its factories round the clock as sales tripled in a week. Fortunately, there's a website to teach you how to make a wallet out of any leftover tape.

"I don't want to spend six weeks holed up in my bedroom with a roll of duct tape and a bottle of water," says Bob Merrick, a Hollywood production assistant, "because someone came on TV and said we're on code red. Then they'll go back on TV and say it was a mistake. I'll have wasted six weeks of my life, and the next day I'll get hit by a bus."

Mocking the whole wrap-a-room-in-plastic scenario enabled us to avoid really thinking about it. Even if you successfully shrink-wrapped your family during some toxic event, the chances are you would just die more slowly. The very idea was suffocating, which is one reason why, after a few days of hysteria, New York City's supremely grounded Mayor Michael Bloomberg pronounced the duct-tape advice "preposterous" and urged people to leave the worrying to the professionals.

But at least New York City has its own professionals, with a counterterrorism unit and a police commissioner who has a secure line to both the White House and the Pentagon. People in other cities were less confident. A Louisiana TV station heard complaints that officials weren't offering security information specific to Baton Rouge.

"We are between two nuclear plants, and we have chemical plants up and down the river," Jo Ann Desselle, 70, told WBRZ-TV. Desselle captures the challenge as well as anyone. On the one hand, she has picked a bathroom in her house as her safe room, with a walk-in closet stocked with energy bars, dog food, radio, the works.

"If you've got to, you can eat oatmeal out of a box, drink some water and cook it inside of you," she says. At the same time, she insists she's not scared. "Life is an adventure, and you never know when your candle is gonna get blowed out," she says. "It's not a life if you have to hide in the closet."

Maybe that's how this is supposed to work: stock the closet, just don't cower in it. Everyone has to figure out how much reality he or she can stand. Some watch the news incessantly; others turn it off or flip to the movie pages first while they steel their nerves for the front page. It was almost a comfort when CNN switched from all terror, all the time to cover the guilty verdict of Clara Harris, the Texas dentist who ran over her cheating husband with her Mercedes.

That was a luxurious whiff of normal at a time when even CNBC offered no respite. A market that hates uncertainty reflected fears about our jobs and savings and retirement. "Everyone is afraid of layoffs, and the states are all broke," says Sandra Bierwagen, 64, of Lansing, Mich., who pulled all her money from the market last year, stuck it in CDs and plans to leave it there. "Why would anyone go do anything when they see all this coming?"

There are a few commercial bright spots. Stress mints are selling well (part mint, part chamomile, for your nerves), and yacht sales are booming in Miami. Salesmen suspect that people feel life is uncertain, so why not indulge a dream? It's a great time to book a cheap flight to Europe.

Ultimately, everyone has a choice to make, not just about what to do, but about whom to be. Parents are aware of setting an example for their children, teaching courage and caution, wanting to hold them closer than usual and knowing there will come a time to let go. Will we wait to exhale until the alert floats back down to yellow, maybe green? Or find a way to live up here, where the warnings are garish and frightening and we still fly right past them, with a deep breath, getting on with our lives?

--Reported by Amanda Bower/New York, Ruth Laney/Baton Rouge, Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles, Cathy Booth Thomas/Dallas, with other bureaus.

Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.

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