Terror in Aunt Betty's apartment building

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Domestic terrorism took on new meaning this week when my Aunt Betty called yesterday to tell me the residents of her apartment building in Bethesda, Md., are on alert for the possibility of a terrorist attack.

According to the FBI or Homeland Security or someone (just try to find useful information about this on their Web sites), terrorists might rent apartments, wire them with explosives, and blow them up.

My aunt is almost 80 years old and has lived in this apartment for 30 years. She was perplexed about what she should do, an elderly house-bound law-abiding person. But because I'm going to visit her next week, she felt obligated warn me.

How should apartment dwellers spring into action? Stare hard at terrorist-looking types? Report suspiciously large packages being hauled in the freight elevator? Listen through the walls for sounds of illicit bomb making? Which sounds like what? Move?

The confusion about warnings and threat conditions (green, blue, yellow, orange, red, and goodbye) is indicative that our open society is having growing pains with the new world order of terror.

What's an FBI to do? If they say we can expect suicide bombers in our malls or as next door neighbors, we can accuse them of unnecessarily alarming the public, manipulation of the issue, and crying wolf. If they keep it to themselves, they can be accused of paternalism and secrecy. Either way, their credibility is on the line

As citizens, we're confused too, but our lives could be on that line. Now that we've been warned, does that somehow make it acceptable if an apartment does blow up? Will the Office of Homeland Security or FBI be less to blame since they put renters on alert? Do the alerts make us more aware of the dangers around us, or have the opposite effect of desensitizing us to the possible horrors of daily life under the threat of terrorism? Are we any safer?

Adding to the confusion is the Bush Administration, which appears to use the terrorist threat on occasion to keep the public from questioning the decisions of those in charge during war time. Is this a real terrorist threat or a chance for the administration to redirect our attention to the War on Terror and away from drilling for oil in Alaska, repealing arms control treaties or deficit spending?

Should I postpone (again) my visit because of the specter of terrorism near our nation's capitol?

Attention Office of Homeland Security: What is the threat condition color for visiting relatives living in high-rises near DC?

When I heard from Aunt Betty, my initial reaction was that she is too old to have to cope with this sort of information. On the other hand, my teenage son is too young to have to deal with this. And from personal experience, I can verify that middle age brings no special skills for coping with this very personal threat to domestic tranquility.

Terrorism is an equal opportunity killer. With our sense of innate fairness in the United States, it is no surprise that the government and the people are struggling with the protocols for warning people about possible violence. The challenge for all of us is to know how to respond.

Abby Johnson consults on rural community development, public involvement, and nuclear waste issues. She is married, lives in Carson City, and has one middle school-aged child.


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