World waits, watches, worries 'Deadline mentality' affects public, leaders THE DEADLINE

January 13, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Two days and counting until The Deadline. It is the date carved in stone for crossing the line drawn in the sand, and all over the globe the hype, hoopla and handicapping continue as if the Super Bowl, not war, were at hand in the Persian Gulf.

Congressmen speculate on how quickly a U.S. air attack would overwhelm the Iraqi ground game. Analysts fret about the weather -- sunny skies or a sandstorm for zero hour? And out in the world's bleachers, millions wonder if Iraq will cancel the whole matchup by withdrawing from Kuwait in the nick of time.

Meanwhile, financial markets plunge in anxiety. Junk mailers, sensing a distracted public, put ad campaigns on hold. Leaders in the United States and Iraq lament that matters are no longer in their hands. But in military units arrayed in the desert, crime rates drop, healthfulness blooms and overall stress abates.

If all this buildup to Jan. 15 seems surreal at times,that's understandable, said Dr. John McGrath, a psychiatrist at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

For the public, such an atmosphere is a natural byproduct of deadline mentality.

"All of these things -- the buildup, the deadline, the waiting -- are contrary to the way people think of wartime," Dr. McGrath said. "There's something about war that is supposed to have a suddenness and a calamitous effect, and I think the long, slow buildup has really made it seem more unreal.

"The waiting period has defanged it, detoxified it in the minds of a lot of people. . . . It is a kind of hype. And it has been kind of commercialized, there is no doubt."

Dr. McGrath was particularly struck by the behavior of crowds he witnessed on New Year's Eve in San Diego, a military port.

A local radio station sponsored a gathering downtown to show support for the troops, he said, and 15,000 people turned out, many of them armed with flashlights as instructed by the radio station. At midnight, everyone flicked on the lights.

"In that crowd, there was really no sense of impending doom," he said. "What we're experiencing now is something spectacular. Not something joyous, but something releasing and rejuvenating. And as things like this are prolonged, a great deal of denial takes place."

One group that has already begun to look at the possibility of war realistically is the relatives of soldiers stationed in the gulf region, and for them the approaching deadline is clearly stressful.

Pentagon officials reported last week that they were receiving at least 50 calls a day from family members trying to find out if their relatives might qualify for exemptions from combat duty.

A seismograph for what is bubbling beneath the surface for the rest of the public might be the stock market, some psychologists say. Worries over the impending deadline have caused market prices to gyrate wildly in the past weeks.

The most telling flick of the needle came Wednesday, after the failure of a diplomatic meeting in Geneva between Iraq and the United States. When Secretary of State James A. Baker III began his assessment with the word "regrettably," the Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled 54 points in the next seven minutes.

The junk mail business has also sensed the growing tremors of national preoccupation as the deadline nears. Katie Muldoon, a direct marketing consultant for such clients as Colgate-Palmolive and General Mills, said that for the past four to six weeks, "I've been advising clients to hold their mailings."

Like others in the business, she points to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 as evidence of how a momentous event can jar the public out of a buying mood. For one thing, the public becomes distracted. "They're fixated on that day and the days around it," Ms. Muldoon reasoned. "They're really watching TV all the time."

The deadline has also prompted "a temporary value re-assessment" among consumers, she said. "They're not in the mood to purchase anything materialistic because it just doesn't seem as important as something this monumental."

For world leaders, psychologists and political scientists say, the deadline contributes dangerously to the dynamics of a crisis.

"One of the things that seems to lead to escalation toward war is a sense of time being foreshortened, a sense of having to act now," said David G. Winter, a University of Michigan professor of psychology. "This notion of a deadline is typical of crises. And then 20 years later, historians tell us, no, it wasn't true, they were misperceiving."

The deadline also contributes to escalation by supporting "the notion [of leaders] that 'it's out of my hands,' " Mr. Winter said.

President Bush has said that war or peace is up to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who has in turn put the onus on Mr. Bush, and both claim that the deadline also moves events beyond their control.

The deadline could create further psychological problems if it passes without action for several weeks.

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