Panicking plays into the hands of our enemies


January 25, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

Mayor Schmoke's Cabinet meetings always deal with important matters, but this Tuesday's meeting dealt with an urgent one.

"A man had called City Hall and wanted to know what the mayor was going to do to prevent Iraqi submarines from taking control of the Chesapeake Bay," a Cabinet member told me. "Other people have called to ask what the mayor is going to do to keep Iraqi planes from hitting Baltimore."

And you can understand the concern. You can see how Saddam Hussein might turn this war around by strafing the Bromo Seltzer tower or by sending a torpedo into Harborplace.

"Light Street Pavilion Sunk -- Hooters Floats to Surface!" the headline would read.

Terrorism is no joke. War is no joke. But panic is no solution.

What do I count as panic?

When Maryland counties like Frederick and Carroll cancel school trips to Baltimore because they are afraid of a terrorist attack, that is panic.

I realize the school superintendents in those counties are just trying to be prudent. But I think they are overreacting in a very damaging way.

Because if people from Maryland are afraid to come to Baltimore, why should conventioneers and tourists come here? And if you think the economy of Baltimore can get along without conventioneers and tourists, think again. This is the city that likes to brag it gets more visitors than Disneyland.

So I would like to go out on a limb. I would like to announce that I don't think Baltimore will be the subject of a Scud attack, bombing, or any more violence than is usual.

And I would like to join with the director of the FBI in asking everyone to go about their normal lives.

I think one part of the reason people are so worried is that we have been encouraged to think of Baltimore as a logical target for terrorists.

In 1986, when everyone was worried about Libyan terrorist attacks in the United States (which never occurred), then-Mayor Schaefer, bristled when a reporter asked him if Col. Muammar el Kadafi's death squads might bypass Baltimore for other targets of opportunity.

"Why?" Schaefer responded. "Just because New York is the Big Apple? Baltimore -- I know you don't think Baltimore is any good -- but Baltimore is a right good place, Baltimore is a well-known place and there's no reason to think we're exempt from a terrorist attack. Suppose they suddenly decide, 'Well, Jesus, we're not going to be able to blow up City Hall in New York. Let's blow up a city hall. Where's a good one? Well, it's tough in Washington. Baltimore is a vulnerable spot and still highly visible.' "

I suggested at the time that the city could use this as the basis for a new promotional campaign: "Baltimore -- A City Good Enough to Blow Up!"

For some reason, however, my suggestion was ignored.

Today, security has been tightened everywhere in and around the city, especially at BWI. And there is nothing wrong with that. Tight security is and will continue to be a permanent part of our lives.

But what I am against is letting our fears paralyze us. Yes, this is an easy time to be afraid. The pictures of war on TV are very scary; the headlines are very scary and many of us are going around with tight stomachs and a general feeling of unease.

I have friends with a 6-year-old daughter named Emily. My friends were pretty sure Emily was handling the war all right -- it was being talked about in her school and everything -- until a few nights ago, when Emily awakened them at 2 a.m.

She was clutching the coins from her piggy bank in both hands. And she wanted her parents to keep them for her in case the Iraqi soldiers came.

Her parents talked to her, of course, and they calmed her down and they told her that the war was "far away" and "nothing bad" was going to happen to any of them.

I think that is a sensible and honest thing to tell a kid.

But you can't tell your kid that and then say: "But you can't go to Baltimore because you might get blown up."

There is a rational response to fear and an irrational one. An irrational response, I think, is to go to the nearest army surplus store and buy a gas mask. A store in Washington sold 500 gas masks in one day. A surplus store in Berkley, Mich., sold 65 in one hour. A woman in Atlanta called around trying to find one for her dog.

Personally, I can think of nothing that would please Saddam Hussein more, while he sits in his bunker watching CNN, than seeing pictures of Americans lining up to buy gas masks. What I would prefer him to see is Americans living normal lives, while the people in his own country are living very abnormal lives due to his own indefensible behavior.

Panic and disruption in America is what the enemy wants. What the enemy does not want is Americans to settle in for the long haul, to realize that this war is probably going to go on longer than we think and to lead lives as absolutely normal as possible.

Terrorism can occur in Baltimore. It is also unlikely. And if you twist your life into knots to prepare for the worst, then the worst probably has already happened to you.

Besides, let's face facts:

If terrorists did try to sneak into Baltimore some night, they'd probably get mugged.

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