IRRATIONAL perceptions of terrorism's threat to the United States distort our judgment and interrupt the conduct of day-to-day affairs. This is bad for business and bad for our emotional and physical health. When our energies are spent in unproductive worry, the intended social disruption occurs without the terrorists having to lift a finger.
A sampling of questions asked me as a security consultant shows the extent of the skewed perception:
* On the day of the outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East, a young woman called to ask if it was safe for her daughter to return to school from Baltimore to New London, Conn., by train, passing through New York. I assured her it was safe.
* I'm asked if Iraqi agents are going to poison our drinking water. Baltimore consumes about 180 million gallons a day. It would take about a ton of poison to have a minimal effect on a few people near the point where the poison was put in. The poison would have to be injected into the water system after filtration, and testing and other measures now in effect would have to be overcome. A terrorist would have a tough time poisoning Baltimore's water.
* I'm asked if Baltimore, particularly Baltimore-Washington International Airport, is a likely target of terrorist attack because of the city's Jewish population and concentration of military contractors. New York and Washington are targets that would give terrorists the desired publicity. Baltimore is less likely.
* I'm asked if air travel is safe inside the U.S. Tightened security and increased public awareness have made air travel safer than it ever has been. People even call me about lapses in airport security.
Underlying these questions is unreasonable fear of terrorists skulking in the bushes, poised to pull the trigger, hurl the bomb or plant the high-tech, pressure-activated explosive in Goldilocks' picnic basket as she boards the plane to visit her grandmother.
Of course, if people actually see a terrorist with bomb in hand or feel that there is a serious threat of terrorism, they should call the police emergency line at 911. But the questions asked above could have been posed to the Baltimore Rumor Control Hotline, 396-1188. It is staffed from 9 to 5 daily but takes recorded messages at night. There is also a Maryland State Police number for those fearing terrorist acts or -- in the present crisis -- for people of Arab origin who fear persecution: 1-800-492-TIPS. By using these lines, you will find a helpful officer who will track down the source of your concern, be it Amtrak security, public works, BWI security or federal airline authorities.
The FBI has made terrorism in the U.S. a high priority since 1982. Recent press briefings by the FBI have been of the "good news, bad news" variety. In effect, the FBI is saying that Saddam Hussein's threats ought to be taken seriously, as should those of all known terrorist groups. But FBI Director William Sessions told the U.S. Conference of Mayors, "I think we ought to go about our business as usual." The director of security and intelligence for the Department of Transportation also says there is no evidence of any sudden burst of terrorist activity targeted at the U.S., although vigilance is still the watchword.
So, with no hard intelligence, what can we assume about the terrorist hidden in the bushes?
First, Saddam's terrorist allies are better organized, have more sympathizers and have succeeded in their operations outside the U.S. A major component in their calculation of success is publicity.
Thus, we will see quick but not well-planned attacks on easy targets outside the U.S. (Bomb blasts or threats with no casualties have been aimed at U.S. interests in Istanbul, Malaysia, Greece and the Philippines in the last weeks.)
To train a terrorist operative, to get him or her into the U.S. and integrated into our society -- hidden from the FBI -- takes time and resources. Such a valuable asset is not going to be squandered on a random act of placing a bomb in front of a downtown airline office in Baltimore or on a train to New London. Congress as a target? Yes. The Baltimore City Council? No. And the places you frequent on a routine basis are not likely to be in harm's way. Terrorists aren't likely to grab headlines by attacking you on the way to work tomorrow or at the mall Saturday.
Precautions, of course, are prudent and necessary. Our problem is that the U.S. has never before faced a threat of this kind. There is no experience on which we can draw to give us a perspective or give shape and dimension to possible hazards. ++ Thus, they become fearsome monsters of our own imagination. Much worse, there is a chorus of alarmist corporate security officers, insurers, lawyers and travel managers who fear that they may expose themselves to legal liability if they do not counsel extreme caution and preach avoidance of doom.
Alarmism, however, puts the preachers of doom on the side of the terrorists whose goal, according to the FBI, is "to achieve a demoralizing effect of terrorizing the population, throwing [people] off balance and throwing into confusion the entire structure of the security forces."
In fact, in the present climate of fear, people buy gas masks and bottled water and believe that the absence of any act of mischief by the terrorists is some subtle feint before the enemy prepares a Sunday punch.
If Baltimoreans allow an illusory threat to produce social paralysis, we have failed to crack the code of the terrorists and allowed Saddam to rule our lives from afar. One call to Rumor Control can go far to dispel your fears and crack the code.
Peter V. Savage is a Baltimore travel security consultant and author of "The Safe Travel Book: A Guide for the International Traveler" (Lexington Books).