ATLANTA -- We just don't believe them anymore. We no longer take seriously the warnings of terrorist threats coming from White House functionaries. So, this month, when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the Chicago Tribune about his "gut feeling" that the nation faces an increased risk of a terrorist attack this summer, nobody paid much attention.
They've frightened us so many times before with false alarms and phony threats and hyped intelligence that we've stopped paying attention. We've forgotten where we put the duct tape and plastic and gas masks. And don't forget those color-coded alerts.
When Mr. Chertoff issued his warning, even the White House sought to rein him in, sending out a spokesman to assure us that there was "no credible intelligence" pointing to an imminent attack.
Here's where it all gets maddeningly frustrating: This time might be different. The latest National Intelligence Estimate reports that al-Qaida has regrouped and recharged. In other words, Osama bin Laden is still alive, still at large and still hell-bent on destroying this country.
And President Bush is delusional enough to believe that history will restore his reputation?
The intelligence report, which represents the consensus of the nation's intelligence agencies, warns that the United States is in a "heightened threat environment," with al-Qaida "creating new capabilities and overcoming security obstacles." Further, al-Qaida will "intensify its efforts to put operatives here."
Six years ago, the White House had the opportunity to pursue a relatively small group of jihadists across the Earth. With the support of every country that mattered, we went into Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, who had given sanctuary to bin Laden and his mad dream of global jihad.
Then, the campaign against al-Qaida took a strange turn. For reasons that remain elusive, the Bush White House allowed bin Laden to slip away and pointed the finger at Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with 9/11, who distrusted bin Laden, who threatened his neighbors but not the United States. Just as reliable intelligence reported that bin Laden had escaped to the caves of Tora Bora, on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Pentagon began dispatching Special Forces operatives to Iraq.
It was a strategy that bin Laden himself might have mapped out. Not only did we bog down in Iraq, provoking a multifaceted insurgency that we have been unable to contain, but we also gave bin Laden the recruiting tool he needed. Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11, writes: "Al-Qaida's duty was to awaken the Islamic nation to the threat posed by the secular, modernizing West. To do that, bin Laden told his men, al-Qaida would drag the U.S. into a war with Islam - `a large-scale front which it cannot control.'" The invasion of Iraq did just that.
Mr. Bush continues to distort the facts - he recently insisted that "the same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq were the ones who attacked us in America." Although al-Qaida in Mesopotamia didn't exist on 9/11, its recruits now have battle-tested maneuvers they can bring to American shores. There is no reason to believe they can't fight us there and here at the same time.
Even if the Bush White House had remained focused on bin Laden, splintering his organization would have proved difficult. It's hard to stop every fanatic with a bomb or a gun. But we might have been better prepared if the president and his advisers had used the terrorism threat to shore up our defenses and ramp up our emergency planning rather than to manipulate us into voting for their candidates and supporting their foolish war.
In our sixth summer since 9/11, after countless color-coded alerts and shoeless shambles through airport security, we no longer believe the hype. This may be just what bin Laden had in mind.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.