Recent Terror Scares Remind Me of Elementary School

From the UPS package to Gloucester County College's closure yesterday, are we all just waiting to be told to get under our desks?

It wasn’t long after 9/11. A coworker came into my office early one morning in quite a state. She had seen a man down on Market Street, on the corner below our offices — and we are way up high, all the way up on the 36th floor — standing right at 19th Street, looking around. He was dark-complexioned, probably Middle Eastern. He was just standing there. He was looking around. What was he doing? Maybe he was planning something. “Should I call the police?” she asked.

That was just before we got the color codes of risk, brought to us by Homeland Security. Those gradations of color describing how concerned we should be were like hearing some weather guy on the radio say it was going to be an ugly day, lots of wind and rain. Sunshine = feel good. Wind and rain = feel bad. But I could never quite wrap my mind around what I was supposed to do, when the warning code was raised and I felt bad. If it was red — severe! — maybe I could stay in bed all day and skip work. Or if we were merely on high alert — orange! — then I would crab-walk down the street on the balls of my feet, with my hands out in front of me, like an NFL cornerback ready to spring at lurking beard stubble. [SIGNUP]

Homeland Czar Tom Ridge finally got a handle on the codes. Back in 2004, on the eve of the presidential election, Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft tried to get Ridge to raise the alert level to red, which presumably would not keep the electorate in bed, but voting for Republicans. That’s when Ridge decided to say sayonara to the feds.

A couple months ago, The Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, funded in part by our state government, was sending out terrorism bulletins that worried over “anarchists and Black Power radicals.” It listed anti-war groups, deportation protesters in Philadelphia, mountaintop removal mining protesters in West Virginia, and an animal rights protest at a Montgomery County rodeo as possible hot spots of trouble.

Ed Rendell fell all over himself apologizing for that, but didn’t fire James Powers, his security czar, because the poor guy has got to make a living.

Yesterday, Gloucester County College closed down over the presence of a “suspicious package,” which was taken to a field and turned out to be, well, nothing. Well, not nothing actually. It was a bible. Someone had sent the book as a gift to an employee. Apparently, some Armenian writing made it suspicious.

And what about that mail bomb on a UPS flight from England that was intercepted last month? It was set to detonate seven hours later, somewhere over the Eastern U.S. Or, maybe Canada. But still, a pretty close call. What about that, huh?

At some point it will happen again. We all know that.

Back in 1960, I was in first grade in Makefield Elementary up in Bucks County, and every once in a while we practiced for the end of the world. At Mrs. Carver’s direction, we hunched under our desks like turtles. She would have us stay under there until we were all settled, all able to pretend that it was happening, that the Russians really were coming, and were about to kill us all.

Being young children, and not knowing any better, when she gave us the signal that it was apparently not happening today and we could come out from under our desks, we got back up into our hard wood chairs and wrote our numbers, one to one hundred, in nice neat rows. Just as our teacher directed.