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Paranoia grips the United States
Posted: Wednesday, September 18, 2002

By Raff Ellis,

A major highway in South Florida was closed down for more than 17 hours because of an alarm sounded by a diner patron in a small Georgia town. The matronly woman, who is self-enrolled as an apostle of Attorney General John Ashcroft's TIPS program, thought she overheard a subversive conversation while having breakfast and took the patriotic action. She jotted down a license plate number and reported what she heard to the Georgia State Police. A nationwide alert was then issued, with over 100 officers and a dozen agencies becoming involved in the hunt.

Of course, the fact that one of these men was bearded and wearing a traditional Muslim prayer cap, and all three of them looked "Middle Eastern," didn't color the informant's view of what was going down. The manhunt involved not only multiple government agencies, but also included the use of helicopters.

When the culprits were finally located on a remote stretch of highway between Naples and Miami, the news set off a media frenzy. Some TV stations went on full coverage, showing graphic scenes of the two cars with their entire contents strewn across the highway, while the governor of Florida called an emergency press conference.

Reduced to reporting many rumors as facts because of the lack of real news, programs were interrupted, bulletins issued and security experts interviewed. They dutifully intoned in somber voices that, "heightened vigilance in these perilous times is good," or variations of this theme.

A "backpack was blown up as a precaution," and "Explosive triggers were found in one of the cars," the talking heads "reported." These were but two of many false reports sent out to anxious listeners in the Miami area. That bastion of accurate news reporting, CNN, confided that these men were on their way to blow up Turkey Point, a nuclear power station. Only later did we learn the destroyed backpack contained medical equipment and no explosives or triggers of any kind were found. The men were "allowed to drive away."

Drive away to what? An uncertain future? The three men got the bad news the following day that they are no longer welcome to study at the South Miami hospital. "It was a difficult decision," said Dr. Jack Michel, president and chief executive of Larkin Community Hospital ( "It's not safe for them to be here - for them, for the hospital or the patients." Michel said the hospital had received more than 100 hostile e-mails since Friday's incident, with only one telling him to "look at all the facts" before making a decision.

I wonder if these three men even got an apology from the police after seventeen hours of detention! Perhaps the hapless medical students were so relieved that they weren't carted off to one of Ashcroft's incommunicado prisons that they even thanked the police, leaving the rest of us to marvel at the descent of our society into a whirlpool of paranoia. Now we have to hope that no one reports one of us for some innocuous conversation or, heaven forbid, a critical column in the alternative media.

Governor Bush said he was "proud of the interaction between law enforcement agencies." Perhaps the real lesson to be learned is that our efficient law enforcement agencies apprehended the culprits after only 15 hours and 700 miles had elapsed. They certainly showed how easily they could be sent on a wild goose chase. A terrorist could send a couple of dupes into a Georgia restaurant to whisper about a hit going down in Miami. The FBI, et al, descends on Miami while the terrorists strike New York or San Francisco. This is a scene that could be played out all over the country. I hope the real evildoers weren't taking notes.

Law enforcement officials weren't willing to admit to overreaction. "We're looking into seeing what laws might be applicable," said John Bankhead, the director of public affairs for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He added, "These people are going to learn a lesson." Who are "these people," John? Bull Connor would be proud.

The defenders of this incident are the self-same people who have no fear they will be mistaken for "Arabic-looking" or Muslim men. And if "these people" are inconvenienced for the sake of our security, so what? Ask African Americans how they feel about being pulled over because of obvious profiling. If you've never been suspected of a crime, humiliated by a body search or talked to like a criminal, you just won't understand.

Because of all this, I am now convinced that I must listen to all conversations within earshot, no matter where I am. In hotels I'll even put a glass up to the wall. If I hear anyone say anything untoward about Kaiser George W., or Reich Marshall Rumsfeld, I'll call the FBI immediately. Unfortunately, because of the circles I travel in, I'm going to be very busy.

Come to think of it, I now understand why I'm so uneasy whenever I hear John Ashcroft speak. I am absolutely convinced he's sending coded messages to gangs of white supremacist klukers out there.

So, maybe that old adage is true after all: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean somebody's not really out to get you.

[Raff Ellis lives in the United States and is a retired former strategic planner and computer industry executive. He has had an abiding and active interest in the Middle East since early adulthood and has traveled to the region many times over the last 30 years.]

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