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By Tom Shroder
Sunday, June 22, 2008

Is it safe?

That's what Laurence Olivier kept asking Dustin Hoffman in the 1976 film "Marathon Man." What leant a certain urgency to the question was the fact that Olivier, playing Christian Szell, a sadistic fugitive war-criminal Nazi dentist, was holding a whirring drill. Hoffman, playing Babe, a hapless grad student, was strapped tight to a dentist chair. If Dr. Szell wasn't pleased by Babe's response, you knew exactly what he was going to do with that drill. Unfortunately for Hoffman's character, Babe had zero idea if it was safe or not.

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Sounds familiar.

In the days after the devastating attacks of 9/11, every jet that flew overhead was a trauma, a potential guided missile. Every "newsbreak," every bulletin, made me catch my breath.

Now, nearly seven years have passed, and, while there is news of terror and war every day, once again it's becoming possible to believe that, somehow, American soil is exempt.

One recent Sunday, I woke to the sun pouring through the shades. It felt good to lie there, drowsy, warm and safe. The distant roar of a jet made me focus on the "safe" part of that.

Is it, really, safe? After the planes hit, the towers fell and the Pentagon burned all those years ago; after it became clear that four airliners had been flown off course and incommunicado long before they struck their targets, there was puzzlement amid the sadness and horror. Where were the alarms? The orders to scramble? The interceptor jets?

Like many people, I'd wanted to think that, while we all went about our business, casually assuming the safety and freedom of living in the strongest nation on the planet, a cadre of eagle-eyed sentries were watching for the first hint of a threat, ready to respond the moment it appeared.

Turned out, they weren't there. At least not in a way that could have had a prayer of protecting us from hate-filled zealots with box cutters and commercial airline tickets.

But as Laura Blumenfeld reveals in today's cover story beginning on Page 10, they are now: A legion of people who don't sleep as soundly as I do spend their days obsessing over every blip, devoting lives to answering that most important question in the affirmative.

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.


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