A Newsweek photograph described in Tina Brown's column in the Aug. 12 Style section was of a White House staff meeting, not a White House meeting to discuss terrorism. (Published 8/13/04)

Among New York Democrats there's a weird fatalism about John Kerry's chances in November. The city's mania to see the president routed does nothing to lift the mood of bullish defeatism. What you hear is that Bush will still win by a hair -- not because Kerry fails to rev the electorate's engine, but because "they" will "pull something."

What "they" will "pull" ranges from the notion that "they" -- sometimes known as "Karl Rove" -- will produce Osama bin Laden from some luxury cave on Halloween, to a super-scary election-eve terror attack warning that would have all the authenticity of Orson Welles's 1938 radio hoax about the Martians, but better production values. On these premises, it is a given that the timing of the recent terror reports was sheer manipulation. Exhibit A is a photo in the takeout on terrorism in this week's Newsweek. See that big picture of Fran Townsend, the White House's homeland security adviser? In the background is Karl Rove. C'mon, what's he doing at a terrorism meeting?

"I've heard people saying that the Bush team might blow up something around election day, just like the Nazis burned the Reichstag and then blamed it on the Jews to get elected," a writer friend e-mailed me this week. "The surprise is that it all comes from your above-average Times-reading academics."

Are smart people going nuts?

Just when you think so, the news adds new fuel to overheated suspicions. The electronic voting machines are found vulnerable to hacking, and the habitually judicious Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton goes on the record in midtown Tuesday to charge that the Republicans would try to intimidate Democratic voters and manipulate federal election laws to discourage turnout.

The summer of paranoia is building to a head just in time for the dreaded Republican convention. It's all been too much to deal with for this media capital, aka the new Republic of Fear. First came an undeniably real conspiracy, 9/11 itself. Then the long phantom pregnancy of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Then the postwar recriminations and spin that bred a rash of new conspiracy theories, compounded now by the feeling that all the fake conspiracies only served to distract us from the real one that has resurfaced to haunt us today.

Scenarios of tourist choppers beheading the Statue of Liberty or limos loaded up with explosives instead of P. Diddy's Hamptons houseguests are more vivid than the mild nail-biting of the summer's scare movies. "Open Water" -- the new shark pic -- generates more fear for fewer dollars than big-bucks movies like "The Day After Tomorrow" and "The Village" because it uses real sharks, unknown actors and shaky cameras for its verite "Blair Fish Project" feeling. Since 9/11 our terror index knows that the lower the budget, the more horrifying the horror. We can't shake the blurred footage of the hijackers passing through airport security cameras, box cutters nestled in their carry-on bags. Add to this the success of docu-prop, led by Michael Moore, who's made conspiracy theories fresh and cool and viable again. You don't need fake movie chills when the big fat beach read is the 9/11 commission's litany of lethal errors.

My own paranoid theory is that Bush is laying these terrors on the public as retaliation for the taunts about his own inaction during that fateful August of 2001, when Richard Clarke and George Tenet were running in and out of each other's offices with their hair on fire and Bush rusticated in Crawford, clearing brush. Maybe now the presidential payback is: "Wanna feel what it's like to get a bunch of scary, contradictory, specific and nonspecific warnings about impending doom dumped on you when you ought to be on vacation? Try this one for size."

The more extreme paranoia is about our need to conquer feelings of chaos by appointing someone to be in charge. It's more comforting to believe in "they" than to accept the more troubling truth that our leaders are even more panicky than we are. In the good old Oliver Stone days we could credit the CIA with masterminding every plot to hijack America. Now we know the CIA can't even mastermind who's buying what and whom on Ahmed Chalabi's MasterCard.

By way of retaliation, the media like to torture Congress with those 500 pages and damning footnotes of the 9/11 report. Terrorists do not take vacations, we are forever being told. Condi Rice will never ever again be able to rip up that hair and head for the beach. We want our senators and congressmen to sit and swelter in the Capitol in sessions that will liquidate our fear. We want to deny them any time to digest or consider these dense proposals because before 9/11 there was so much considering and digesting and diddling and dawdling. We want them to have migraines of tough-decision stress on our behalf now as they should have had then.

"Why not call Congress back to Washington right now to work on this report and guarantee that the reforms can be implemented to help our intelligence agencies?" Tim Russert demands of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who's only in the studio in the first place to publicize his book. Ruining our leaders' vacations may not be the cruelest blow the terrorists have struck, but it's one of the most precise. Hastert's pasty face above his tight shirt and necktie is confirmation of all the clambakes our nation's leaders are now forced to miss.

(c)2004, Tina Brown

Under the threat of terrorism, there's no rest for the weary Dennis Hastert, speaker of the House.