The battle against terror has even come to little Ridgely, a quiet gameboard of a town (pop. 1,400) on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It has street names like Park, Railroad, Sunrise and Sunset. It is pretty far from everywhere.
City police recently installed three sleek white surveillance cameras, paid for by a homeland security grant. Two, mounted on the front of the three-story Victorian mansion that is the town hall, keep a cross-eyed vigil up and down Central Avenue. The third peers down over the door of the police station, which is on the back side of town hall.
"You can't ever tell," says Police Chief Merlin Evans, 59. Terrorists just might pass through Ridgely on their way to a bigger target, he says.
Terrorism. Weapons of mass destruction. Bird flu. Hurricanes. Sex offenders. New and terrible forms of cancer. Sexually transmitted diseases. Alzheimer's. Crystal meth labs. Lawsuits. Prison breaks! Female suicide bombers! Wildfires! Identity theft! Terrifying toys! Falling branches! Insurance fraud! Killer cold weather! Searing heat! Flash floods . . . exploding gas tanks . . . erupting volcanoes . . . capsizing boats . . . devastating typhoons . . . wild emergency plane landings . . . train wrecks-famines-pestilence-ice storms-global warming! Deadly parade balloons!
This is a land in lockdown. Seventy years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the country: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Today, we are told to fear everything but fear itself, which we embrace with widespread arms, outstretched hands and an open wallet. We treat fear like Caesar victorious. We allow fear into our homes, our heads, our hearts. We build whole industries around it.
Let's admit it: We are living in Fraidy Cat Nation.
If you are a girl, you'll be abducted! If you are a boy, you'll be molested! If you are a tourist, you'll be robbed!
This never-ending barrage of warnings and bad news eventually becomes an indistinguishable, indecipherable din, says Marc Siegel, a New York doctor and author of "False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear." He believes we need to redirect the nation's, and our own, response to danger warnings. "I'm not against preparation," he says, "I'm against alarmism."
The core problem lies in the amygdala -- the little bobsled-shaped part of the brain that processes fear. The amygdala is at the center of the brain's emotional network. Primal feelings -- and stress -- come from here. But the crucial area can only handle one emotion at a time. "The same amygdala that processes fear," Siegel explains, "also processes positive emotions. So if you are busy fueling your amygdala with fear, then courage, passion, laughter can't get in."
In other words, if the brain is always on a yellow (elevated alert) threat level, it is not able to rest or relax or even prepare properly for the next real onslaught.
So it is with our national amygdala -- Washington.
Here in the fear center of America's brain, the government, the corporate lobbyists and the media converge. (Prime example: In February, MarketWatch reported that Tom Ridge, the former head of Homeland Security who urged us all to buy lots of duct tape, was joining the board of directors of Home Depot, megasellers of duct tape.)
Washington has the same challenge our brains do -- separating real threats from perceived threats. The triage, Siegel says, is not going so well. "If you are constantly putting the worst-case scenario out there," Siegel says, "you are communicating to people that that's the most likely thing to happen."
That, he says, "is the reason you have a scared nation. Everybody believes that the worst thing is going to happen tomorrow. That's not true."
We should prepare for all scenarios -- the worst and the best -- he says. Instead "we are constantly personalizing risk in ways that are not realistic."
Tom Finnigan of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), puts it this way: "Humans have a tendency to overestimate small risks while underestimating big risks, and politicians and special interests are very good at taking advantage of it."
The world is a dangerous place -- and it became even more so in the wake of 9/11 -- but it couldn't possibly be as treacherous, as dastardly, as booby-trapped as the government and the corporations and the media would have us believe.
And if the fear has flowed into the corners of Ridgely, it is doubtless in every corner of our country. Consider these events, as documented by CAGW and other groups:
* Concerned that terrorists might infiltrate the state's bingo parlors, Kentucky received a $36,300 Homeland Security grant in October to thwart such a possibility.
* Fearful of explosives, Grand Forks, N.D., this year used $145,000 from Homeland Security to buy a bomb-dismantling robot. In September, the Grand Forks Herald reported that the robot, five police officers, a sheriff's deputy and an X-ray machine were deployed to check out a suspicious nylon backpack left by vagrants under a pine tree. It contained bricks.
* Skittish Boston Harbor officials have a dinner cruise yacht doing double duty as an anti-terrorist vessel.
"There are plenty of cases where the public's fear over exaggerated threats leads to government spending on projects and programs that are wasteful or of dubious merit," Finnigan writes in an e-mail.
Widespread fear may be good for business, but it's bad for the national psyche. And we are getting zapped from every direction. If the president is not reminding us that his administration is fighting terrorism abroad and "doing everything we can to disrupt folks that might be here in America trying to hurt you," then he is warning us that avian flu "may be the first pandemic of the 21st century." Actually, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded that trophy to SARS. Remember when we were scared of SARS?
Members of Congress are familiar with fear. Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican congresswoman from Missouri, told an appropriations subcommittee that one "huge problem that worries me" is "a possible earthquake where I live in the New Madrid Fault in Missouri and the fact that I suspect there isn't a plan in place to deal with the aftermath of that."
John Carter, a Republican from Texas, opined about the danger posed by illegal immigrants from Mexico. "It's frightening," he told his colleagues.
Homeland Security is in the business of preparedness in this fright-fraught culture. On its Ready America Web site (www.ready.gov), the department stresses preparedness by reminding us: "Don't Be Afraid, Be Ready." Brian Doyle, deputy press secretary of Homeland Security, says that since it was formed in 2002, his agency has done "a million different things" to make the United States safer. On Sept. 11, 2001, there were some 33 air marshals in the skies, mostly flying international routes. Today, according to DHS, there are thousands on flights everywhere. Hundreds of airline pilots have been trained to use guns. Cockpit doors have been secured on 6,000 aircraft. Every single piece of checked baggage is screened.
A robust "student and exchange information system," Doyle says, "has been tracking where every foreign student is."
Corporations have jumped on the fraidy-cat bandwagon. In promotional material, Lockheed Martin warns us that a new generation of fighter jets is being developed by our enemies, putting "the United States' ability to gain and maintain air superiority, much less air dominance, at increasing risk." Showtime is producing a your-neighbor-may-be-a-terrorist series called "Sleeper Cell."
And the media buy into the hype and hyperbole. Night after night you see the hysteria on TV news and talk shows. We have become a nation that cries: Wolf Blitzer!
The government also uses scaredy-pants tactics with young folks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency Web site for kids, for instance, features a hermit crab mascot named Herman, who, when faced with flood or fire, scurries like a scared crab to find a new shell to hide in. Couldn't the mascot be a wise, muscular Saint Bernard that helps people in disasters?
"Or a bald eagle?" suggests Marc Siegel, "that soars above it all?"
On this recent day, only crows are seen in the overcast sky above Ridgely, the little town that fear remembered. At the town park, William Wilkins, 62, a retired surveyor, takes his daily constitutional. Like many Americans, he thinks fighting evil is a noble pursuit, but he's not sure why the government is worried about terrorism in Ridgely. "The cameras can't hurt," he admits. "But I'm surprised they didn't put them out here."
He points to the park. "The kids come out here. Especially those ones on the skateboards. They throw trash around."
Chief Evans says he does plan to place a camera at the town park to watch the skateboarders. He will also install one near the water tower and another at the nearby waste water treatment plant, in case any terrorists might try to tamper with the supply.
"That's a secured facility," he says. "It's called 'target hardening.' "
He welcomes all the cameras because they help him keep an eye on things and, he says, "because Homeland Security paid for them."