Jacob Heilbrunn

Washington's Earthquake

One of the most obvious effects of the earthquake yesterday, which seismologists have long predicted could occur, is that many people apparently assumed that it was a terrorist attack. The photo on the frontpage of the Washington Post shows two panicky women, one with her mouth contorted in fear, who are fleeing their office building downtown. Their apprehensions are understandable but they also suggest how habituated the public has become to the notion that a new terrorist attack could occur. Yet the likelihood of a natural disaster is surely much higher—a hurricane or even an earthquake.

The quake was a minor one, nothing to get all that excited about, unless you happen to be a seismologist, in which case it may leave you quivering with excitement for entirely legitimate reasons. But what about the terrorist aspect? Why are Americans so petrified?

In  World Affairs, David Rieff sounds some alarms about the extent to which fears about terrorism have permeated American society. The government has, to a large extent, conditioned the populace to cower at the prospect of a new terrorist attack, leading to the rise of an omnicompetent state, at least in the security and military sphere, one that it is almost impossible to rollback as it propounds new "security" measures that do little to secure the country's safety.  Rieff deplores the "fear and paranoia" that he believes have become pervasive. In his words, "It is almost as if, having defeated the Soviet Union, the post-Cold War United States is now coming to resemble its old foe in a host of ways, from hostile border guards and a bloated and uncaring bureaucracy to sullen, indifferent shop assistants and a decaying infrastructure."

Rieff is on to something. Foreigners are routinely treated like enemy aliens at America's borders. American citizens don't rate much higher. Indifferent shop assistants? That's a matter of perception. But a decaying infrastructure is beyond doubt. The latest report is that congressional disputes may lead to the cessation of highway projects around the country, throwing thousands out of work. As the Post's Ashley Halsey reports,

Mike Hancock, Kentucky’s transportation secretary, said state officials are watching Congress “very, very carefully.”

“Do we have confidence that Congress will take care of everything they need to take care of in the 11 days? I look back a couple of weeks, and my confidence is shaken,” Hancock said. “It’s all in the hands of our members of Congress.”

If the authorizations are allowed to expire, state officials said, they would not be able to put projects out for bid and would have to begin shutting down projects underway. Since states spend money from their own coffers and then file for federal reimbursement, they would be out on a limb if they let work continue when federal funds were no longer guaranteed.

In short, America has more to worry about than terrorism and earthquakes.