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The Smell of Fear

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That $100-a-bottle perfume that inconvenienced passengers tossed into airport trash cans last week, along with the lip gloss, toothpaste and shampoo, added the missing element of home-front sacrifice to the war on terror, which may explain why initial media coverage was so enthusiastic and skepticism-free.

It was a story everyone understood - us vs. them, wise-cracking stoicism, a big jolt of fear - and for a while the nation could return to its pre-quagmire delusions of Pearl Harbor/Good War redux. That's the story the media have tried to cover all along.

And, oh, they keep trying: "This nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation." That was our president, of course, still reading "The Pet Goat" to the nation, still quoted straight up as he simplifies a complex world for us. The fanatics who hate freedom will even try to detonate our Prell, our Crest, our Fiji Water, our Eau de Toilette.

Turns out that those of us who thought something smelled funny about the timing and all - peace had just broken out in Connecticut, for instance - were getting a whiff of more than just discarded aftershave.

It's outrageous enough that the arrest in London last week of 24 terror suspects was premature and dovetailed not with the accumulation of evidence against them, but with the White House's need to call the voters who dumped Joe Lieberman "Defeatocrats" (House Majority Leader John Boehner) and coddlers of "al-Qaida types" (Dick Cheney).

But the outrage is magnified by the fact that the Bush administration, even as it stoked national paranoia over a plot to detonate carryon liquids aboard transatlantic flights, was, according to the Associated Press, quietly defunding the development of technology to detect those very bombs. Indeed, the research arm of the Department of Homeland Security has become a "rudderless ship without a clear way to get back on course." This is the bipartisan assessment of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the AP said.

Only Republicans are allowed to be this incompetent! It's "heckuva job, Brownie" all over again, but with a wicked twist. When it comes to national security, the clueless fumbling of the Homeland Security bureaucracy feeds the Bush administration's politics of fear.

"Weeks before Sept. 11, this is going to play big," a White House official, speaking anonymously about the London arrests, told Agence France Presse. Yeah, I'll bet, especially if the Defeatocrats can do no more than cringe and whimper that they're tough on terror, too.

And the "new normal" at airport terminals gets a little bit weirder. Apropos of nothing but politics, shoeless passengers add a new step to the counterterror dance they have to do to board a plane.

In a rational world, terrorism would be addressed with objectivity, intelligence and an ongoing effort, in this flawed world, to redress the cultural misunderstandings and gaping injustices that foment it; and maybe, while we're at it, an all-out commitment to developing alternative energy sources, among much else. On Planet Bush, terrorism is addressed by turning shampoo bottles into objects of hysterical suspicion. And when we get used to that, they'll come up with something else. It's faith-based fear, and they can't govern without it.

Consider how desperate the situation is:

"Republicans have become increasingly alarmed that the war might drag down incumbents," the New York Times reported the other day. "A senior Republican consultant with ties to the White House, who was granted anonymity so he could describe internal research for a Republican member of Congress, said he had recently conducted a focus group in a highly contested Congressional district in the Philadelphia suburbs.

"He was shocked, he said, at the degree of hostility among Republicans toward the war, even accounting for the fact that Northeast Republicans are more moderate than their counterparts in the rest of the country."

What to do, what to do? Rather than think about changing course, in recognition of the fact that it's losing its base, the Bush adminstation, through calculated and highly sophisticated fear-mongering (no incompetence here), is pushing us deeper into more of the same. If the U.S. Constitution were color-coded, we'd be in code red.

"The goals of the White House are not to stop terrorism; the goal of the White House is to allow terrorism to fester in order to - as the basic game plan for dictators goes - use fear to consolidate tyrannical power and do away with our Constitutional checks and balances of government and guarantee of individual liberties," the Web site BuzzFlash editorializes.

The word for this, the editorial notes, is treason.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
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