New Fear's Eve

Ringing in 2000 with champagne and paranoia.

In Unreal Washington, it was just another public servant honoring public servants for serving the public last week. But it was scary. At a well-publicized DC ceremony, Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers handed out awards to four US Customs Service workers from Port Angeles, saying they made our country safer and stronger, and bestowing upon them the title "true heroes."

What prompted Summers to yank inspectors off the already undermanned border crossing, hurriedly fly them across the US, and call an instant awards ceremony? The four had nabbed a worried little man named Benni Noris carrying explosive materials and a timing device aboard the MV Coho as the car ferry from Victoria docked in Port Angeles. As the story played out in the news media, Noris was really an alleged Algerian terrorist named Ahmed Ressam headed for Seattle in hopes of imploding the Space Needle on the eve of Y2K. And many others like him may be targeting the US.

It was certainly a good collar, and anyone transporting a crapload of nitroglycerin and exploding powder in his rented Chrysler is presumably not planning to smoke out moles in his back yard. Still, such terror-suspect arrests are not all that unusual, customs officials concede, and when the hero awards were being doled out in DC, suspect Ressam had yet to be charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. Now that he has been indicted by a grand jury here—basically for smuggling bomb materials into the country—US Attorney Kate Pflaumer has given no indication of Ressam's possible target and in fact refuses to comment on the possibility of a wider New Year's terrorist bomb plot.

What a paranoia bummer, huh? Summers can probably be excused for his case of premature congratulation, hoping to psyche up the border troops and reassure the public that customs is on the job. Truth is, the much-heralded beefed-up border security doesn't mean more bodies on the line, just essentially the same ones working longer hours. And as law enforcement has admitted for years, any serious drug runner or terrorist will use one of hundreds of unguarded border crossings to get into the US.

What's getting lost between increasingly hysterical bomb-threat headlines and bureaucratic proclamations (including Paul Schell's cancellation of Seattle's big New Year's bash at Seattle Center) is the Y2K message of moderation: Be alert, and don't be your own worst enemy. It's computers, not terrorists—Bill Gates, not Osama bin Laden—that pose a Millennial Eve threat, and much less than we feared 12 months ago. Most rational public officials say reasonable precautions are in order to endure systemic glitches—buy a flashlight, stow some food and water, hoard a little cash. Enjoy your bubbly, it might be a rocky couple days. Then it's back to the grind for another century.

The crowning irony would be if we do it to ourselves: There we are, sailing smoothly into Y2K, when everybody picks up the phone at midnight. The human urge to see if the dang thing works, officials say, could set off a domino affect, knocking out one utility after another, leading perhaps even to power blackouts. New Year's Day without cold beer and TV bowl games—that's the real terror we face.

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