THE convention of it only deepens the chill.
The generals report crisply that the start of aerial bombardment of Afghanistan has, so far, been a success. The surgically precise bombs dropped by surgically aimed planes have hit their surgically chosen targets. It is all going swimmingly.
We have come to expect this after a decade of war with the look of a video game. The unexpected is the fear. It comes from knowing we had every bit of this high-tech hardware before Sept. 11. It did not protect us then. Smart bombs do not heal the psyche now.
The fear is only deeper, so deep the president himself twice has used public appearances to acknowledge what the citizens feel. Just a few days ago, he was trying to cheer us up and get us onto airplanes, out to the mall, into the auto showrooms. Now there is no ignoring the obvious.
"I know that many Americans at this time have fears," President George W. Bush said at the swearing-in ceremony of former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as head of the nation's new Homeland Security Office. It is an office no one really believed we needed until now.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who was supposed to swear Ridge in, instead was kept away from yesterday's White House ceremony. He is still at an undisclosed, secure location - separated from the president so he can succeed him if necessary. The airports resemble armed camps; the seaports are patrolled by warships; cruise ships, even, are kept away from some harbors, including New York. The bridges and tunnels that used to be just a hassle now represent potential horror.
A case of anthrax reported in Florida last week, initially downplayed by the administration as the possible result of its victim having been "an outdoorsman," has taken on a darker cast. Another anthrax exposure has been uncovered in the same building where the first man worked. Last week, they said terrorism was unlikely; now, they are not so sure.
"We are unable to make a conclusive statement about this as either an attack or an occurrence," Attorney General John Ashcroft said of the anthrax cases, adding, "We regard this as an investigation which could become a clear criminal investigation."
Uncertainty is fear's foundation. Osama bin Laden has laid his building blocks well.
"There is America, full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east," he said on that macabre videotape shown shortly after the attacks on Afghanistan began Sunday.
This is all as planned. The terrorists know they cannot swoop down upon us, capture our cities and our factories, cause our government to collapse. They can only get inside our heads. We say we will not let them. But then we do not dissent when school districts cancel field trips to the pumpkin patch.
This is the split-screen image that sets the nerves on edge. On one side is the flare of American technology piercing through the night on what we see as a mission of virtue. On the other is this solitary man standing in broad daylight before a craggy gray rock, mocking it, and us.
We are resolute, fully supported by our longtime allies, under the guidance of experienced generals and a president who seems to have undergone a remarkable transformation from insufferable cowboy to adept commander. The Bush administration is saying, every way it can, that the generals with their pointers and their maps will soon be gone from your TV screen.
The rest of the war on terrorism will not be televised. It is to be conducted by the unseen others - the spies, the daring special forces, the friendly guerrillas who will help us now in direct exchange for something later.
But the Israelis have been at this for years. They, too, have a respected military that wants for neither courage nor hardware. They have their spies, their infiltrators, their airport-security system that is the model for the world. And still, when they send the teenagers out for pizza, they worry they will not return.
We had become used to cheering even the television shots of American military action abroad because it made us feel powerful and proud. This time there is no euphoria, because we have come to understand there is no refuge.
Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.