Just weeks after Democratic Presidential candidate Howard Dean was roundly condemned for daring to suggest that the capture of a powerless, deranged ex-dictator on the other side of the world did not make America safer from terrorism, the nation was in a state of alarm more intense than any since September 11. Washington, D.C. itself went briefly Code Red; elsewhere, Code Orange cast a pallor over the bright lights of the holidays, and has inauspiciously remained into the New Year, whose first days have been dampened by an undercurrent of anticipated violence and hysteria.
Making matters worse was the FBI's year-end warning to police nationwide, urging them to be on the lookout for anyone carrying maps or almanacs, especially if they are annotated. "The use of almanacs or maps may be the product of legitimate recreational or commercial activities," wrote the FBI in a bulletin uncovered by the Associated Press, but "the practice of researching potential targets is consistent with known methods of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations that seek to maximize the likelihood of operational success through careful planning." Coming from a long line of map and almanac lovers, I was rather disturbed by their sudden classification as something one might expect to find in Osama bin Laden's bags.
There are two basic varieties of almanacs. The first type, the various farmer's almanacs, can be found in the checkout aisles of almost any supermarket, their old-fashioned covers with woodcut illustrations and County Fair fonts peeking incongruously out from the tabloids. Anyone not in the mood to read of Saddam's alien love child or Julia Roberts' uncontrollable donut binges can instead learn about the fine art of fruit canning, or contemplate ordering an Amazing Giant Tomato Tree of their very own. A unique combination of agrarian practicality and whimsy, they are pure Americana.
Farmer's almanacs also contain long-range weather forecasts, which the FBI suggests could be used for nefarious ends. But let's see what my own almanac had to say about the week before Christmas, one of the warmest in recorded history. "December 18-20: Colder, snow, blustery. December 21-25: cold, scattered snow showers." Hardly, it would seem, a resource for any but the most incompetent evildoer. Of course, I must confess to citing the New Millennium Farmer's Almanac, which is a junior-varsity version of the great Poor Richard's Almanac ? founded, of course, by none other than Benjamin Franklin. Certainly the FBI is not questioning the motives of our nation's Founding Fathers?
he other type of almanac is typified by the World Book of Facts, read by millions and inevitably plucked from a remainder pile for $3.96 a year after publication. However, information about the Luxembourg's population or New Guinea's exports is used to settle bets or enrich a trip to the bathroom, not hatch plots. Granted, this sort of almanac usually cursory descriptions of notable landmarks, and a basic collection of maps; but unless terrorists having trouble finding the United States itself, or hinge their schemes on remembering the capital of North Dakota at two in the morning, it is hard to see how an almanac could help.
As for maps, some of my oldest memories are of evenings spent on my father's lap, poring over the topographical maps he collected, finding unusual or funny names and learning the rich language of geography. Sadly, his innate sense of direction failed to rub off on me, but I did inherit his habit of always equipping my car with a road atlas, supplemented in the internet age by a MapQuest printout or two. Millions of Americans no doubt do the same. Indeed, what is more American than a family of four in their car, kids sticky and whining in the backseat, a migrained mother urging her husband to ask for directions already, and dad driving with the atlas propped on the steering wheel, trying to figure out where the shortcut went wrong? If the actors of this timeless tableau have become objects of government suspicion, we may as well start confiscating baseballs, apple pies, and ? yes ? moms. (You first, Barbara Bush!)
For the FBI to think that identifying readers of maps and almanacs will somehow help defeat terrorism is ridiculous. It is also profoundly disturbing. When such harmless, everyday activities are seen as potentially terrorist behavior, others will soon follow, until it is impossible to live without being, in some way, a suspect. What sort of 'victory' is that? At the start of this new year, let us all remember Benjamin Franklin's words: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Brandon Keim (email@example.com) is Communications Director of the Council for Responsible Genetics and a freelance writer.