Being on Mackinac Island puts me a skipping stone toss away from the latest alleged terrorist target, the Mackinac Bridge. From the road in front of our house I can see its graceful arc glistening in the sunset, or lit like a necklace of stars in the night. On Labor Day we join the throngs of mostly Michiganders who run or walk across the two closed lanes of the bridge from St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula to Mackinaw City in the lower. I love this bridge. It's my bridge, in my own back yard.
So when I saw its photo, with the headline saying it was a likely target of the latest busted up terror plot, I was stunned. After all, the bridge, while beautiful, isn't exactly the George Washington or the Golden Gate. The poor old UP has more bears and deer than people, and while the economy in Lower Michigan is dragging, in the UP it's nearly moribund. Trucks do lumber across the bridge, as do cars and campers, but not in the numbers that would appeal to a jihadist's fantasy. In fact, I've been downright smug about being in a place that is so remote -- on an island that doesn't even allow cars fer Pete's sakes, and where the biggest exported vice is fudge.
Then this. Damn those virgin-questing cell phone-buying fanatical youth of Arabian descent! I confess that before I'd read the details of the arrests, I had the same fleeting cynical thought that I had when I read that the US had rushed the Brits into busting up the shampoo bombers before they had all the info they wanted: It's election time in America.
Then the rest of the story trickled in. The young men were pulled over on a “routine” traffic stop. (Routine, that is, if you fit a certain profile.) Actually, it turned out that the police were tipped off by a suspicious Wal-Mart employee, who thought it was strange that these guys were buying so many cell phones, and cell phones, as we now know, can be used to detonate bombs. They can also be resold for a profit, which, we're told, is a customary form of commerce in the Middle Eastern community. Sounds pretty darn American to me, but never mind.
I don't know what to make of clerks ratting on customers for what they are purchasing. Isn't it just a little - creepy, if not un-American to become a nation of snitches? Well, never mind. I suppose reporting suspicious activity is the patriotic mode du jour. But knowing what we know now about shampoo and toothpaste - well, buyer beware when buying in bulk.
The young men, visiting from Texas, also had photos and videos of the Mackinac Bridge, which clinched the case for the authorities. Well, sort of, except that they were typical tourist photos, the kind snapped hundreds of times a day by gawking sightseers awed by the bridge's elegant span.
Like the arrest in Ohio a few days earlier of two young cell-phone buyers of Lebanese descent, this one reeks of much ado over not so much; a case more about hyped-up and over-reacting Andy of Mayberry cops than the shameless manipulations of Karl Rove. The charges against the men in Ohio have already been dropped, and something tells me that the ones against the Bridge plotters won't hold up much longer either.
But at the risk of stating the obvious, we have a problem.
There's the very real threat of fanatics planning more suicide missions against our nation - still vulnerable in no small part due to this administration's dithering approach to homeland security. So it's important to be alert and to connect the dots as the clerks and cops in Michigan were trying to do. Think of the lives that could have been saved if someone, say, the President, had done just that after reading the CIA memos about Bin Laden's plans to attack America using commercial airliners as bombs.
On the other hand, we have our fear-mongering leaders who seem to provoke more rage in the world with every arrogant statement and maladroit mission. Could there be a president less suited to the jangling complexities of these vengeful times than George W. Bush?
The trick is to strike a balance between keen vigilance and politically motivated paranoia, while preserving the rights and liberties that once gave this nation the moral upper hand. The bridge, it seems, is safe for now. It's our country that's in grave danger.
Susan Lenfestey (SooLen@aol.com) lives in Minneapolis most of the time. She blogs at www.clotheslineblog.com