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How do Americans View Recent Terror Threats? - 2002-05-22

With Bush administration officials issuing warnings of new terrorist threats almost daily, it has been an unsettling week for the American public. Various top government officials have said suicide bombings are inevitable and that terrorists who might acquire weapons of mass destruction would not hesitate to use them. So, how is all of this playing with the public?

Outside the U.S. Capitol building, an excited group of eighth graders from a Catholic school in Omaha, Nebraska, is patiently awaiting a security check before touring the home of the Congress.

The Capitol is one of Washington's most popular tourist destinations. Intelligence analysts fear it is also high on the list of potential terrorist targets. But that does not concern 14-year-old Jackie Kinnear of Omaha, who says "I am not really afraid because I do not think it will happen again." Eight months after hijackers flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon a few kilometers from the Capitol, young Jackie Kinnear admits the "attack has not really hit me. I mean, I have seen it on the news and everything. But it still has not gone through my head that it happened."

Just 24 hours earlier, the Bush administration's director of homeland security, Tom Ridge, issued yet another warning of more terrorism to come. "While we prepare for another possible terrorist attack, we need to understand that it is really not a question of if, but a question of when," Mr. Ridge said.

Though seemingly bombarded with warnings of more terrorist threats in recent days, Americans are trying to get on with their lives as best they can.

Robin Martinez is one of the parental chaperones on the school field trip from Omaha. She wants the warnings to continue. "You know, I want them to tell me because I have a very busy life. And I want them to keep reminding me and reminding me every day that this is happening because I do not ever want to forget it," Ms. Martinez said.

Another parent, Mark Dickhute, believes that the American public is coming to grips with the reality of living under the threat of terrorism.

"I think we have to accommodate ourselves to the fact that life is going to be difficult, that people will die, and I am not sure that there is any way to completely prevent terrorism. I think the Israelis have tried and been unsuccessful at that. All it takes is one determined individual with a cause, and he can cause a lot of chaos here," Mr. Dickhute said.

There have been complaints about the government warnings that they are too vague and may alarm the public unnecessarily.

William Waugh is an expert on terrorism and crisis management at Georgia State University. "There is a need to be much more specific in how the warning is given, particularly for local officials who may rely on that to sort of key their own [anti-terrorism] programs," Mr. Waugh said.

But Governor Ridge has said it is better for the public to be on alert even if the government is unable to offer specific information about threats. "And again, this is a very difficult environment for Americans to accept. We felt fairly immune from this kind of activity, although we have observed it around the world, literally for decades. But it is in that context of being at war, being open, therefore being vulnerable, both within the private and the public sector, that we do share this information from time to time," he said.

Much of the information leading to these latest warnings has apparently come from some of the al-Qaida prisoners being held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

Anti-terrorism consultant Neil Livingstone said most of those being held probably know only fragments of useful information. "The difficulty, of course, with the interrogation is that we have bits and pieces. It is a little bit like the proverbial story of the blind man feeling the elephant. He feels only the part that he is touching and often has difficulty in trying to figure out what the whole is," Mr. Livingstone said.

Back at the U.S. Capitol, parent Robin Martinez worries about how her children will cope with future threats of terrorism. At the same time, she signals a note of defiance as she contemplates how her own life has changed since September 11.

"I do not think that we as people and as Americans and as human beings, that we should have to fear anybody. But it is spooky for our children. It is spooky for our lives, but it is just sad that we have to live in that fear, and I think, as Americans, we do not want to live in that fear, and we are not going to," she said.

With that, the line moves ahead and the students start to squeal with excitement. They are on their way inside the Capitol.