An American Debate: How Severe the Threat?

By STEPHEN KINZER and TODD S. PURDUM

The New York Times

August 5, 2004

KENOSHA, Wis., Aug. 4 - If the United States was in imminent danger of a terrorist attack and faraway financial institutions were supposed to be on high alert, there was no evidence of it at Franks Diner, a 78-year-old Kenosha institution where senators mix with regular folk and the prospect of another attack seemed just part of the background noise of daily life.

"I don't know who on earth to believe anymore," said Michael Schumacher, a 54-year-old writer who was eating a bratwurst for breakfast. "You feel you're being manipulated all the time."

Some version of that view was echoed at almost every table here as many patrons questioned whether the Bush administration was trying to manipulate the terrorist threat for political advantage.

Some, like John Gilmore, who owned Franks until a few years ago and still comes back to eat, said they had lost faith in the administration after American troops failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"They messed that thing up so badly that at this point, I don't believe anything they tell us," Mr. Gilmore said. "There's always an ulterior motive somewhere."

Others, like Chris De Santis, 55, a registered Democrat who is development director for a nature sanctuary, said the timing of the latest warning raised suspicions.

"You hear that they found plans and computer discs, so you think maybe there's something to it,'' Mr. De Santis said. "Then a day later, it turns out that a lot of the information is three years old, five years old. So I get suspicious. Isn't it a convenient time to have a terror alert, right after the convention?"

But Doug Thorne, a high school chemistry teacher from Kenosha, summed up another reaction that was heard in interviews in shopping malls, restaurants and street corners in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Philadelphia, Cleveland and San Francisco.

"In light of 9/11, you have to take it seriously," Mr. Thorne said. "I don't think it's a political play for votes. If they're going to do that, they'll do it in September or October."

Versions of this debate flared across the country this week as people sought to digest what was by far the most explicit warning by government officials of a potential terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001.

With polls showing public doubts on topics like President Bush's veracity on the war in Iraq and whether the country is safer from terrorism as a result of that invasion, people of diverse ages, income and political persuasion interviewed in eight states expressed a wary mix of skepticism and resignation about the orange alert that has dominated headlines, newscasts and talk radio for three days.

Lauren Bakunas, a 23-year-old graduate student from Parsippany, N.J., gave voice to a powerlessness that seemed to be common. "If it's going to happen, it's going to happen," she said. "I'm not going to change my life because someone wants to threaten the country."

But with the election only a few months away, much of the conversation focused on politics.

In Cleveland, Bryan Kupetz, a registered independent who operates a hot dog stand, echoed a view that might have seemed outlandish only a short time ago.

"So much of the counterterrorism thing is political," Mr. Kupetz said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they caught Osama bin Laden two days before the election. Absolutely I think Bush is using the war on terrorism to his advantage.''

A few blocks away, Ron Greenspan, a lawyer who was taking a cigarette break in front of his office building, utterly rejected that view.

"I think he has the greater good of the American people at heart," Mr. Greenspan said of President Bush. "The thought of a president using this for political gain is just disgusting, and I have a hard time believing that a man of his political stature would do that."

People in Pensacola, a bastion of Bible Belt conservatism where President Bush crushed Al Gore by a nearly two-to-one margin in the 2000 election, argued in similar terms.

"I'm sure there's 10 terrorists willing to give up their lives to hit some of our huge churches or malls and really put fear and terror in the psyche of the public," Norm Hughes, a retired civil servant and a Republican, said as he waited for a friend outside the Coffee Cup, a popular restaurant. "I'm hoping George Bush and his people are doing their jobs to keep them from hitting here again. The Democrats want to say Bush is drumming this up for political reasons, but I don't think he would do that. "

While Mr. Bush has long benefited from his image as a straight talker, polls have shown an undercurrent of doubt about his veracity, beginning with his answers on the Enron scandal two years ago and continuing through to the Iraq war and the prisoner abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.

When the public was asked in late June in a New York Times/CBS News poll whether or not Mr. Bush was telling the truth about the war in Iraq, only 18 percent of Americans said he was telling the entire truth, 59 percent said he was mostly telling the truth but was hiding something and 20 percent said he was mostly lying.

Interviews around the country reflected those mixed views - and a relatively higher level of concern in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. , the places covered by the latest warning, than in the rest of the country.

James Cooper, 51, a chemical company manager from Kingsport, Tenn., who was visiting Washington, said he believed the heightened threat level was justified, but he acknowledged that much of his reasoning was based on faith.

"I don't think any of us have seen all of the pertinent documents that would support the elevated threat level," he said. "They're just not out there for the public. You just have to have a certain amount of trust in the government.''

Some New Yorkers who live and work near the financial buildings terrorists are said to have targeted were uncertain how seriously to take the latest warnings. "I can't imagine any politician playing with public safety to get votes, but it doesn't hurt their image either," said Teasha Duckworth, who works on the 19th floor of Citigroup Center, one of the buildings that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge mentioned as a possible target.

"You have to hope it's true," Keith Kirlew, a broker assistant who also works in Citigroup Center, said of the warning. "If this is political, it's pretty sick, so I have to assume there's some truth to it."

In Fort Lauderdale, Scott LaFortune, a model, said he believes government officials gather realistic intelligence, "but they can report it to us whenever they think it's necessary, or when they feel like hyping it."

"As time goes on, it's like crying wolf," Mr. LaFortune said. "They say something's going to happen, but nothing happens. Eventually we're going to ignore it and go on with our life."

In interviews this week, many people said they believed there was little they could do to prepare for an attack, and that they were resolved to carry on their lives as before. "To tell you the truth, I don't worry about these things," Sister Anna Cosgrave, 59, said as she waited for a train at the Amtrak station in Philadelphia. "What will be, will be."

Not everyone in the terminal was so calm. Tammy Glass, a 35-year-old credit researcher from Lynchburg, Va., was visibly upset by the prospect of another attack.

"I do worry about alerts, big time," Ms. Glass said. "I am scared to death to take trips. They didn't check my bags. When you board a train, you hand them a ticket and that's it. The terrorists are just waiting. They have it easy."

In San Francisco, the same doubts troubled Edward Ross, a 37-year-old lawyer who is a registered independent. "As much as I believe the warning was not politically based, I do have a shadow of a doubt regarding the credibility of the administration," Mr. Ross said. "It comes down to credibility. You lose some faith in taking their statements at face value."

Augustus Williams, a 38-year-old Seattle Democrat, said he had no doubt the terror warning was timed to help President Bush. "This is part of his campaign, I think" Mr. Williams said. "He's trying to get us to say, 'We still need Bush.' "

Many voters who say they trust President Bush seem less convinced than those who mistrust him. In Seattle, Earl Hilberg, 59, who works in a drug store and described himself as an undecided voter, said that when officials in Washington warn of danger, "we have to assume that they're being honest about this until we find out otherwise."

Another independent, Marcia Reed, 75, said, "I don't think we know enough about all this to know what's real or what's politically inspired."

Stephen Kinzer reported from Kenosha and Todd S. Purdum from Washington. Contributing reporting for this article were Janet Elder from New York; Mark Glassman from Washington; Paul Gereffi from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; DuWayne Escobedo from Pensacola, Fla.; Chris Maag from Cleveland; and Carolyn Marshall from San Francisco.