Unlike many Americans, I have had jugs of Poland Spring water and a month’s supply of beans and rice stored in my tiny Upper West Side kitchen for weeks. My husband, Daniel, beat a path to the local hardware store way before any of them sold out of duct tape and plastic sheeting. For Valentine’s Day he ordered me a one-week supply of Cipro, the supposed anthrax antidote, and epinephrine-pens. He plans evacuation routes for me, has asked me not to use the subways, and has toyed with the idea of buying a $1,500 High Efficiency Particulate Air filter pump, or HEPA, which supposedly filters air into a room faster than the air can escape through cracks in the walls, creating an “overpressure” that makes it hard for toxins outside to enter the sealed area.
My husband is addicted to Debka.com, and it’s driving me crazy.
The scary Web site, run by two former journalists from The Economist, claims to offer the inside scoop on the war against terrorism. Reporters write articles with no bylines and, in lieu of the actual names of government or military officials, readers often learn that “this exclusive information has just reached DEBKA-Net-Weekly from its most credible intelligence and counter-intelligence sources.”
In Debka-world, war is always around the corner — any corner. In its July 16 issue, Debka declared that Middle East and Persian Gulf capitals had finally realized that war was coming to them in mid-September. On August 23, it predicted that American forces would be “standing ready in theater” by the end of the first week in October. On November 13, sources reported that the White House was seriously considering going to war on the day before Christmas or January 15.
But for each time they’ve jumped the gun, there seem to be three or four times they’ve scooped their mainstream media competitors. Which is why statements like these terrify me:
“In the last two weeks, [Saddam] did in fact hire terrorists for mass-casualty terrorist attacks on American and Israeli military targets.”
“…the United States has strong suspicions or credible information that either Iraq or the al Qaeda terrorist organization — or both — have nuclear weapons.”
“Washington acted after discovering that Iraq had smuggled two or three nuclear devices at least into the United States for detonation by sleeper cells planted by Iraqi intelligence.”
Who reads Debka.com? “A lot of people, and it gets a lot of people nervous,” said Irwin Mansdorf, a psychologist living in Israel, and a consultant to “Project Liberty,” a federal program providing crisis counseling to victims of terrorism in the United States.
Mansdorf argues that when frightening information is transmitted to people before they know how to assimilate it properly, the effects can be traumatic. “Despite September 11, people in the United States have not internalized the reality of living with terrorism on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
While I do feel overwhelmed by Debka’s detailed, serious information — I expect longitudes and latitudes for the next terrorist attack any minute now — I wonder if I haven’t been more traumatized by my own government’s color-coded, kindergarten lessons on terrorism preparedness. Last week, after raising the nation’s terror alert to the second-highest level — known in American English as “Code Orange” — Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge could offer Americans only this nugget of preparedness advice: Stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting. His words caused a run on Home Depots, but did little to assuage my fears.
Here’s what I know I don’t know: What route I should take in case of an evacuation; whether I should buy a gas mask and if so what kind; what to do if there’s an outbreak of smallpox and where to go to be vaccinated; what to do if I come in contact with sarin, ricin, anthrax or any other agent that requires an antidote; whether, in addition to my epi-pens, I should stock up on iodine tablets; if I should buy a raft and whether, given the possible side-effects of floating in the Hudson River for more than 20 minutes, it wouldn’t be safer just to stick it out on the pier.
I also don’t know whether my government-advised plastic sheeting, already cut into rectangles in the shapes of my windows and doors, will be of any use at all if my city is, once again, a target of terrorism.
“You’re more likely to get killed going to Home Depot to get the plastic than from not having the plastic if something hits,” observed Mansdorf. He cautions against government officials proffering bits and pieces of advice, rather than acknowledging the full scale of the threat and preparing their citizens accordingly.
And herein lies the source of my anxiety: The feeling that Debka is our Oracle at Delphi, and that our government officials have been visiting her; that they know something very bad is about to happen and, patronizingly, refuse to tell us. Rudolph Giuliani’s greatest strength on September 11 was his straightforwardness, his refusal to sugarcoat a very bitter pill. Tom Ridge, on the other hand, is too sweet for my taste.
Mansdorf said that I might have felt more comfortable last week in Israel, when he and every other Israeli citizen received a magazine-length brochure on how to both prepare for and deal with a host of possible terrorist attacks. He’s probably right.
As it turned out, my husband’s preparedness came in handy over the weekend — not because of bio-terrorism, but a blizzard. As the snow began to fall on Sunday evening, I walked into the bedroom to find Daniel at the computer again.
“I wish there were more sites like Debka,” he said wistfully.