Another Perspective

Taking Stock

Last year was one not of decision, but of marking time and getting ready -- though for what?

By 1.2.03

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Two thousand two. Bernard DeVoto wouldn't have thought much of it. Eighteen forty-six was a year rich in epochal events that enabled him to write an enduring The Year of Decision, but 2002 was one of those marking of times, getting ready, a caesura in the beat of history. Even so, we are at the turning of the year and, as my great-uncle the rustler would say, "It's time to take stock."

We learned of the awful differences in the pace of fear and that of remedy. At this writing, the FBI is seeking five, and perhaps more, men with Middle-Eastern monikers who are believed to have slipped over the northern frontier just in time for Christmas. They had consulted a purveyor of phony documents in Canada just before heading south, the documenter himself having skipped bail of $200,000 previously in the United States.

Were they wearing sailor suits we could believe they were part of a terrorist group that owns a flotilla of ships any one of which may be steaming for a U.S. port with a cargo of death, nuclear, viral, take your pick. The existence of such a veritable armada was made known at year's end by the Washington Post.

Not to worry. Slowly, we are putting together a giant bureaucracy that will tend to Homeland Security and its outlines should be visible when we celebrate the coming of yet another year.

Your aerial baggage is now being checked for bombs as well as safety pins, but your pilots are as disarmed as ever. This too is being worked on and who knows, one day the aircraft commander may have the means of defense. But not this week.

And perhaps never if he has to obtain that means in Maryland. A law is now effective requiring fired shell casings from new handguns be on deposit with the state police before a Maryland sale is allowed and many arms manufacturers are simply writing off the State of Maryland as a place to do business. Ah, but the sale of cheap used handguns continues apace. New Jersey has gone Maryland one statute better. It has passed a law requiring handguns to recognize their owners and refuse to fire if held by anyone else. Admittedly, the science to achieve this has not caught up with the law, so the Trenton solons have decreed the law to be in effect as soon as tardy technicians are abreast of the legislation.

A valued lesson in arms was learned on the international front in 2002. Dictators of emerging countries were put on notice: one atomic bomb, even under development, can get you in deep trouble. But five shiny new ones and you're home free. As Saddam's no-fly zones are about to be expanded to free fire zones throughout, Kim Jong Il is being accorded the diplomatic niceties of a true statesman. The lesson: get 'em first and get 'em early, and then start pushing.

It was a year when "a pox on you" could no longer be said in public. Fearing terror, the President decreed the Armed Forces be vaccinated for smallpox and he as commander-in-chief submitted himself right away. Several hundred thousand health care givers and frontline emergency crews are to be next. Way down the line may or may not come the general population. No one dare ask why the health care givers might be exposed and by whom: the general population? Is there something haywire in the hypothesized progression here?

It was a year when history itself was doubted. When historical fact was being stealthily skewed. On the Internet. This vast research resource is riddled with misinformation as well as information. In recent years, the lunar landings of the United States have come into question as historical fact. It was all made up on some back lot, the doubters said. A couple of years ago the Fox television network aired some of the doubters' speculations. As 2002 was ending, NASA took two steps in this regard. It commissioned a well-known space author to write a monograph outlining the doubts and putting them to rest with facts, and then the Agency withdrew from the project, apparently in the belief that it would look foolish even to duel with the doubters.

Former astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin had come face-to-face with a doubter on September 9 in Los Angeles. 37- year-old Bart Sibrel approached Aldrin and poked at him with a Bible, accusing him of being part of the conspiracy, demanding he swear on the Bible he'd been to the moon, and calling him names. Aldrin punched him in the face.

But most Internet-spawned error cannot be dealt with so directly. The written word, even wrong, bears a strength of its own. Some years ago this became apparent in a script I was given quoting Lincoln as saying "Important principles may and must be inflexible." I suggested he had said "flexible." I was directed to the place on the Internet where the quote, one of his last public utterances, was enshrined in error.

One day, the task of cleansing the Internet will dwarf that of constructing the Home Security edifice.

Meantime, as the year of indecision recedes, we must search for the verities that endure through all the years. Not drawing to an inside straight is one of these.

The Aldrin approach to calumny is another .

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.