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Terrorism 101

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When Cori Dauber sees headlines about the war on terrorism, she's troubled by what she calls the "ricochet effect." That's how Dauber, who's an associate professor of communications at UNC-Chapel Hill, describes the way the media--and the public--bounce between extremes of total panic and total indifference to the subject.

"We ricochet between, 'Oh my God, we've got to get duct tape,' to ignoring it," she says. "The media give us blips about it before they race on to the next celebrity wedding."

Dauber, who's writing a book about media coverage of the U.S. war on terrorism, is recently back from a 10-day trip to Israel with a group of academics interested in that country's response to terrorist attacks (defined as those that deliberately target civilians). The trip was jointly sponsored by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank formed after Sept. 11 by a motley group that includes Steve Forbes, Newt Gingrich, Donna Brazile and Jeane Kirkpatrick.

The main reason for going to Israel, Dauber says, was to explore "what we can learn from a democracy confronting terrorism." The main lesson she took away from the journey: "There are democracies in the world that have been confronting these threats for far longer than we have. We don't need to believe that Israel is in the right with regard to the Palestinians to believe they are right in how they are fighting terrorism."

Sitting outside a Chapel Hill coffee shop on a recent hazy morning, Dauber describes some of her experiences on the trip. As rush hour traffic whizzes by on Franklin Street, she talks about the dual track Israeli citizens now travel; the way they've internalized watchfulness and an expectation of violence, yet are still able to go on with daily life.

It's a sobering picture--one in which universities are walled communities where every backpack is searched; where bars and buses are prime targets for suicide bombers; and where representatives of the government agency responsible for rebuilding after a terrorist attack appear as quickly as police and firefighters when bombs go off.

Dauber isn't recommending such measures be taken in, say, Chapel Hill. "But what we haven't done and what we need to learn from the Israelis is that there is an enormous amount we can be doing that would be reasonable."

For instance? Well, how about better protecting our chemical and nuclear power plants, Dauber suggests. And refining the government's color-coded alert system so that it actually means something. She says the system mystified representatives of the Israeli security apparatus. "What's up with those alerts?" they asked.

By reporting the alerts as if they were merely a new form of weather report, Dauber says, the media has numbed the American public to the very real possibility of a future terrorist attack. "People have to understand that this is an organized threat," she adds. "This notion that people have to be vigilant is real. It's not a call for people to become peeping Toms or for insane racial profiling. But it is a call for vigilance."

Unless we pay studied and reasoned attention to the problem of terrorism now, Dauber worries that if and when another attack occurs, the response will be a huge overreaction. One way to start is to shift the focus of debate, she says. Progressives have fixed on the threat the government's war on terrorism poses to civil liberties, Dauber says. "But what gets missed is the threat to civil liberties posed by terrorism."

But are stepped-up security measures the best way to fight terrorism? Even in Israel, they're clearly not foolproof. And do we really want to be living in a state of mental and emotional siege, viewing even the most ordinary aspects of daily life as a potential threat?

No, Dauber says. But we can't pretend the threat's not there.

"There's no doubt that terrorism is a threat to liberty. It's an invasion of your thinking process," she says. "There are compromises that have to be made. That's the tradeoff you're forced into. We do it now with flying. The Israelis do it all the time."

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