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In Cold Type | The Nation

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In Cold Type

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It seems a long time ago that I stocked my pantry (pantry is a concept in
Manhattan, not a reality) with two weeks' worth of emergency food
(including powdered milk, an oddly comforting substance when faced with
the potential collapse of infrastructure) and other items like duct tape
and three five-gallon bottles of water. Now I discover that a good
friend and an expert on terrorist threats has three 125-gallon drums of
bleach-processed water in his children's bedroom, as well as
military-grade surgical masks, potassium iodide (against radiation
poisoning) and Cipro--the anthrax antibiotic--as well as rolls of
plastic sheeting to cover the windows.

What does one make of all this? My personal response has been to flee to
a place in the country, and hope that the attack comes on the weekend.

My kids' room doesn't have space for both them and the water drums.
Maybe if I could do something about clutter, as the shelter magazines
call life's detritus, I could find a floor area for adequate emergency
supplies; but I just can't bring myself to buy Real Simple, nice
as it is.

So instead, I've secured a copy of the upcoming Summer 2002 issue of
World Policy Journal, published by the World Policy Institute at
The New School, and may I say that after reading it, I am seriously
thinking of running back out to get Real Simple and, with a few
easy organizational steps, squeezing the three 125-gallon water barrels
into a corner of our living room.

The most sobering article--in a very sober, well-written, intelligently
conceived publication--is called "The Threats America Faces." In it,
John Newhouse, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information in
Washington, enumerates the many kinds of attack to which we are
incapable of responding. The most shocking for its cruelty, its
understanding of human vulnerability and its supertechno cartoonishness,
is the potential for terrorist infiltration (they've already done it!)
of computers that control major operating systems, like electricity, air
traffic control, banking or communications. (My friend with the water
drums says Al Qaeda wants to interrupt communications at the precise
time of a physical attack; mayhem as well as massacre.) Newhouse points
out that before September 11, the defense community was obsessed with
the possible threat from long-range missiles by rogue states, as a 2001
State Department guidance memorandum stated it. He and other experts,
though not necessarily Rumsfeld's Defense Department, are now more
concerned about missiles that could be launched from an offshore
location by a third party against, say, Moscow, triggering an all-out
nuclear attack on America--or vice versa. Newhouse also raises the
specter of the inadequately secured former Soviet nuclear arsenal, and
notes that the only way to deal with such phenomena is through bi- and
multinational agreements of the kind the Bush Administration has to be
dragged to by its short hairs.

It's all about blowback, but Newhouse believes that concerted
multilateral diplomacy, agreements and shared intelligence can, with a
little luck, forestall an act of terror that would provoke what he calls
a "hidden-hand war," a war against an unknown adversary. It's a hope, if
Bush and his boys and girl can be pushed in that direction.

World Policy Journal's issue is almost all of a piece, very
artfully structured around a common theme that is, modestly stated, the
future of the world. Martin Walker contributed to the discussion with
his piece on "America's Virtual Empire," in which he compares the United
States to, among others, Britain under Victoria, and comments on how
much weaker Victoria's armies were than ours is today, and yet how much
more willing she was to deploy her nation's military. Walker has a nice
aside on the meetings that take place at Ditchley, a country house in
Oxfordshire celebrated to its initiates as the spiritual home of the
Anglo-Saxon alliance since Churchill's day. The way Walker describes
Ditchley, it's like Hogwarts for NATO leaders: They don black tie for a
splendid dinner in a stately hall on Saturday nights before gathering
around the piano in song. (One does wonder what exactly they sing.)

Also do not miss David Unger's fair-minded essay on the Middle East
crisis, "Maps of War, Maps of Peace," which provides a real idea of the
labyrinthine impasse, and hope that there is some way out.

With all this in mind, I decided to escape to that house in the country,
and I lugged some shelter magazines along (it's much easier to read
about nuclear holocaust when you are at least an hour and a half from
Targettown). Oddly, nothing in Metropolitan Life looked like our
house. Hmmm. This Old House was more like it, but the people in
This Old House actually know how to deal with things. Like
floors. Or mice and mildew.

Yet the magazines, including Design NJ and House &
Garden--with their empty stylish, upscale interiors--do give you an
idea of what it is the average person thinks we are upholding and
defending from what Newhouse tells us has been called a low-probability,
high-consequence attack. Shelter magazines, with their largely fantastic
scenarios, superbly condense the American dream. In House &
Garden
, led by the edgy middle-American-design thinker Dominique
Browning, there is a piece about designers making children's playspaces
(there's an interior climbing wall for your 10-year-old); one about
filling rooms with (how shall I say?) things based on Roy
Lichtenstein's interiors; and yet another on an impossibly perfect house
and garden on a Nantucket shore, which almost no one can afford. What
all this says (and it is repeated in dozens of other similar magazines,
reaching its bizarre zenith of impossibility in Architectural
Digest) is that there is always a better mousetrap (I wish), that
your future and your family's future holds promise and rewards, and that
one day, you too may have a beach. Given the vision of collapsing real
estate with which we were presented on September 11, the shelter
magazines seem more dreamlike and escapist than ever. In a way, this
makes them even more pleasurable, like a guilty fantasy you shouldn't be
indulging. Like porn.

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