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
, 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
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
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
) 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.