In defence of crying wolf

We all know what happens when you cry “wolf” once too often. When the wolf finally does come, no one believes you. On the other hand, if you don’t cry “wolf” and it comes, everyone is outraged they had not been given any prior warning to protect themselves.
That’s precisely the conundrum the Bush administration is grappling with these days. Back on Oct. 11, the U.S. Justice Department posted an “alert” on its Web site warning it had received a “credible” threat of more terrorist attacks over the coming days.
What it didn’t have was specifics.
Nothing happened, although there’s some argument (without proof) that the threat may have referred to the current anthrax scare through the mail.
Then Monday afternoon, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, accompanied by the FBI Director Robert Mueller, held a live news conference to announce another alert had been issued to law enforcement agencies across the country over “credible” information that more terrorist attacks may occur somewhere—somehow—sometime over the next week.
Again, no specifics. So does that mean children should avoid going out trick-or-treating tonight, fans should stay away from Yankee Stadium or Bank One Ballpark for the World Series, or people cancel their flights? Have terrorists contaminated paper money with anthrax this time, not just the odd letter?
The problem, of course, is that if nothing happens again this time, will the American public heed the third alert, or fourth or fifth? And if an alert wasn’t issued, and something did happen, would they ever forgive the government?
Or perhaps this “credible” information is being planted by Osama bin Laden or others purposely to keep Americans quivering in panic—or worse, to disguise their real plan of attack.
Clearly, this is a no-win situation.
Still, despite the obvious danger of getting people all worked up over an unspecified threat, the Bush administration has no choice but to alert law enforcement—and the general public—that one has been received. People have a right to know what’s going on in order to protect themselves or their loved ones.
Nor is it inconceivable that a vigilant general public might actually thwart an attack, even if by chance.
Still, the best way to avoid “crying wolf” is simply to remind people that we are in a state of war against terrorism, which means the U.S. and its allies in the coalition, including Canada, face the threat of more attacks somewhere—somehow—sometime for as long as it takes to win.
The wolf may not come today, next week, or a month from now, but it’s out there. And that may mean being alert—all day, every day—for years.