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Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts Jr.: New World Disorder is nothing to smile about

May 23, 2002

He was trying to draw a smiley face.

His name was Luke John Helder, and his medium of choice was mailbox bombs. He wanted to arrange them so they'd form the emblem of the "Have a nice day" era across the map of the continental United States. Six people were injured in the bombings, which the 21-year-old college student reportedly described as "attention-getters" for his anti-government views.

How can you listen to that — how can you watch TV pictures of this cheerful, chatty kid smiling in the custody of officials as he's held on charges that could put him away for life — without feeling a bit like Alice, fallen down the rabbit hole to a land where nothing makes sense anymore?

It's almost enough to make you miss the Cold War, to long for the days of saber-rattling men and bellicose rhetoric. It was frightening, yes. For children of that era, atomic annihilation was the bogeyman that haunted you down into restless sleep. But at the same time, there was a certain predictability about it, a sense that, if those on the other side were evil and inscrutable, at least they weren't crazy. At least they weren't likely to vaporize Nebraska to create a smiley face.

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That's the thing about terrorism. It democratizes fear, giving any zealot or idiot with access to bomb-making equipment the illusion — and sometimes, the reality — of veto power over societies and governments. You see it all the time in the Middle East: Anyone who doesn't like a peace accord can strap explosives to his belt, walk into a pizzeria and scuttle it.

Now that madness is coming to your neighborhood. Or mine.

Or at least, that's the perception. The truth is, it's been here all along. It just never felt that way. Ours is a vast and stable nation; one has a sense of security here, of imperviousness. We've always felt safe behind our fortress walls.

In hindsight, it's clear we were just sleeping through the wake-up calls, of which there have been many. Eighty-two years ago, a bomb was set off in New York City's financial district, killing 30 people. Thirty-nine years ago, an explosion in a Birmingham, Ala., church left four little girls dead. Nine years ago, a car bomb went off at the World Trade Center; the death toll was six. Seven years ago, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 children, women and men.

And on it goes. A ship at anchor in Yemen, an apartment building in Saudi Arabia. Until a painfully clear morning in September is obliterated in a burst of fire, flesh and steel. And finally, we wake up. Screaming.

The United States and Russia reached agreement on an arms control pact Monday. Thing seems to have more loopholes and escape clauses than a Hollywood contract, but essentially it commits both nations to cut their nuclear arsenals by two-thirds. Which is a good thing, I suppose.

But somehow, the news felt so … 20th century. Not unimportant, not irrelevant and yet, somehow, beside the point.

That groaning sound you hear is a paradigm shift, that movement beneath your feet nothing less than the tectonic plates of the new reality grinding against the old. It's the dawning realization that the walls of our fortress were not high enough after all and because they weren't, we discover that we are subject to the same forces and fears that challenge the rest of the world. That we must grapple henceforth not only with governments, but also with those who strike unpredictably from the shadows. Strike in ways and for reasons that, to us, make no sense.

We used to have "drop drills" on the last Friday of every month when I was a kid. The air raid siren would sound and you'd go down to your knees under your desk. You were supposed to do this in the event of a Soviet attack.

I'm not scared of Russians anymore. But, Lord, save me from terrorists drawing smiley faces.

I'm wide awake now. And I don't like it one damn bit.

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