Terrorism threat calls for all to be alert

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

America's war on terrorism has awakened many in this nation to harsh realities about the enemy.

There aren't any real skirmishes, never mind battles. The enemy hides in caves, coming out to shoot Marines during military exercises in Kuwait or bomb a Green Beret in a Filipino market.

It's this cowardice that makes the war so disturbing. We learned from counterterrorism officials that al-Qaida has decentralized, and its fingers reach further than originally expected. Some of its operatives live within our borders.

Because of that fact, our world has become a far different place, even for people living in quiet neighborhoods across America.

It was with pride in his voice that Missourian and Attorney General John Ashcroft declared Oct. 4 a "defining day" in the fight against terrorism. A man who once called himself an American, John Walker Lindh, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for supporting the Taliban. Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight with bombs in his shoes, pleaded guilty to eight charges, including attempted murder and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.

The American public had grown used to those two names. But then Ashcroft added another six to go down in infamy -- five of them American citizens and one a former Army reservist.

All are accused of conspiring to wage war on the United States. Five have been arrested. One is being sought overseas. Three lived in a middle-class apartment complex in Portland, Ore., better known for its beautiful scenery than being a hotbed of terrorist activity.

Prosecutors say some of the accused began weapons training after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and tried unsuccessfully to get into Afghanistan through China and join forces with al-Qaida. The investigation began when a sheriff's deputy in Washington state investigated a noise complaint and found people wearing Middle Eastern garb and firing weapons in a gravel pit.

Later, the young son of Jeffrey Leon Battle and his ex-wife October Martinique Lewis reportedly told neighbor children that "Sept. 11 was a good thing." The neighbors called the FBI, and surveillance began.

If the charges hold up in court, Ashcroft and those under him who aided in this investigation will deserve congratulations for their vigilance.

But so will those Portland neighbors and the people who alerted police about the shooting noise in Washington.

Of course, this doesn't mean we should turn into a nation of Big Brothers, ratting out our neighbors for every action out of the norm. But it would be foolish to think al-Qaida is something that only other countries must deal with. Lindh taught us that terrorist sympathizers come from places and families you'd least suspect.

And we're learning just how insidious the terrorist threat is.