TUESDAY MORNING OF LAST WEEK ARRIVED CLOUDY and cool in L.A.; moderate air quality was forecast, with the UV index pegged at 7. That day's Homeland Security Advisory System was set to code yellow but I decided to go to work anyway. (That darned HSAS has been stuck on “elevated” for as long as I can remember!) I'd only been driving a minute when KNX's radio traffic report relayed a commute warning from tipsters named “Carlos and Hamid.” I was stunned — was I the only one who thought these names were fraught with terrorist implications? You know, as in Carlos the Jackal. And Hamid the, uh, Flight School Student, perhaps? Maybe it had been a mistake to go outdoors after all.
Then I relaxed — all those terror alerts were clearly getting to me. The warnings from Washington, let's face it, never pan out and, like the dire predictions made last year by tabloid psychics, are quickly forgotten. (Even the alleged fantasies of would-be “dirty bomber” Abdullah al Muhajir seem like government wish fulfillment.) One day it's Northeastern banks that are said to be al Qaeda targets, the next, bridges and, the day after, apartment buildings. True, there had been May's terrible Park Encino apartment complex fire, but terrorism was quickly ruled out and plain old stupidity assigned the blame. Likewise, a bridge in Oklahoma had collapsed into the Arkansas River after being rammed by a barge, but that too was explained by a reassuring “pilot blackout” verdict.
Incidentally, one bizarre sideshow from the bridge tragedy emerged last week as regional newspapers and the Associated Press reported that an ex-con who had blown onto the scene within hours of the disaster was able to talk himself into a leadership role by claiming to be a member of the Army's Special Forces. Not only that, but he bilked a local motel into giving him eight rooms and fooled a car dealership into loaning him a pickup truck for his vague, self-defined duties. Needless to say, when this grifter, one Billy Clark of Tallapoosa, Missouri, eventually skipped town, he was driving the same pickup.
Clark's brash impersonation says much about American gullibility, especially when that gullibility becomes entwined with respect for authority during emergencies. (Who says we're no longer a trusting people?) “I'm in charge here,” the impostor had told everyone he met, and for three days the mayor and townspeople of the nearby town of Van Buren let him have his way. Even a New York Times reporter fell for the flim-flam, identifying Clark as the “head of the deployment command center for the recovery effort.”
The 36-year-old Clark's physical description — the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette called him a “crew-cut, pot-bellied man” — did not necessarily suggest irresistible charisma. In the end, it was the clothes — or rather, the uniform — that made the man. Clark, the Democrat-Gazette elaborated, “was dressed in military fatigues. He wore a beret and black combat boots, and he looked like someone important.”
Fatigues, beret, boots — the very habiliments of American authority! How could anyone not follow the orders of someone attired in such an important-looking costume? All that was missing was a satin cape. There were silver linings to l'affaire Clark, I suppose — at least the pretender didn't command his followers, who included rescue volunteers, police and a waitress, to play Russian roulette. In a way it's hard not to grudgingly salute Clark's exploitation of the bridge calamity — what is he, after all, but a white-trash version of Al Haig, known for his own immortal utterance of Clark's “I'm in charge here” line after Ronald Reagan was shot?
OR ISN'T HE, COME TO THINK OF IT, SOME PORK-and-beans version of Tom Ridge or John Ashcroft? These two unsmiling white men certainly looked important enough to be in charge when they arrived on the post 9/11 landscape. They began browbeating Congress into dismantling the Constitution and sent the FBI out to collect DNA samples from seemingly everyone on the planet in the name of the war on terrorism.
That war, by the way, seems about as real now as Clark's rescue efforts. True, American soldiers and material have been dispatched from Kandahar to Mindanao, and we've showered every Afghan warlord with tote bags of cash, but for most of us the war is only white noise hissing in the background, a cable-TV show constructed of newsroom graphics and monthly Ground Zero memorials.
When the president declared that his war on terror would not be a war like any other, one without visible results like captured territory and flag raisings, he created a game with no score, time-outs or foreseeable ninth inning or fourth quarter — in other words, he made a world in which he and his friends could do pretty much what they wanted without any standards of judgment. I suppose we should go along with the gag to humor him. As one Arkansas cop said of Billy Clark's exploit, “It's just a big ego trip. It's a fantasy of his, which becomes a reality when he gets to play the part.”