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America's fear industry

They returned under the motto, "Take Back the School." But, with its array of police guards, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors, it was not the school they had fled, terror-stricken, four months ago. Columbine High School represents one more concession to the insensate fear that has made private security a $100 billion industry in the most powerful country the world has ever seen. According to the American Society for Industrial Security, 1.8 million people are employed in private security - three times as many as in public law enforcement.

It is an industry of hand-held and walk-through metal detectors, armored cars, alarm companies, TV cameras, key-card doors, ID badges, bomb-sniffing dogs, and round-the-clock guards.

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I can remember the White House without the unsightly concrete barriers - "Jersey walls," they're called - put up in 1983. That was after reports of a Libyan hit squad on its way to murder President Reagan, which turned out to be a hoax, and after the bombing of US marines in Beirut. I can remember wandering the halls of Congress unchecked and boarding an airplane without a picture ID. Today, embassies are closed on rumors of terrorist attacks, and plans for the US embassy in Berlin are stalled over American demand for a bigger buffer zone than the Germans are willing to give.

The threat of foreign terrorists may be an unavoidable feature of the post-cold-war world. But after the Oklahoma City bombing, the school shootings, the attack on a Jewish center in Los Angeles, Americans are beginning to fear their own neighbors.

Having learned to their dismay that the quiet kid next door or the stranger in the street may harbor murderous designs, Americans search, in vain, for the profile, the outward signs, that would serve to alert them. They wonder how to keep guns out of the hands of the violence-prone.

It has been disconcerting to the authorities to discover that today's violence-prone fanatics are, for the most part, not centrally directed, but act as lone wolves, often loosely linked by the Internet. How does one maintain surveillance over some 2,000 sources of hate propaganda on the Web?

It goes against the grain for Americans to fear neighbors and strangers. But more and more, in the search for that elusive thing called security, they retire into gated communities or install electronic paraphernalia in home and school. Meanwhile, the police stand guard at Columbine High, and Temple Knesset Israel in Los Angeles is hiring a security guard for the High Holy Days.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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