We have met the enemy and he is our own paranoia

The TV behind the counter at the diner showed the remains of a white double truck trailer burning on the side of an Interstate near St. Louis.

“Yeah,” said the guy on the next stool, “Goddamed ragheads blew up a FedEx truck.”

On the tube, a talking head from FoxNews offered her theory: Terrorists had prepared a bomb destined for a plane and it blew up on the FedEx truck before it got a chance to be loaded and kill hundreds of people.

“We oughta stop talking about these bums and just go over there and nuke ‘em,” the man on the stool said.

“That’s telling them, honey,” the waitress smiled. She turned and looked at the TV. “I guess you’re just not safe anywhere these days.”

She’s right. It is dangerous out there. Dangerous because paranoia about terrorists has turned this once proud nation into a gaggle of nervous nellies, ready to jump to conclusions before we have any facts.

The FedEx truck, was not blown to smithereens by terrorists, but burned up when the driver, turning suddenly to avoid a car that ventured into his lane of travel, lost control and clipped a sign pole, shearing one of the sideboard gas tanks, which cartwheeled under the first of two trailers, then exploded and spread fire to both trailers.

The inferno shut down both lanes of Interstate 270 at Missouri Route 367 in North St. Louis County, giving not only the news stations spectacular shots of the burning truck but also gave the blithering idiots at FoxNews yet another chance to add terrorism sensationalism to a traffic accident story that had nothing to do with the enemies of this country.

I’m used to this hysteria from Fox. During the three weeks of sniper terror that gripped the Washington area, the talking heads at Fox offered the most theories that the shooters were part of some grand al Qaeda plot and trotted out the most “experts” who supported that lamebrained notion. Now that we’ve learned the sniper was just another misfit with a grudge, not one of the airheads at the networks have had the guts to stand up and says “we wuz wrong.”

So, while Missouri State Troopers worked to clear the accident and reopen a major artery around the St. Louis metro area, the lunch counters, coffee shops, computer bulletin boards and chat rooms of the nation mushroomed with talk of terrorism and another bombing, spurred on by irresponsible reporting.

The truck accident in St. Louis interested me on Tuesday not because of any notion of terrorism but because I once lived just south of that intersection. Missouri Highway 367 is also Lewis & Clark Boulevard and during the early 1970s, I called a round apartment building named Lewis & Clark Tower home. So I called a friend who works for the Bellefountain Neighbors Police Department and asked him what happened.

“Oh, the FedEx truck was heading Eastbound on I-270 when a car cut in front of him,” the cop said. “The driver of the truck swerved to miss the car and lost control. The truck sideswiped one of the sign structures and it sheared off the gas tank, which exploded and sent burning gasoline into the trailers.”

The cab of the truck separated from the tandem trailers and came to rest on the side of the road. Thankfully, the driver escaped uninjured.

Police officers on the scene knew right away what happened and radioed the information back to their dispatchers. FoxNews was one of the first to call both the Missouri State Police and Bellefountain Neighbors and spokesmen for both departments told them and others that called that this was a simple traffic accident, nothing more. Other networks backed away from the story. A traffic accident with no injuries is not national news.

Yet for more than hour after police spokesmen first said the incident was nothing more than an accident, Fox continued to broadcast speculation that the burning truck on the side of the road in North St. Louis County was the work of terrorists.

From the beginning, any reasonable examination of the facts could see the terrorist theories didn’t add up. The notion that the bomb was in a package destined for a plane was crap. The truck was part of FedEx’s new ground delivery system, which moves packages on the road, not the air. Even if the packages had been part of the air delivery system, they would have been carried on FedEx cargo planes that fly at night, not a commercial airliner filled with passengers.

A simple, long-honored journalism tradition called “checking your facts” would have confirmed such information and prevented the momentary hysteria broadcast by Fox and anyone else who rushed to the airwaves to proclaim a traffic accident as a terrorist attack.

But facts are secondary during heated ratings wars between both the broadcast and cable news channels. Facts, unfortunately, are also secondary to a nation still numb from too many rebroadcasts of chilling videos of hijacked jetliners crashing into skyscrapers.

Paranoia, rushes to judgment, cries of “wolf” on terrorism and other disruptions of everyday life dominate our society. Every time an airport terminal is emptied because some minimum-wage idiot forgets to plug in an x-ray scanner, every time a road is blocked for hours by police because some middle-Eastern looking medical students joke about having a good time in Miami and every time the stock market dives because somebody in Washington says “war,” the terrorists win another battle in their war against the United States.

Yes, we should be alert. Yes, we should be prepared.

But fear, paranoia and distrust can destroy this nation faster than any terrorist attack.

The only enemy we have when it comes to fighting that trio of threats is ourselves.