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Operation Just Claus

It’s the holiday season and I’m concerned. As gifts were being gathered and wrapped for exchange, and long-bearded men in Santa suits rang out cheer in the streets and shopping malls, Attorney General John Ashcroft dolefully affirmed that the level of the nation’s terror watch would remain at yellow. This means there is an “elevated” risk of terrorist attacks for the holidays. As all the little Whos of our national Whoville go about their daily lives, danger lurks in some unknown place where unknown people are preparing to commit unknown acts—against exactly whom is, of course, also unknown. But, we’ve been warned. And that has me concerned as we enter the festive time around the winter solstice.

The recent signing into law of the Department of Homeland Security, and the fanfare of its inclusion in George W.’s cabinet, has not made me feel any safer. I don’t think I am alone in this feeling. But what’s gotten me so concerned about this new homeland security bureaucracy and the holidays is some apparently unforeseen potential negative fallout for at least one holiday icon.

The other day, the United States’ terrorist-warning system went bonkers when a contrail (a jet vapor trail) was noticed where a plane was not supposed to be. Thoughts of terrorists in airplanes quickly colored the flimsy cloudlike trail, and jets were scrambled to the scene to intercept the rogue plane. The pilots on the scene found nothing but open airspace around the suspicious coordinates. Apparently, someone misinterpreted a cloud for a homeland security threat. Mistakes can happen when you’ve kept things too long at the yellow warning level.

Well, this got me thinking about how Santa might find his rounds this year a bit more challenging and threatening than usual. Getting into the United States has gotten a bit more difficult these days. Over the last year, security forces have been intensified along all the country’s borders. Unauthorized flights cruising into U.S. airspace have become priority targets for interception.

As the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System simmers at yellow, we are encouraged to “be alert to suspicious activity.” At this level of warning, the Red Cross recommends making sure your “disaster supplies kit is stocked and ready,” and that you develop and practice “alternative routes to/from work/school.” I’m sure you have all been busy at these activities.

As Dec. 25 approaches, it is reasonable to expect that the color-coded warning system might be ratcheted up to orange, where the “risk of attack” becomes “high.” When things turn orange, the government recommends “taking additional precautions at public events and possibly considering alternative venues or even cancellation.” Bush’s new cabinet department appears even to reserve the right to cancel the holidays if the terrorist threat gets too orange.

Dressed in his red-and-white suit (originally designed for Coke commercials), Santa could find it rough delivering this year’s presents. The bag thrown over his shoulder will certainly contain a large number of replacement Swiss army knives, scissors and nail files for ones that were lifted at airports during the last year. Would delivering these items to stockings around the world be interpreted by George W. and his fear-fostering faithful as providing weapons to potential terrorists? Should Admiral John (“I’ll lie when asked”) Poindexter monitor all communications with the reindeer musher to make sure no terrorist cells are involved? Is the North Pole thoroughly bugged?

What if the Coast Guard should pull Santa over, board his sleigh and find airport contraband in great quantities? Would the rotund wonder be booked for weapons trafficking? Shouldn’t his sleigh be tested for smallpox and other potential biological weapons that could be effectively dispersed by someone entering so many homes in such a short time? Would the jolly one, who is of Middle Eastern descent (St. Nick was from an area that is today Turkey), disappear into a Guantanamo Bay condo cage for further questioning? Would his reindeer be kept at an undisclosed location while White House spokesman Ari Fleischer refuses to confirm or deny their detention? Would Santa be denied legal counsel? How would the Supreme Court handle the matter?

I’m sure you can understand my concern.

But things could get even worse for the grand gift giver with George W. poised to hurl hellfire at Iraq. Avoiding interception by military forces in the ancient land of Babylon could get pretty dicey for the jolly guy as he speeds through his worldwide blitz this year. What happens when he crosses into an Iraqi “no-fly” zone? Will United States and British jets see him as an Iraqi provocation that triggers all-out war, as they scramble to intercept the airspace violator? Will they fire missiles at the sleigh and ask questions later? Could collateral damage from an ignited war accidentally take out Santa and his reindeer?

There is good reason for concern about St. Nick’s health under current U.S. security and war plans. But it’s a good bet that, no matter how sophisticated the technology or how fast the jets, they won’t be able to catch the white-bearded sleigh master. His defenses involve a simple magic that’s difficult to overcome.

In order to visit more than 90 million homes in the span of a single rotation of the planet, the North Pole speedster has to complete over 800 chimney dives a second. He also has to keep his reindeer cranked up at about 3,000 times the speed of sound while pulling around 350,000 tons of goods. The agility and speed of their movement puts Santa and the reindeer squad well beyond the capabilities of any U.S. weapons technology to track or target him. In fact, it even puts them well beyond the laws of physics. That’s where the magic comes in.

Go Santa!

—Tom Nattell


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