The Associated Press reported last week that the anti-terrorism whizzes at the FBI had alerted law enforcement nationwide to be on the lookout for suspicious characters reading almanacs.
The thinking behind the alert (if you can call it thinking) seemed to be that would-be WMD-wielders on the loose domestically might find useful targeting information in an almanac, and therefore if an Arkansas State Trooper, for example, notices a carload of wild-eyed Mediterranean-looking suspects parked beside Highway 46 in the Saline River bottoms in a much-dinged leaky-mufflered Plymouth Fury, each one of them diligently perusing his own copy of Poor Richard's Almanac or the World Almanac or the Farmers' Almanac or the Almanac of American Politics, then that trooper might want to stop and make inquiries.
"So what sort of info is it you're looking for there in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame roster, Mr. H.?"
It doesn't seem likely in that situation that Mr. H. would confess that the real no-kidding object of the roadside group almanac search there in the Fury was a population comparison of regional cities - St. Louis v. Kansas City, say, or Dallas v. Houston - to determine which would be most effective to blow up; but he might, and a trooper can't be too careful or ask too many questions in this parlous times.
And all of us passersby share with that trooper the responsibility to be vigilant against such characters and their villainous roadside strategizing. That's exactly what this orange alert buisness is all about.
I'm a big fan of the FBI, especially back when Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was running it, but this new wrinkle in the war on terrorism - the concern over terroristic almanac readers - gives me pause. I have to wonder if it's really the almanac readers that we ought to be concentrating on. My suspicion is no. My suspicion is that it's the fanatical terrorists who are the threat, and while fanatics read a lot of mystical, radical, inflammatory, and even romantic literature, and a crapload of training manuals, they hardly ever read almanacs.
On the rare occasions when they do read them, they read them for the same reason that normal , non-explosive people do. That is, to see which days of the month are best for them to get a haircut, or during which phase of the moon they should plant their turnips or geld their pigs. Al-Queda and Osama and the other terrorist-network brass don't think that such trivial considerations are proper for a seriously committed terrorist; they are a distraction that might lead him tragically back toward sanity. These terrorist leaders therefore sternly discourage almanac-reading, and have put out the word that it was probably almanac-reading there in his hole that distracted Sadaam Hussein, leading to his ignominious capture.
Consider the feature articles in the 2004 edition of the Farmers' Almanac. One of them is entitled, "Ten Ways to Make a Good Impression." Is that an article that a terrorist plotting to blow up St. Louis would want his colleagues there in the Plymouth Fury to see him reading? Terrorists don't want to make a good impression. Their heart's desire is to make a really bad impression, and getting caught reading such an article would completely destroy their credibility in terrorist circles.
Another article, on Page 42 of that same almanac, has this title: All About Ticks. Mostly this article is about Lyme Disease and how to prevent its spread. Here's an interesting passage: "Keep in mind that certain types of fine-pointed tweezers, especially those that are etched, or rasped, at the tips, may not be effective in removing nymphal deer ticks. Choose unrasped fine-pointed tweezers whose tips align tightly when pressed firmly together."
Now return to that Plymouth Fury where Mr. H. and his friends are kicking around the possibilities for loosing a WMD on one of those nice-sized midwestern American cities. One of them, miming, says, "Say hello to my leetle friend" and laughs maniacally. Another chants apocalyptic passages from one of the holy books. There is a sense of purposefulness, of swollen dignity - and then Mr. H. looks up from his almanac and says, "Listen up, guys, if I get any deer ticks on me during this caper, please don't be trying to pull them off with any of those unrasped tweezers."
Plausible? Maybe to the FBI Einsteins who thought up this specter of almanac-reading terrorists, but otherwise, no, of course it's not.
"Ten Secrets to Simplifying Your Life" is by far the deepest article in this year's Farmers' Almanac. I like secret No. 5 , which is "Find some outdoor space. Sit outside, find a city park, go out into the desert, or take a walk in the snow. Whatever you enjoy, get outside and enjoy the beauty of each day."
I like that a lot - Efrem Zimbalist Jr. said something very similar in a memorable episode - but no self-respecting fanatical terrorist is going to entertain pleasant positive notions about the Great Outdoors. Terrorists are angry about stuff, they're in no mood to appreciate the outdoors or the indoors either one; they don't even want to simplify their lives, they just want to blow something up.
Here's No. 8 on that list of secrets to simplifying your life: "Learn that sometimes nothing is better than everything. There are a lot of opportunities to involve yourself in groups, classes, organizations, sports, and more. While these extracurricular activities are beneficial, sometimes you can overextend yourself. Find ways to say no, and then stay home to do nothing."
The modern terrorist is a joiner not a loner, a wanderer not a homebody, an overextender to his very core, and these words are bound to be wormwood to him. In fact, I've just been looking through the almanacs here in my home library - all 19 of them - and find not a single entry in any one of them that might amuse or inspire or console a genuinely committed terrorist with time to kill between detonations.
Bottom line, the FBI missed the boat on this one, as it has on so many of them since Efrem left and Edgar put on the red dress.