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Terror Myths

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The worldwide spread of terrorism -- and the media coverage of it -- leads to some fantastical thinking these days. Myth often replaces reality when it comes to such a scary subject, and the fact that we are in a presidential season only adds to the noise machine.

Here are three of the major myths about terrorism, often repeated in the media.

1. The Wall. We need a 600-mile wall between us and Mexico to protect us from Al Qaeda. Republican candidate Tom Tancredo is running an ad in which a terrorist slips across the border to do us lethal harm.

Is this possible? Sure. Likely? No. Imagine you are Ahmed the terrorist. You have an engineering degree, like Mohammed Atta, and you live in Frankfurt Germany. Are you going to schlep to Tijuana and try to swim the Rio Grande or starve in the desert for days with a pack of other sweaty illegals?

Of course not. You will get a student visa to Canada, where you will rent a car, drive to some spot in the 450 miles of wilderness patrolled by four Mounties, and simply walk or drive across the border. Or maybe you'll just buy a boat with an outboard motor and cross the river above Niagara Falls, where you are not likely to be spotted, because nobody is keeping an eye on the river.

Or maybe you'll just sign up with a German travel agency for a charter flight to Vegas with senior citizens from Dusseldorf. You have a legal passport and no criminal record, so no problem. You'll play the slots, cruise the buffet at the Luxor, go to a drag show, and take in the late show by Wayne Newton. Then you will simply get on a bus and vanish into some major city somewhere.

2. The Jack Bauer scenario. Reality will resemble the TV show 24, where every few episodes Kiefer Sutherland captures a terrorist at the last minute as he is about to blow up a shopping mall, detonate a bomb etc, etc. It's the scenario mentioned most by those who defend torture. There's a nuke in NYC set to go off in an hour and you've got to get the truth out of the one bad guy you've captured.

Possible, of course, but again, not very plausible. In fact, most foiled plots are disrupted fairly early on, through good police work, solid intelligence, international cooperation, alert citizens and really dumb plotters. The guys who planned a shooting rampage at Fort Dix sent videos of their training exercises to a local video store to get them put on DVDs. An alert clerk saw the pictures of these guys running through the Poconos woods screaming "Jihad!" and alerted the police. Since the Poconos are littered with resorts that advertise heart-shaped Jacuzzis, these videos really did stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Canadian jihadis who planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament trained in the woods, and afterwards cleaned up in the bathroom of a popular doughnut chain, where they attracted the attention of authorities. Who knew jihad and jelly doughnuts went together? (A young Canadian Muslim engineer then went undercover with the group and was key to foiling the plot. )

In fact, the one Hollywood scenario that is the most probable comes from Tom Clancy and The Sum of All Fears. Terrorists simply load a nuclear device onto a ship inside a container, and send it off to Baltimore, where it blows up sitting on the dock.

OK, they probably wouldn't really pick Baltimore. Can you imagine Osama in his cave saying to Al Zahawari, "We will cripple the American devils by wiping out The Baltimore Orioles and the Edgar Allen Poe museum in one mighty blow. (Kudos to Ted Turner, for putting millions into the Nuclear Threat Initiative when he realized that after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia still had thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, and that governments were not moving to address the danger. )

3. Hi Tech Masterminds: Terror attacks are complicated high-tech schemes directed by a brilliant criminal mastermind. Or so Hollywood would have you believe. (Think Alan Richman in Die Hard, Gary Oldman in Air Force One. The latter is great Hollywood high-concept stuff. But who would try to hi-jack Air Force One when you could easily grab a nuclear plant where the Wackenhut guards would sleep through the whole attack (as recent news headlines attest.)

In fact, low tech has been the hallmark of the most successful terror attacks. A bunch of guys with box cutters pulled off 9/11. A major American city, Washington, D.C., was utterly paralyzed for days by one psychotic adult and a teenaged boy in a Chevy with a high-powered rifle. One unknown terrorist (or nut) used a few envelopes and a bunch of stamps to send deadly anthrax through the mails. The delivery methods for this attack probably cost less than 50 bucks and were purchased right under the smiley face of Mr. Zip.

A couple of British doctors tried to bomb a London night club and crashed into an airport in Scotland, failing to harm anybody seriously except themselves. This gives one pause about the British Health Service. Would you want these guys taking out your appendix?

Boston University Journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women."