I don't need a crystal ball to see the American landscape circa 2006. The future is already on display in a big sign along a drab, wintry Pennsylvania roadside.
The billboard is nestled in the ice-crusted snow alongside the two-lane highway that leads into the northeastern PA burg of Honesdale. It is completely white, with a single small, dramatic sentence, centered, in red paint that reads: "Is your family ready for an emergency?"
I was a passenger in the car so I had time to search out and locate the tiny seal on a lower corner of the sign, identifying the entity behind this unnerving warning. The federal Homeland Security Agency, of course.
Exactly what emergency the good people of steepled and starched little Honesdale, PA, need to prepare for is not precisely spelled out. The imagination immediately hurls various horrific mega-options into the void. Earthquake. Hurricane. Intra-continental tsunami. Nuclear attack. Germ warfare. Or just the all-purpose End of the World as We Know It. Earth cracking open, fire spurting out, icy asteroids raining from the sky.
These rural billboards – I assume there are more in other states hovering on the edge of Red – are brilliant in their simplicity and suggestiveness. They don't offer any preparedness tips, not even a single 1-800 number to call for duct-taping advice. Preparedness is not the point. The billboard's sole purpose is to sustain the vague, generalized fear that underlies our slide from democracy to police state.
There are many, many emergencies the families of Honesdale, PA, are more likely to face in 2006 than The End of the World As We Know It. Job loss, a catastrophic illness without health care insurance, a car accident, to name a few.
Small personal tragedies and quiet desperation, though, are not the kinds of "emergencies" that justify data mining or massive eavesdropping on domestic telephone and email communication, or police state tactics such as the ones used by the New York Police Department revealed last week - in living color, on videotape. Faced with pictures of fake arrests of agents, the NYPD admitted to infiltrating such dire threats to national security as the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who protested the Republican convention in 2004, and the Green bicyclists who occasionally take over New York city streets demanding better bike lanes.
For a full-fledged police state to emerge from our democracy, people must believe that giving up the Bill of Rights is justified by a grave and massive threat. The events of September 11, 2001, will be five years old this year and the imagery, while still strong, isn't as awe-inspiring as it once was. The Bush government must find new and other ways to sustain the vague, undefined sense of fear under which Americans have been living since then. We must be made to forget that we are hundreds of times more likely to die in car accidents or of heart disease than at the hands of a terrorist.
Prediction Number One: In 2006, the Bush administration and its supporters will work ever harder to come up with novel ways to sustain the fear. The billboard warning on the Pennsylvania roadside is just one small piece of the upcoming campaign.
Herewith, other predictions and a little wishful thinking for 2006:
We'll all get comfortable with being eavesdropped on by the National Security Agency, as well as the data mining of our credit card and medical info by other federal agencies. If asked, judges like Samuel Alito will abet, not impede the process.
A secular intellectual or prominent left-leaning politician will be arrested and led away in handcuffs on camera in the United States, or refused re-entry to the United States based on his or her views and "associations."
David Brooks will entertain us with increasingly complicated contortions of logic to justify the emerging police state in the pages of the New York Times.
Bill Keller will be forced to resign as the Times continues to tank financially and 800-pound-gorilla journalists are embarrassed by more source and story-timing scandals.
A leader of one of the Christian mega-churches will be charged with fraud, theft or an icky sexual malfeasance. His parishioners will stage a riot.
Tom DeLay's henchmen will break into the Texas prosecutor's offices and destroy documents. He will be convicted anyway. The International Association of Pest Control Experts will line the streets on the tumbril route with yellow ribbons laced with DDT.
Bill O'Reilly will cop to an oxycontin problem and go deaf. Bob Novak will embark on a civil union with a University of Maryland basketball player. Sean Hannity will take $50 million a year to become the Vatican's first satellite radio priest.
TomKat's baby will arrive and be placed on the first celebrity-owned -and-operated space shuttle to an extraterrestrial orbiting Star colony. He/she/it will be joined in short order by every man, woman and child who has graced the cover of People, Us and Star Weeklies.
Tim LaHaye will deem the Rapture to be in progress.
Follow Nina Burleigh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ninaburleigh