Apocalyptic questions for the press

Surely it was the strangest question a journalist asked on the day the world changed.

The mid-day mass at her New York City parish drew a larger crowd than usual, Peggy Noonan reported in the Wall Street Journal, and the people on the kneelers looked "stricken." As the rite ended, the columnist and speechwriter sought out a neighbor. Her family was OK.

"Did a rat stand on its hind legs this morning?", asked Noonan.

The Park Avenue woman said "no."

This was a question with a history. In the mid-1990s, this neighbor told Noonan about her growing sense of dread about New York City's future. Out of the blue, she said: "If ever something bad is going to happen to the city, I pray each day that God will give me a sign. That he will let me see a rat stand up on the sidewalk. So I'll know to gather the kids and go."

In 1998, Noonan wrote that she too was convinced someone was about to do "the big, terrible thing to New York or Washington." It might be a nuclear bomb, chemicals or germs.

"Three billion men, and it takes only a dozen bright and evil ones to harness and deploy," she wrote, in an essay reprinted after 9/11. "What are the odds it will happen? Put it another way: What are the odds it will not? Low. Nonexistent, I think."

What was the answer? Noonan urged readers to, "Pray. Unceasingly. Take the time."

It wasn't a typical question and she didn't offer a typical journalistic answer. But when the flying bombs hit the World Trade Center, things turned upside down in public life and in the news, said Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard. This attack did more than shake the White House and the U.S. Congress. It shook America's soul.

"We left an era of peace and prosperity and considerable decadence," he told a Baptist Press student journalism conference in Nashville. Now, the nation faces "war and economic trouble and serious issues that will force us to think on a much larger scale. ^?Our culture changed, a little bit. These changes may not be permanent, but they are certainly big right now."

Journalists need to consider apocalyptic questions that once would have seemed insane. Here are a few I have heard lately:

* If bin Laden wants to conquer the Islamic world, toppling "sinful" and "Westernized" Muslim regimes in the process, what would the U.S. and NATO do if his revolution seemed poised to take the Arabian peninsula? What are the implications for Jerusalem if bin Laden captures Mecca and Medina?

* Has anyone considered the implications of a blast leveling the Vatican during the current month-long synod between Pope John Paul II and the world's Catholic bishops?

* According to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, the real war is "not between civilizations, but within them -- between those Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews with a modern and progressive outlook and those with a medieval one." This raises a crucial question: How many elite progressives assume that orthodox believers who defend ancient traditions - this pope leaps to mind -- are spiritually on the side of terror and repression?

* In 1998, Osama bin Laden issued a commandment -- or "fatwa" -- that Muslims should kill as many Americans as possible, broadening his earlier call for the deaths of American soldiers. What would happen if Muslims who say bin Laden has distorted their faith issued a "fatwa" against him? Will anyone dare?

Barnes asked this question: "Has President Bush been called by God to be president and lead the nation at this particular time? ... Is this why he is here? Does God have him here for a purpose?" Barnes noted that the circuitous path that led the one-time party boy and under-achieving businessman to the White House has led some to speculate that "God's hand is on this man and on his life, as he deals with this war or terrorism."

All kinds of people will, of course, disagree about how to answer questions of this kind. But it will be hard for journalists to ignore the fact that people are asking them.