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FLIGHT LINE
Ben Stein's Perceptions

By Ben Stein

There is a psychiatric disorder called "magical thinking" that includes the belief that by following certain superstitions, or just by wishing, logically impossible effects will follow. Magical thinking often involves
also a general dreamlike, childlike belief in omnipotence.

Think of Rocky or any James Bond film or any other feature-length cartoon, in which love conquers all, a superpowerful hero saves the good people from all harm, and evil is always humbled by good, no matter what the odds.

Or you might think of the sleepwalking, dreamy, head-in-the-sand way America has approached the world for most of the past 20 years. As a nation, we have been behaving like dreamy small children -- or very disordered
adults.

Examples: Burying our heads in the sand about the oft-expressed and now carried-out violent wishes of Arab terrorists to harm America. Walking away from the prosecution of those who killed our servicemen in the Khobar Towers bombings in Saudi Arabia. Letting Libya, which blew up Pan Am 103, suffer only a bombing run on Qadafhi's tent and letting it make the almost comical
excuse that in a totalitarian state, two intelligence officers acted alone.

Letting he terrorists who blew up our Marines in Lebanon get off scot-free. Letting the people who blew up the destroyer Cole and killed American sailors get away with it. Letting the terrorists openly run training academies all over the Mideast for years, if not generations.

Letting graduates of those academies, allied with those who blew up the Cole and the embassies, come to America to strike with even more deadly force.

Other examples far closer to the daily lives of ordinary Americans:

Believing that the importance of money has been suspended. Imagining that companies without any earnings or prospects for earnings can have valuations in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Admiring companies with interesting
names but no possibility of returning any earnings to their shareholders.

Thinking that all human and investment history has been superseded by one invention and that all modes of investment valuation hitherto are obsolete.

The magic box promotes magical thinking: Believing that men and women with zero training in finance who happen to be in front of a camera know more than persons who do have training and experience. Placing faith in such things as "support levels" attached to irrelevant index numbers never seen by the persons buying or selling individual stocks making up the indexes.

There is no comparison or connection between the incredible evil thatbrought us the mass killings of last week and the phenomenon of the stock bubble of the past several years. But there is a very direct connection
between the extraordinary magical thinking and the carelessness that led us as a nation to fall victim to both. We simply stopped thinking logically or sensibly.

The same incompetent and childish thinking that makes us scream for Madonna or present Gary Condit's infidelity as the story of the century or imagine we can change our lives by gaining or losing a few pounds has led us to believe that real life is a movie, and that magical endings will come along to save us all from the monsters we imagine in our sleep.

Osama bin Laden and his pals in Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Hollywood, Florida, have sent us a murderous wake-up call.

Sleepy-time is over now. Real life is back in session, we are in deep trouble, and magical thinking is not going to help us.

We are in a position a lot like where we were in late 1941 and early 1942. The enemy attacked us with a sneak attack that succeeded beyond our wildest nightmare (although not beyond the enemy's wild dreams). We are reeling. But it could be far worse. In 1941 and 1942, before we and our allies had turned around, we faced the task of fighting over millions of square miles in Oceania, Asia, Europe and
North Africa, and breaking the dominion of evil over hundreds of millions of lives. We faced an enemy incomparably more potent than Islamic terrorists.

We faced Germany and Japan, two hundred million capable, disciplined, well-armed people with a strong desire to win and a willingness to die trying. (The kamikazes were the single worst wartime enemy American sailors ever faced, and an eerie precursor of the hijackers last week.) The enemy had a seemingly unstoppable military machine. The Japanese had never lost a war, and Hitler seemed invincible,
even to some Americans.

Had America not awakened after Pearl Harbor, names like India, Britain and Australia would have joined the names of captive places like France, Ukraine, Poland,Czechoslovakia, Hong Kong, Singapore, New Guinea, Saipan,Indochina and Burma. And maybe America would have been on the list as well.

But we did wake up, and remade America into a model of vigilance, heroism, productivity and daring. We didn't worry a lot about hurting anyone's feelings. We didn't think all day about not hurting one single innocent
person. We bombed their cities from the air. We went from a tiny military to 12 million under arms in a couple of years. We spent half the national product on defense and we restricted some freedoms, maybe too many, but we won and saved the whole future of mankind.

Now we must do that again. And the stakes are immense. No one doubts that an enemy who will ram a plane whose passengers include sixth graders on a field trip into a populated office building would use an atom bomb if they
had it, or diseases like anthrax or poison gasses like sarin.

What should be our response? We should not wait to respond. Bomb the places in Iraq and Iran and anywhere else where they make these hideous weapons right now, today, before terrorist cells or nations use them against
us. We have enemies out there who want to end this nation's existence. It's brutally serious but also brutally plain. Strike hard and strike fast at the killers. We can ing "Kumbayah" and "Give Peace a Chance" later.

We have to awaken within our borders, too. It is appalling, perhaps even criminal, that the hijacker killers were on FBI watch lists, on lists of international terrorists and still lived in plain view using their real
names. The persons responsible for these mammoth lapses at the FBI or the Immigration and Naturalization Service or wherever should be fired, maybe even prosecuted for breach of duty. How will anyone in this country ever know enough to be vigilant if someone can screw up and let 5,000 people get killed -- and still keep his job?

The home front is the front line. We have to look for the enemy. We have to report it if we see someone who talks about how much he hates America taking pilot lessons. It's worth 10,000 false alarms to stop one plane or one dose
of germ warfare in New York's water supply. If some people's feelings are hurt, that's a very small price to pay to save a nation.

We also have to do something similar in our own lives. We have been living in a dream world about our investments. Just as it's our duty to guard our country, it's our duty to guard our family's financial future. No more wishful thinking. Back to reality, away from belief in the supernatural in stocks, Old Economy or New Economy. Reversion to the mean is a law, not a choice. If you get there sooner rather than later, you'll be safer.

A shrewd stock buy or a prudent sale is never comparable to defense against mass murder in any sense. But there is much in common in the carelessness, dreamy foolishness and magical thinking that allowed both stock-market bubbles and immense gaps in our national defense.

If we can put this childishness behind us, if we can put aside childish things, if we can grow up as fast as America did in the beginning of World War II, our future is assured. We fight for the same cause -- human liberty
and decency versus merciless repression. We have to approach this conflict with the same spirit that animated America after Pearl Harbor, Bataan, Corregidor.

Winston Churchill, who should be our inspiration, said after the U.S.entered the war, "This is no time to speak of the hopes of the future ... We have to win that war for our children. We have to win it by our sacrifices. We have not won it yet. The crisis is upon us."

And so it is again.

BEN STEIN, a former speechwriter fo President Richard Nixon, is a TV personality, lawyer and writer based in Los Angeles.

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