What We Know: No News, All the Time

And so, students of culture and modern warfare, let us review where we stand on this fine November morning.

We don’t know how the war is going in Afghanistan.

We don’t know whether our bombing is effective.

We don’t know where Osama bin Laden is, or if we’re ever going to find him.

We don’t know if the Northern Alliance is capable of running the country, or if they’ll turn out to be as barbaric as the Taliban.

We don’t know if we may need to send in massive ground forces; we don’t know whether the Delta Force missions have been at all successful.

We don’t know how much longer our international coalition is going to hang together, or what our long-term plans are in Afghanistan.

And yet we turn on the TV and hear the pundits-the retired generals, the Special Operations experts, the former C.I.A. men-spouting off with absolutely certainty that the Taliban is on the run, our smart bombs have never been smarter, and it’s only a matter of weeks before this whole thing is cleaned up … unless we need to use tactical nuclear weapons.

So we shake our heads, and change the channel, and watch another news show.

We don’t know who’s responsible for the anthrax attacks. We don’t know who milled it, who mailed it or who militarized it. We don’t know whether it’s from Iraq or right-wing domestic lunatics.

We don’t know how Kathy Nguyen, the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital employee who died, contracted the disease.

We don’t know whether to stock up on Cipro and Doxycycline.

We don’t know how real or widespread the threat here is. And we’re not reassured when a doctor friend calls from Manhattan Eye and Ear, announcing not only that he’s on Cipro, but that he’s been told to prescribe it to every patient he’s seen since Oct. 11-almost all of whom, not surprisingly, have reacted by demanding the drug for their families and friends.

And yet, according to the talking heads on TV-the academic chemists, the former government officials, the “experts” on biological warfare-the postal system is safe, we’re prepared for almost any eventuality and everything is under control … but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to open your mail with latex gloves.

And so, again, we shake our heads, and change the channel to yet another news report.

We don’t know how safe the air is in lower Manhattan.

We don’t know how many of the jobs that were displaced to Connecticut and New Jersey are coming back.

We don’t know how many restaurants and stores and small businesses will never reopen.

We don’t know how we’re going to pay for all this.

We don’t know how many nuclear weapons are missing from Russia, what’s really going on in Pakistan, or how many members of the Saudi royal family were secretly sending money to Mr. bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

We don’t know why the official Communist Party–sanctioned Chinese media are churning out books and DVD’s and video games lauding the terrorist attacks as a “humbling blow against an arrogant nation.”

We don’t know why we haven’t served notice on the Saudi government for refusing to freeze terrorist assets or cooperate with U.S. intelligence efforts.

We don’t now how to assess the fact that, in a poll last week, 40 percent of British Muslim citizens sided with Mr. bin Laden, and 68 percent said that their first allegiance was to their religion, not their county.

We don’t know who at the Red Cross had the bright idea to divert the money we gave for W.T.C. victims to community-outreach and racial-sensitivity programs; we don’t know how the money is being spent or who’s finally responsible here.

We don’t know what the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. were busy doing before Sept. 11.

And yet, on the TV screen, the pundits and the prognosticators and the junior Congressmen continue to pontificate, telling us that we know what we’re doing, everything is under control, we should have faith in our officials, and the economy will revive next spring … but in the meantime, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to stock up on bottled water and keep some cash and canned goods in the house.

So we shake our heads, again, and change the channel.

We don’t know where Dick Cheney is.

We don’t know what kind of privacy and rights we’re going to lose under the new anti-terrorism legislation.

We don’t know exactly what the point is of having armed troops patrol our airport concourses when they’re not actively involved in checking passengers or luggage.

We don’t know why Governor Gray Davis went public with the now-discredited “credible threats” against California’s bridges (other than, perhaps, trying to appear Rudy-like during an election year). We don’t know what to make of a recent issue of Newsweek that more or less provided terrorists with a laundry list of potential targets and their vulnerabilities. We don’t know why our government released the name of a key ingredient-bentonite-which can be used to militarize anthrax.

We don’t know what to believe about Islam.

We don’t know if we elected the right guy Mayor.

We don’t know if we can make innocuous jokes like “Doesn’t the Office of Homeland Security sound as if it should be headquartered in Johannesburg?” Or “Isn’t it odd that all the Upper East Side women who are now insane about anthrax had no compunction about getting Botox shots?”

We don’t know when this will be over, if this will be over or what to expect next.

And yet, there they are-the talking heads on our TV screens-certain in their opinions, steadfast in their convictions, chattering away 24 hours a day, telling us to “go about your normal lives.”

And so we turn off the TV set. And at that moment, in the thundering silence, a bastardized variation on a Robert Frost poem springs to mind: The secret sits in the middle and knows / While experts dance around the anchor desk / And pose.

I don’t know about you. But wouldn’t we all find it infinitely more reassuring if occasionally-just once in a while-just one of those TV heads could summon the courage to utter the following simple phrase: “I don’t know.”