Almanacs of Mass Destruction

by Dennis Baron

On Christmas Eve the FBI warned the nation’s police departments to consider people carrying almanacs as potential terrorists and to report suspicious almanac use to the U. S. Joint Terrorism Task Force.

I always thought almanacs were repositories of the vital statistics that middle school students rely on: data like average precipitation, high and low temperatures, lunar eclipses, and the names of the state capitals. Almanacs predict tides, summarize census data, list the presidents and their vice presidents, and print the complete text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

But the FBI worries that almanacs give suicide bombers information they need about bridges, tunnels, buildings and landmarks, including maps and pictures that could help them identify targets. To test this claim, I looked up a bridge, a monument, and a tunnel on the “Information Please Almanac” website (www.infoplease.com). While there were no maps or pictures of these venues, a terrorist with an almanac will find that the Brooklyn Bridge is the southernmost of the three bridges connecting Manhattan with Brooklyn, and that its span is just under 1600 feet. The almanac reports that the Washington Monument has walls fifteen feet thick at the base, and that the top, which offers a fine view of Washington, can be reached only by elevator. The almanac also gives a brief synopsis of the movie “Daylight,” whose plot turns on an explosion caused by an accident in the Holland Tunnel. Not much for a terrorist to go on, I suppose, but wait, there’s more.

Almanacs can also advise terrorists on the best time to plant crops or undertake business ventures, and they offer formulas for converting Fahrenheit to Centigrade, pounds to kilos, and Euros to dollars. And almanacs could contain vital escape information: the times of sunrise and sunset in the major American cities; jurisdictions where it is legal to turn right on a red light; and how many quarters terrorists will need for the toll booths on their way out of town.

Rooting around in the almanac, I was able to discover this important set of facts: December 30 was Rudyard Kipling’s birthday, and on that date in 1922 the Soviet Union was incorporated. If I could find this information, so could a terrorist. I also learned that in the year 2002, 46,890 federal tax returns were filed electronically, and George Washington appointed the most justices to the U.S. Supreme Court (if I told you the number, I would have to kill you). But while I did find a sunset calculator, I was unable to find information on right turns or the toll for the Holland Tunnel.

The sensitive information that I did locate in almanacs is also available from other common sources: encyclopedias, Facts-on-File, the AAA, even official government web sites. Not to mention libraries, which are already under suspicion by the FBI because they offer friends and enemies alike information without charge, a practice which the feds regard as suspicious, if not actually un-American. 

With all the information freely floating around our information society, it seems to me that the Fibbies singled out almanacs as potential instruments of mass destruction primarily because almanacs originally come from Arabic. That’s right, almanac is an Arabic word, like algebra, a well-known instrument of torture. While the original meaning of “almanac” is not certain, the first almanacs were calendars that catalogued the movement of the sun, moon, and planets. Present-day almanacs contain much more, their information often condensed into charts and tables. But in the present political climate, anything Arabic smacks of al-Qaida. The government is suspicious of its own Arabic translators. Now it accuses almanacs of giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

The FBI bulletin asks law enforcement officers to look for almanacs during routine traffic stops. Of course, drivers don’t usually carry almanacs in their cars, so the discovery of an open almanac in a vehicle might well be cause for concern. If the Champaign police stopped a car and found an “Information Please Almanac” on the front seat open to the page describing that east central Illinois city as “a commercial and industrial center in a fertile farm area,” and identifying its principal products as concrete and higher education, they just might call out the bomb-sniffing dogs.

But what if the almanac page read, “Little strokes fell great oaks”? When Benjamin Franklin put that nugget into “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” a compendium of facts and pithy wisdom that formed part of Franklin’s nation-building project in the mid-1700s, he didn’t foresee airplanes toppling skyscrapers. Today, those same words found in a car pulled over for a broken tail light would rate the driver a one-way trip to Gitmo.

Not every almanac compiles earned run averages or population densities. “Poor Richard” is full of advice of the “early to bed, early to rise” and “there are no gains without pains” variety. True, this almanac could inspire terrorists bent on felling great oaks, but it could also prove a potent weapon in the War against Terror. The FBI would surely sign on to Franklin’s warning, “There is no little enemy.” A Justice Department anxious to plug leaks should endorse his recommendation, “If you would keep your secret from an enemy, tell it not to a friend.” The federal government might even adopt Franklin’s “Distrust and caution are the parents of security” as the motto of the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

If Franklin were alive today, he would defend almanacs as useful books, not anarchist tracts. He would never sign on to a government warning that a lot of knowledge is a dangerous thing. He might even point out that a driver bent on pinpointing targets to destroy would get more aid and comfort from the Global Positioning System in his rental car than from any almanac. And he’d remind his readers that the GPS is an information technology provided free of charge to loyal citizens and terrorists alike by the American military.

A present-day Franklin would certainly modernize his almanac for the twenty-first century, perhaps retitling it “The Idiot’s Guide to Wisdom” and updating it with such contemporary truisms as, “Ask not what your country can do for you . . . ” or “You have the right to remain silent.” He’d certainly ask the government to retract its foolish warning against almanacs, and he’d warn the FBI not to make its motto another of Poor Richard’s nuggets, “To err is human, to repent divine, to persist devilish.”

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.