Terrorism: The Thin Grey Line

God may have made the world, but it’s held together with duct tape.

Amy Wilentz is the author, most recently, of “Martyrs’ Crossing: A Novel.”

16 February 2003
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times

By Amy Wilentz

You’d think that this world would not hold a lot of duct-tape fanciers. It’s not a normal thing to care for. In fact, tactilely speaking, duct tape is off-putting: that silvery fake feel, halfway between cloth and plastic, the sense that something ancient and fibrous like hemp lurks under the silver surface, and then, of course, that truly sticky backing that just can’t help but affix itself to the nearest anything.

So who would have thought that this lowly product would become, as it were, the nation’s thin gray line against terror. Duct tape, they now tell us, will save the world from chemical and biological attacks. All across the country people are piling it into their shopping carts.

And yet, according to recent research, duct tape was popular even before the Homelanders advised snapping it up to save our lives. Israelis use large quantities of the stuff. They discovered it during the first Gulf War, when they were advised to tape up one room in the house against potential Iraqi chemical or biological attacks, and then realized, while hiding in their “safe rooms,” that plastic sheeting and duct tape also work well to keep out winter winds and lower the heating bills.

Another group of adherents (so to speak) uses duct tape not for insulation but as a fashion material, carrying duct-tape purses and wallets, and wearing duct-tape belts, backpacks and hats. One man even made an entire formal suit out of duct-tape (surely he is terror-proof when he hits the street in this outfit, which includes a very tall top hat).

Like other popular items, duct tape has its own mottoes. “Get the Duck to Do It!” is the rallying cry of Henkel Adhesive’s Duck brand tapes. Which brings us to another point: Though “duct” tape is the generic term, because the tape’s first use was to fix or finish joints in ducts, Duck brand is one trade name — definitely the catchiest — and this fact should put at rest the minds of people who were never certain whether the stuff was duct or duck. (Why would it be duck, some asked? Duck tape, to bind ducks?) But Duck it is, if you buy the right brand.

“God made the world, but it’s held together with duct tape” is another motto, penned by Anonymous, as far as in-depth research could determine. At the Henkel Web site, this deeply philosophical duct-tape assertion is serious business: “What would happen if there were suddenly no more adhesives?” Henkel asks. Henkel’s answer: “Our world would fall apart.” (A song here, perhaps: “Imagine no adhesives. It’s easy if you try.”) Henkel’s Duck brand tape is doing its part to keep such chaos at bay: Its product, according to the firm’s Web site, is “a fabric-reinforced multipurpose … tape capable of withstanding even quite extreme loading.”

Quite extreme loading; that’s what Americans are doing with duct tape in supermarket aisles. And the industry seems up to the challenge.

Even before the days of Orange alerts, Henkel produced its tape at 80 sites and sold it in 82 countries. Now, the company assures consumers, it will respond to increased demand: “As a result of the Department of Homeland Security’s recommendation to keep duct tape on hand in preparing for a biological attack, Henkel Consumer Adhesives has increased duct tape production by 40%.” (Very patriotic.)

Perhaps it’s wrong to dwell on Duck tape when there is also the ubiquitous duct tape made by the ominous sounding Intertape Polymer Group (Florida-based — they gave us Bush, they give us duct tape to go with him).

At the IPG Web site, you can click on a flag icon “for your household security needs.” Here you find a photograph of an American flag composed entirely of colored duct-tape rolls. “Our tapes,” reads the promotional material, “provide the level of performance required during these times of heightened security awareness.”

This kind of assertion could make you think that duct-tape is more a psychological Band-aid than a window sealer. After that, “getting the duck to do it” seems anachronistically lighthearted.

Intertape Polymer wants us to know that it too is on the case. “Intertape,” the firm says, “has increased production to meet current and future requirements.” “Duct tape,” it continues, “is an item that no household should be without.” The sound of hands rubbing together is almost audible. Really, these days, it’s hard not to pity the manufacturers of, say, staples, or Saran Wrap, who are among the many nonstarters in the game of terror protection. If only, they must be thinking.

Be prepared. “You never know when you may need a roll of duct tape,” Intertape warns. Perhaps that — more than any other thought — can be the catchphrase of the war on terror.