Federal officials need to be very careful not to allow paranoia to decide what constitutes a credible threat to President Bush.
A case in point is the revelation that the Secret Service is investigating editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez for a drawing that was published in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times.
In the offending cartoon, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph from the Vietnam War, the President has his hands tied behind his back as a man labeled “Politics” holds a gun to his head.
Mr. Ramirez says the cartoon was intended to call attention to what he considered the unjust “political assassination” of Mr. Bush over his Iraq policy.
It's true that sensitivity to threats, real and perceived, has been heightened since Sept. 11. 2001. However, unless we are prone to seeing plots within schemes within conspiracies, it appears fairly obvious that Mr. Ramirez's cartoon was intended to show support for an embattled President.
Certainly there is the vague possibility that some deranged or fanatical individual could find inspiration in Mr. Ramirez's drawing, but the prospect is remote.
Leaving aside the obvious free speech issues, if the Secret Service (or the FBI, CIA, or Homeland Security Department) begins to see threats in editorial cartoons, what will be next?
Perhaps the 1997 movie Air Force One was in reality not mere entertainment but advocating the hijacking of the president's plane. Should Harrison Ford be investigated?
And what about The Simpsons TV show episode in which Homer and the first President Bush have a knockdown, drag-out fight? Should Homer be placed on a watch list?
Get a grip!
A degree of overreaction, while unfortunate and greatly to be avoided, was understandable in the immediate aftermath of the crashing of hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field.
But nearly two years have passed since those tragic events, and while the United States should never forget the harsh lessons of that day, neither should those entrusted with the security of the President - or the nation - allow their judgment to be clouded by paranoia.
History has demonstrated amply that witch hunts find witches - whether they are there or not.