Riding in London’s Underground last summer, an advertisement posted on dozens of trains caught my eye. It read:

“Live and work in America! Enter the Green Card Lottery. 55,100 permanent visas are to be given away by the U.S. State Department. Winners and their families are selected at random through a computer-generated draw. Travel to and from America whenever you wish and keep your current citizenship. Open to people from most countries of the world!” It provided an information kit a 24/7 telephone number for interested parties with the warning, “Offer ends soon, apply now!”

Returning to Maryland, I filled out the online form, identifying myself as a citizen of Saudi Arabia, the daughter of an Iraqi mother and an Iranian father, married to a North Korean. “Congratulations! You are a qualified applicant for the Green Card Lottery Program,” the State Department announced.

I’m one of those Security Moms — the voters who may, according to pollsters, decide who wins this year’s presidential election. And what this Security Mom was thinking, while staring at the State Department website, was: “What genius thought this one up?”

Months later, I’m still wondering, why, in the Age of Terror, are we inviting just anyone to live on our streets, attend our schools, and travel on the same buses, subways, and planes as our kids?

“She’s worried, she wants answers and she likes toughness in a President,” Time announced a year ago in reference to post-9/11 mothers. Debbie Creighton — a mother of two who twice voted for Bill Clinton and normally supports candidates who favor abortion and welfare rights — bluntly sums up the attitude of Security Moms: “Since 9/11,” she told Time, “all I want is a President who is strong.”

The primary frenzy has driven Security Moms off the journalistic radar screen. But we’re still here. And we’re still worried.

“Security Moms have taken on a life of their own,” noted journalist Doug Sanders last month. Both President Bush and Democratic hopefuls “have made pitches to suburban women’s groups, boasting that their party will make them more secure. They’re having a strong effect on both parties: Mr. Bush is trying to look friendlier to women and the Democrats are trying to look more hawkish.”

Tom Carver, a Washington-based BBC correspondent, agrees. “People will listen sympathetically to the Democrats’ warning about George W. Bush destroying the environment or misleading the electorate over weapons of mass destruction,” he declared in December. “But they are not going to vote him out of office unless [they] can produce an alternative candidate who makes ‘security moms’ feel safe.”

The election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as California’s governor suggests that “we want a macho man to protect us,” wrote Carleen Brice of the Denver Post a few weeks ago. Presidential campaign strategists “are trying to woo ‘security moms'” whose “top concern now is homeland security. In newspaper and magazine stories, security moms have said they are willing to make sacrifices in their personal freedoms and beliefs if it would mean ensuring that a terrorist couldn’t blow up their kids’ schools.”

“Sounds like a great reason to elect a woman to me,” Brice added. “I can’t imagine a more ferocious leader than a woman protecting her kids or grandkids.”

Amen, sister. Ferocious is the term presidential candidates should fix in their minds when they hear the term “Security Moms.” Because inside the most gentle, peace-loving, apple-pie baking mommy is a snarling Rottweiler who will kill to keep her babies safe.

Pre-September 11, this willingness to kill for our kids was an instinct the average American mom understood only in abstraction; today’s mother feels it in her gut. Every time she sees the televised faces of those deck-of-cards terrorists, she wants to play 52-card pickup with their corpses.

I can recall the exact moment my own killer instinct emerged from the sleepy backwater of my mind and morphed into a gut-wrenching, stomach-churning, heart-pounding rage. It was the day I saw on the news a videotape recovered from an al-Qaeda hideout. It showed terrorists rehearsing an attack on an American elementary school. Some of them were posing as children and teachers, screaming in fear as gun-toting men burst into their “school” and herded them into a classroom. Presumably, they planned to murder as many children as possible.

By the end of the program, I was beyond rage. In a curiously unemotional way, I simply wanted these bastards dead, even if I had to wipe the Play Doh from my hands and hunt them down myself.

Filmmakers understand this feral phenomenon. Remember the mommy in Fatal Attraction? Remember what she tells her husband’s psychotic paramour — the one who fricasseed her daughter’s pet bunny? “If you ever come near my family again I’ll kill you — you understand?” Evidently she doesn’t, because by the film’s end we find Mommy coolly blowing a hole through the other woman’s chest.

And then there’s Kevin’s mom in Home Alone: Lost in New York, whose husband doesn’t want her roaming New York alone at night searching for her son. Mom snarls: “The way I feel right now, no mugger or murderer would dare mess with me!” The Security Mom can relate. Threaten her child, and she becomes the Incredible Hulk in heels.

This overriding concern for our kids means that every news story goes through a kind of mommy grid. Take, for instance, the recent debate over amnesty for illegal immigrants, and about the utter impossibility (we’re told) of guarding our enormous borders. When a network airs a story about how easy it is for illegal immigrants and drug dealers to sneak into America — as CNN recently did–we fly into a rage. It’s not that we object (much) to the Guatemalan mother who just wants to clean our homes so she can feed her kids; we’re upset because we know if she can get across our borders, so can al-Qaeda terrorists.

Security Moms don’t much care if we never locate weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but we’re horrified when we read about flights being cancelled, as they were over Christmas, because of concerns about terror attacks. When we put our kids on the plane to visit Grandma, we want to know those planes are safe.

Similarly, we’re not that concerned when TV talking heads complain about how badly the rebuilding of Iraq is going. We know perfectly well that it will take years, just as it did in Japan and Germany. But Security Moms lose it — lose it — when we read that Muslim networks are operating near our homes. Networks accused — as one in Virginia recently was — of sending millions of dollars overseas to known terrorist groups.

Do presidential candidates want to know what Security Moms really want? We want to hear that border security has become so tight that nobody — nobody — is getting through anymore. We want to read at least once a week that another planeload of suspicious characters — people who came here illegally from any country — have been rounded up and deported.

“You know all those stories in the papers about people who come here illegally from the Middle East, get a job, and send most of their paycheck home to their mothers?” my friend Marie asked me the other day. “We’re supposed to feel sorry for them when they get deported. Guess what: I don’t. I don’t feel sorry anymore for anyone who comes here illegally.”

Nor do most other moms I know. If John Ashcroft announced tomorrow that construction had begun on a gigantic security fence topped with razor wire and cameras — one that encircled the entire United States twice — Security Moms would be delighted.

Security moms want to hear that student visas are being denied to people from countries known to sympathize with terrorist goals (“Let them attend school in France,” sniffed my next-door neighbor). We’re livid when we read of illegal aliens being given driver’s licenses, which are “breeder documents” for other documents. This policy is, as my friend Emma tartly put it, “Stupid on steroids.”

Security Moms listen to the squabbling over whether America should have fought in Iraq, especially now, when al-Qaeda fighters are slithering into Baghdad from around the world, targeting our soldiers and our Iraqi allies. We shake our heads in wonder. Don’t the pundits get it? These people mean to kill us. Given a choice between having them attack our well-trained, well-armed soldiers in Iraq (who are quite good at shooting back), or mount an assault on the kindergarten down the street, we’ll take attacks in Iraq, thank you.

“What [Security Moms] are looking for are solutions to make their families and children safer. It’s about solutions; it’s not about partisan bickering,” says Republican pollster David Winston.

Right. We want solutions based on intelligence and common sense — on what’s truly best for our kids, not what’s best for flagging presidential campaigns. The last thing we need are candidates who flail about in the political seas, harpooning whatever blubbery idea floats past, hoping they’ll eventually wash up on the convention floor with a fistful of votes.

Security Moms want to know our leaders are thinking every single day about how to prevent terror attacks. We want to see Tom Ridge out on the White House lawn at least once a week, saying, “Here’s what we’re doing this week to keep your children safe.” Phrased this way, there’s virtually nothing the Bush Administration could do that Security Moms would object to — the ACLU, posturing politicians, and Muslim leaders notwithstanding.

Yes, we care about civil liberties, and we’re concerned when we read about people being locked up for months without access to lawyers. But we have to be frank: We don’t care nearly as much as we used to.

My friend Amanda, for one, is tired of hearing about how the civil rights of terror suspects have been violated. Most of them came here illegally, she points out. “Besides, what’s the worst thing that can happen to them?” she asks. “After all, we don’t torture people in this country.”

That might change if Security Moms were hired to interrogate some of these suspects — especially moms who live in New York and Washington, many of whom know the names and faces of 9/11 victims. I couldn’t resist asking a few mothers what they’d do to bin Laden if they got their hands on him. Their eyes lit up as though I’d just announced a half-price sale on Huggies at Costco. To put it mildly, these moms are not thinking of giving bin Laden a “time out.”

“I’d blowtorch that smirking face of his,” declares my friend Kelley as she nurses her 6-month-old daughter. “I’d blowtorch something else,” retorts Patricia, a woman who doesn’t allow her 5 year old to have “violent” toys. “Seriously, he should be tortured before he is executed.”

They begin a friendly competition, trying to think up the most barbaric atrocities they could visit on the man who has forever altered their lives and the lives of their children.

Passing around biscotti, I begin to feel slightly uneasy. These rich, sadistic fantasies, the enthusiasm at the thought of inflicting horrific pain on a fellow human being — surely this isn’t healthy.

Perhaps not — but it is understandable. My own mom says she remembers sitting in movie theaters as a little girl watching newsreels about World War II. “When the Germans and Japanese were killed, everybody in the theater cheered and applauded,” she recalls. “I know my mother had a problem with it — she wanted to be a good Christian. But she had a son over there fighting hand-to-hand combat with the Japanese. Personally,” she adds, as she carefully rolls out piecrust, “I’ll be glad when bin Laden and his friends have been exterminated.”

It’s clear that some Democrats don’t appreciate the ferocity of this feeling; they would like nothing better than for President Bush to attend the Monty Python School of Foreign Affairs, learning to howl “Run away! Run away!” in the face of deadly danger, French insults, or criticism by John Kerry. This was America’s official policy during the Clinton years, and not surprisingly, bin Laden loved it: It enabled him to attack Americans over and over again without fear of retribution.

The fact that his followers are receiving it now, in Afghanistan and Iraq, provoke French sneers about President Bush behaving like a cowboy — apparently the worst Gallic insult imaginable. They don’t understand that when Americans hear the term cowboy, we don’t necessarily think of reckless gunslingers shooting up the old West. When danger threatens, as it does now, we’re more likely to think of Marshal Will Kane in High Noon.

Will Kane was not a suave, sophisticated man. He wasn’t a great public speaker. But he did have integrity and courage.

When he learns the outlaw Frank Miller is arriving on the noon train, Kane first tries the “Run Away!” approach urged on him by the townspeople and his Quaker bride. But Kane can’t stomach running away, and he returns to face the gang. When his so-called friends desert him, he takes on the outlaws alone. (Well, almost alone. With her husband under assault, Kane’s wife jettisons her pacifist principles and shoots one of the gang in the back–a Security Mom in training.)

This is the kind of leader we want when outlaws ride into town — or fly planes into buildings. Someone with the guts to do what’s right, even if he has to go it alone. Perhaps the French would understand Americans better if they could tear themselves away from Jerry Lewis films long enough to watch High Noon.

What qualities do security moms look for in a leader to guide us through an Age of Terror? The same qualities we look for in a husband: Someone who is strong and who will do his utmost to protect us. We’ll willingly put up with annoying habits or irritating opinions if we know, in the end, that this man would sacrifice his life for our children.

“Has President Bush convinced you that he can handle terrorism?” a Time/CNN poll asked last summer. “Yes,” replied 67 percent of America’s moms.

And today, as the 2004 presidential campaigns gather force?

We’ll have two choices.

There’s the Vietnam veteran who once showed bravery under fire — but also voted again and again to cut our defense and intelligence budgets.

And then there’s George W. Bush, whose conservative politics outrage many women, but who has managed, despite everything, to prevent another terrorist attack on our soil.

Two years into the war on terror, the hearts of America’s mothers have hardened, and no wonder. The first thing many of us did on Sept. 11, when we heard about those jets crashing into buildings, was to jump in the car and pick up our kids. It was goodbye to the Soccer Mom, who had time to worry about animal rights and air pollution, and hello to the Security Mom, who’s obsessed with keeping her children safe — not just from school yard bullies and child molesters, but also from those who think they’ll receive 70 black-eyed virgins if they murder American kids.

Security Moms will never forget that among the 3,000 victims of September 11 were a number of children. We’re not going to let their killers get anywhere near our own kids if we can possibly help it.

If we ever do find them, on our streets or in our schools, on our playgrounds or in our planes, America’s mothers will have no mercy.  

Anne Morse is a writer who lives in Unity, Maryland, with her husband and two children.