Living with terror
2/14/2003 12:00:00 AM - Mona Charen
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- I suppose I get as scared as the next
person. But I hate to let it show. So it is with some dismay that I watch my
fellow Washingtonians stocking up on duct tape and plastic sheeting. Even if
such measures were prudent, I would not want to give Al Qaeda the
satisfaction of knowing they'd scared us.
And make no mistake, they are gloating. Even from his hole
somewhere in remote Pakistan or wherever he is, bin Laden has exulted that
suicide killers have struck more fear into Americans and Israelis than
What a vile and despicable excuse for a man. He delights in the
image of burning men and women hurling themselves from the top floors of a
skyscraper and of orphans mourning their lost parents. And he seems to enjoy
the infliction of fear almost as much. So many of the "terror alerts" of the
past several months have made me squirm because I wonder, along with David
Perlmutter of Jewishworldreview.com, if the terrorists in Islamabad and the
Hindu Kush aren't yanking our chains.
"Abdul, praise be to Allah, we deliver the 'package' at the end
of the Haj." They can dial their cell phones as often as they like and then
laugh as we scramble to protect power plants, water supplies and subway
Of course, it's perfectly possible that the terrorists are
planning real attacks as well as taunting us with imaginary ones. But even
assuming that the "chatter" the intelligence folks have picked up is
serious, raising the threat alert to Code Orange is useless in any practical
sense and only delights the bin Ladens of the world.
This time, the secretary of homeland security advised Americans
to stock up on plastic sheeting and duct tape, presumably to create a "safe
room" in the event of chemical or biological attack. But there were no
accompanying explanations. From which particular agents would duct tape and
sheeting protect you and for how long? My always unflappable husband pointed
out that a family of five plus one golden retriever would quickly exhaust
the available oxygen in a taped-up room. And if fresh air could get in
despite the precautions, then presumably so could chemical agents. How long
do nerve agents like Sarin or Ricin stay in the air, and how are they
delivered? Wouldn't it be nearly impossible for terrorists to spread
chemical weapons over a large swath of territory?
Biological warfare is another matter. At least we have the
capacity to defend ourselves against smallpox -- not that we are jumping at
the opportunity. Another kind of fear has edged out fear of terror in this
case: fear of vaccines. Our lawsuit-corrupted culture has loosed the idea
that vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases they prevent, and many a
pharmaceutical company is tied up in litigation about one or another
Meanwhile though, members of the military and emergency medical
personnel have been taking the smallpox shots with very few serious side
effects and zero deaths. Common sense and prudence would seem to militate in
favor of nationwide vaccination in advance of any attack. To wait for an
attack is to invite panic -- which would certainly cause its share of deaths
from heart attacks, traffic accidents and so forth. Also, a fully vaccinated
nation is not a tempting target for biowarfare.
And speaking of panic, what are they doing to prevent it? One
key job of the Department of Homeland Security should be to prepare millions
of government employees to work together in the event of an attack.
Emergency workers from Fairlawn, N.J., and Shreveport, La., should have open
lines to the FBI and FEMA, as well as to the governors' offices in case the
National Guard is needed. These logistical details are easily ironed out
before an attack but, if ignored, can cost lives in an emergency.
How about the emergency broadcast system? Remember that relic of
the Cold War that was supposed to tell you what to do in the event of a
"real emergency"? Has Tom Ridge figured out what to do with it in the war
He should. But in the meantime, those of us who are not in the
government have an obligation, too, and that is to behave in such a way that
our children will be proud of us in coming years. Be stouthearted. Have
courage. Hold your head high. You're an American.