No homeland defense against idiocy

Posted: Feb 25, 2003 12:00 AM
Last week's butcher's bill: Nearly 100 dead at a Rhode Island nightclub because an infantile band played with matches. Over 20 dead after a stampede in an overcrowded Chicago nightclub. Over 130 dead after a subway conductor in South Korea fled a burning train without opening its doors. With all our concern about weapons of mass destruction, a lot of small masses die when small precautions are ignored because of selfishness, overlooked because of laziness or forgotten because of panic. Some club owners esteem dollars over safety and admit more fans than fire codes allow. Then those fans don't take a second to see where the nearest exit is. In the central areas of New York, Washington and other large cities with terrorist bulls-eyes on them, it's wise to be prepared, but in most of the United States, everyday risks are far greater hazards. During 2001, Americans had about a 1 in 100,000 chance of being killed in a terrorist attack -- that includes those killed on the ground in New York and Washington and in the four airplanes that terrorists seized on Sept. 11. That same year the odds of being killed in a motor vehicle accident were about 1 in 6,000. The odds of being killed while attending Great White's heavy metal concert in West Warwick, R.I., last Thursday night were about one in four. Here's a tiny silver lining in last week's dark cloud of death: music-related catastrophes have become "a wake-up call for clubs to make public safety the number one concern," in the words of Frank Hendrix, owner of Emo's in Austin, Texas. Charles Attal, owner of another club near the Texas capitol, Stubb's, said his new rule was "No pyro, period. From now on, I don't even want bands to light candles onstage." Just as charity begins at home, so homeland security begins with doing more to minimize everyday risks. Seatbelts in cars save lives. So do bicycle and motorcycle helmets. Last week "Baywatch" star David Hasselhoff and his wife broke bones and ribs when the actor lost control of a motorcycle they were riding, but helmets protected their brains (and no jokes about that brainless television series, please). Keeping terrorist risks in perspective means heeding some wise words penned one month after 9-11 and given wide Internet circulation but little press coverage, perhaps because "calm down" pleas make for smaller headlines than "sky is falling" screams. Red Thomas, a retired U.S. military weapons expert, explained the extreme difficulty of pulling off chemical attacks and noted that "If there is an attack, leave the area and go upwind. ... They have to get the stuff to you, and on you. You're more likely to be hurt by a drunk driver on any given day than be hurt by one of these attacks. ... Don't let fear of an isolated attack rule your life. The odds are really on your side." The Washington Post, to its credit, tracked down Thomas at his Mesa, Ariz., home and noted his general advice that the best overall preparation for any terrorist attack is about the same as for a big storm: "a week's worth of cash, several days' worth of canned goods and plenty of soap and water." But folks at the Post building near downtown Washington, or those who live or work in downtown New York, do have reason to be concerned about low-yield nuclear weapons that could kill a lot of people within a half mile of the blast. That's why I'm fully in support of John Ashcroft's push to break up terrorist cells. I also support a general inoculation against smallpox: Biological warfare is a great threat, and I'd accept the extremely small risks that come with inoculation in order to be protected against something highly contagious that generally kills one third of those infected. But if I dwell on that threat, I might not look both ways before crossing the street.