Living with terror

Posted: Feb 14, 2003 12:00 AM
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 anything else. 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, 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 systems. 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 vaccine. 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 against terror? 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.