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On Point

"Let's say you survived the nerve gas..."

by Austin Bay
June 11, 2003

Let's say you survived.

You are, however, lying flat on your living room floor, clutching your youngest daughter, wrapping a wet towel around her face, praying to God that the rag protects you and your baby from the poison air drifting over your home.

Add another level of gut-breaking fear: Your only son and your eldest daughter are on a school bus somewhere between you and Ground Zero. What do you do?

Role change: Now you're a cop, a guy with a gas mask and a gun. Police headquarters is a crater doused with persistent nerve gas. Based on crazed radio chatter, you conclude the business district (where your wife works) is littered with the dead and dying. The hospital's emergency room is already swamped with the violently ill.

So it's happened here, you think, in my own pleasant if not idyllic 'burb. Those color-coded terror warnings, orange, red, like candy flashcards, like so many cries of "Wolf." I thought the president said we were winning the effin' Terror War ...

Exercise over. You're once again a newspaper reader aware of Washington's warning that within the next two years a "high probability" exists Al Qaeda will attempt an attack with a biological, chemical, radioactive or nuclear weapon. You're also adult enough to take it very seriously.

Last summer, over a plate of superb barbecue, Carroll Wilson, editor of the Wichita Falls Times Record News (one of the many fine papers running this column), told me he wanted to see his Texas town run a full-scale "terror response exercise." Since I'd designed a few training simulations for the U.S. Army, Wilson wondered if I thought exercise pay-offs would be worth the financial cost, turf battles and inevitable political grief a "pretend terror strike" would entail.

My answer: Exercises demonstrate two harsh facts that mere talk never quite communicates. A well-crafted exercise reminds us we're never quite ready. Terrorists rely on surprise, so "first responders" must train to handle the unexpected. If your county sheriff is key to emergency response, have him "killed" in the exercise and force deputies to make decisions. If they foul up, that's good.

The second pay-off is a civics lesson with biblical echoes: You learn once again you are your brother's keeper. A thorough exercise will reveal that what each of us does in a crisis matters a great deal. We each have a role to play. Ask survivors of the World Trade Center. The failed WTC attack in 1993 served as a de facto drill. The cool way the WTC emptied on 9-11 was a real lesson in civil defense.

That's the Bush administration's biggest failure in the War on Terror -- failure to effectively engage the American public in its own defense. The Bush administration hasn't tapped the "reservoir of willingness" 9-11 created, and that's huge mistake when Main Street is a front line.

The administration has pursued an "offense is the best defense" strategy. Ironically, offensive success has left many Americans believing the war has moved "over there." The grim fact is fanatics still intend to bring Hell to your hometown.

In May, I attended a Washington seminar organized by the Pentagon's Reserve Forces Policy Board. I came as a colonel, not a columnist, but two of the many issues aired echoed my editor's questions. One reflects a federal-state turf struggle: How to best use military reserve assets when responding to another 9-11. We still face jurisdictional puzzles. Then came the civics lesson: The American people not only want to participate, but in this peculiar war they MUST participate in their own defense. The home front is vulnerable. One recommendation? Have National Guard and reserve units help counties run terror response exercises.

But that leads back to the inevitable political grief. The conspiratorial cranks already believe the War on Terror is simultaneously a sinister design and a silly fraud. Why, a citywide terror exercise will CREATE panic. It'll block traffic, too -- worse than a peace march.

Civic leaders (who know Main Street is a front line) shouldn't totally ignore these cranks. In your local exercise, cast these folk in perfectly appropriate roles. Let them portray the thoroughly confused, the selfishly disruptive and the clinically distraught.

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