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
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
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.