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 airdrifting over your home.

Add another level of gut-breaking fear: Your only son and youreldest 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 oncrazed radio chatter, you conclude the business district (where your wifeworks) is littered with the dead and dying. The hospital's emergency room isalready swamped with the violently ill.

So it's happened here, you think, in my own pleasant if notidyllic 'burb. Those color-coded terror warnings, orange, red, like candyflashcards, like so many cries of "Wolf." I thought the president said wewere winning the effin' Terror War ...

Exercise over. You're once again a newspaper reader aware ofWashington'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 veryseriously.

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

My answer: Exercises demonstrate two harsh facts that mere talknever quite communicates. A well-crafted exercise reminds us we're neverquite ready. Terrorists rely on surprise, so "first responders" must trainto handle the unexpected. If your county sheriff is key to emergencyresponse, have him "killed" in the exercise and force deputies to makedecisions. If they foul up, that's good.

The second pay-off is a civics lesson with biblical echoes: Youlearn once again you are your brother's keeper. A thorough exercise willreveal that what each of us does in a crisis matters a great deal. We eachhave a role to play. Ask survivors of the World Trade Center. The failed WTCattack in 1993 served as a de facto drill. The cool way the WTC emptied on9-11 was a real lesson in civil defense.

That's the Bush administration's biggest failure in the War onTerror -- failure to effectively engage the American public in its owndefense. The Bush administration hasn't tapped the "reservoir ofwillingness" 9-11 created, and that's huge mistake when Main Street is afront line.

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

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

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

Civic leaders (who know Main Street is a front line) shouldn'ttotally ignore these cranks. In your local exercise, cast these folk inperfectly appropriate roles. Let them portray the thoroughly confused, theselfishly disruptive and the clinically distraught.

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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