Bracing for the next attack

October 05, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Warnings from the Bush administration that future homeland terrorism could come in the form of biological and chemical attacks have sent many Americans scurrying to military surplus stores for gas masks. At the same time, public health officials acknowledge they aren't prepared with sufficient medical supplies to deal with such widespread assaults.

This is unnerving news at a time President Bush is urging the country to get back to normal, not only by resuming commercial air travel but also by going about its business, albeit with a higher sense of alertness to the terrorist threat.

The contradiction between toting around a cumbersome gas mask and returning to normal is one Americans are going to have to live with if they want to take on the highest degree of self-protection. Barring instructions to do so by the government, however, most are more likely to dismiss this particular preparedness and take their chances that it won't happen.

The new talk about self-protection against a military cataclysm recalls the furor at the time of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles 90 miles from our shores and President John F. Kennedy demanded their removal -- or else.

The "or else," many expected and feared, would be an American attack on the Soviet missile installations and, very possibly, the world's first nuclear exchange. Firm and deft confrontation by Kennedy against ships bringing more Soviet missiles to the Communist-controlled island finally turned them back, and the threat was defused.

But the nation held its breath until Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev "blinked" and agreed to remove the missiles.

An aftermath of that frightening episode was a renewed push for the construction of shelters against the deadly fallout from nuclear explosions. The year before, Kennedy had first urged not only communities but also individuals to build them in their basements in the wake of a similar if not quite as nerve-wracking confrontation with the Soviet Union over the U.S. presence in Berlin.

Kennedy's observation that "any prudent family" should build a fallout shelter triggered a heated public debate about whether that advice should be followed, and questions growing out of it such as whether Americans in shelters should arm themselves to keep less foresighted neighbors out. As a reporter at the Pentagon at the time, with three very small children, I laboriously built one myself, amid much ridicule of some friends and neighbors.

Now, with perhaps a more realistic threat on our own shores, not only the rush for gas masks is being heard, but also more Americans arming themselves and serious consideration being given to arming commercial jet pilots as a means of combating future suicide skyjackers.

While the latter, along with assigning more sky marshals to commercial flights, may make some sense, the task of protecting millions of Americans from chemical and biological attack will require a major, much more serious effort on the part of the federal government than it seems prepared to undertake now.

Some of the warnings by administration officials about these other threats are accompanied with somewhat reassuring statements that the most deadly agents are particularly hard for terrorists to get their hands on or that effective delivery devices may not be within their capability -- yet.

Still, one bell-clear lesson from Sept. 11 is that the ingenuity of well-financed terrorists driven by fanaticism should not be underestimated. The federal effort to protect against these other threats, well underway before Sept. 11, demands intensification now. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has indicated he understands the urgency. In the meantime, if citizens opt to buy gas masks on their own, it hardly warrants ridicule.

The chemical and biological threat may turn out to be as much of a bust as the fallout shelter frenzy of the early 1960s. But it may not. If the officials responsible for protecting the home front believe this peril is real and the government is not prepared to meet it, at the very least it is obliged to be more straightforward in giving Americans their best judgment on what protective steps can be taken by individual families, however limited they may be.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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