Scary, yes, but the more we know, the better

This Just In...

October 12, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

A FEW YEARS ago, during a round of beers with fishing companions, I heard an amusing story about a man and a dam. It seems this man, a regional official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, had been resistant to the idea of people with fishing rods and backpacks getting within a mile of a certain large dam the corps had constructed in the early 1980s. State and local officials and fishing clubs supported public access to the river below the dam, and they couldn't understand the fed's hesitation.

They accused him of being a mule-headed bureaucrat and prodded him for an answer.

Why the restriction? What harm could come of people, most of them taxpayers, getting within a mile or so of a rural, government-constructed dam to do a little hiking and fishing?

Finally, at a meeting to resolve the issue, the corps official gave a reason for his position: "Terrorists."

The way I heard the story, this statement sparked howls of laughter, with some people at the meeting ridiculing the concern and finding the prospect of terrorists hiking into a rural area of America to blow a hole in a dam - or poison the reservoir behind it - preposterous.

When I heard the story, I thought it was funny, too.

That was a few years ago.

Back in the good old days.

Before 9-11.

Wednesday's hearing before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment had this as its title: "Terrorism Threat to U.S. Water Infrastructure."

The questions from the committee: Is the nation's drinking water secure? What precautions have been taken to guard against terrorist attacks on the nation's dams?

Terrorists attacking dams?

Didn't we laugh at that over beers a few years ago?

But this is the reality of post-9-11 America: We think the unthinkable. We no longer laugh at threats that once seemed logistically ridiculous. We don't dismiss anything as beyond plausibility.

Someone trying to contaminate a public water supply, or bust open a dam to cause a catastrophic flood, or spread deadly bacteria with a crop duster, or pilot a passenger jet into a skyscraper - those are inhuman concepts.

And, before 9-11, very few humans conceived of them.

Wednesday in Washington, something we hadn't thought about before - something that once sounded comic and preposterous - was openly discussed in somber terms. Among the witnesses were officials of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers, and they addressed, among other things, security issues at the nation's flood-control and hydroelectric dams.

All over the country, cities are taking precautions. Baltimore has tripled the number of its daily tests of drinking water and beefed up security patrols around the municipal reservoirs, which hold billions of gallons of water for the metropolitan population.

I know: These ideas - poisoning of water, destruction of dams - are too sinister and frightening to behold. Please, change the subject.

But not thinking about them - not asking questions - is unhealthy for a population in recovery from trauma and living through a strange new epoch.

Dr. Paul McHugh, chairman of the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at the Johns Hopkins University, says that in times like these, people need as much information as possible from their leaders if anxiety is to be relieved.

And I'm all for anxiety relief.

So it was good to hear Congress thinking the unthinkable and asking questions it had never asked before.

Yes, said officials of the TVA and the Army Corps of Engineers, the dams are being protected, security has been tightened. And if a terrorist were to fly a jet into a dam, it probably wouldn't do much damage to the dam.

But what about municipal water supplies? Are they safe?

"Because our water supply consists of many systems, it would be difficult for a terrorist attack to have a broad, long-term impact," said Ron Dick, director of the National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) at the FBI.

"Further, contamination of a water reservoir with a biological agent would probably not pose a large risk to public health because of the dilution effect, filtration and disinfection of the water. To contaminate a water supply with a hazardous industrial chemical, it would take truckloads of the chemical to have any effect.

"Based on available intelligence and investigative information," Dick added, "there are currently no specific credible threats to any water distribution networks."

He said that under the new Office of Homeland Security, information-sharing among NPIC, the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies forms "a cornerstone of protection" of the nation's water systems.

I guess most of what Dick said should make us feel better.

I guess I want to believe that his and all counterterrorism agencies are working smarter and better than they were a month ago.

I want to believe that someone somewhere - the government, which so many in this country like to scorn - is on the job, being vigilant about even far-fetched threats to the country.

I'm glad that they're considering the terrible possibilities that most of us want to avoid, those conceptually inhuman things that invited incredulity - or laughter - before 9-11. Back in the good old days.

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