Equip Americans for civil defense

June 24, 2002|By Stephen Bryen

WASHINGTON - With all the steps the Bush administration and Congress are taking to protect Americans, I have been waiting for the most important one: Civilian defense. Right now, those of us who are at ground zero in Washington are defenseless.

I agree it is a great idea to stockpile iodine pills against radiation sickness and to build up a supply of vaccine against smallpox. It is also logical to develop new and better vaccines against anthrax.

But let's face it. All of this won't mean much if there is no distribution system and if people are not prepared to use the antidotes and vaccines. And hardly anyone has a proper gas mask to protect against airborne pathogens, chemical gases like the nerve gas sarin or airborne particles from a radiological bomb.

Why do Americans, particularly those in high-risk areas such as Washington and New York, lack gas masks, atropine to fight nerve gas and other vital supplies? Or training and information on what we should do if there is an attack?

You can't really expect people to take homeland defense chief Tom Ridge's security warnings very seriously if Americans don't know what to do or how to respond.

And you can't expect people to remain calm if they are not prepared in the event of an attack. Panic is a major factor that terrorists count on to cause more death and destruction.

Can you imagine tens of thousands of Washingtonians trying to get out of town if the unthinkable happens? But getting out is the only strategy people have to protect themselves. And if it is a bioterror attack, perhaps smallpox, a mass exodus will spread the disease, making matters infinitely worse and close to, if not, unmanageable.

In Israel, every family gets a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) protective kit from the government. The kit contains gas masks for the family and atropine to be used in case of a nerve gas attack. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, one of Israel's most special neighbors, has lots of nerve gas, which he mixes up in cocktails with other poisons, declassified intelligence reports confirm. He is ruthless; he may have killed more than 100,000 Kurds in the 1980s, destroying whole villages, such as Halabja.

Chemical and biological weapons are spreading everywhere. The Palestinians have used rat poison and cyanide, which they are mixing into their bombs. There are intelligence reports of attempts to dump chemical agents into the Sea of Galilee in a bid to poison Israel's water supply. There are rumors the Palestinians have nerve gas, which may have been supplied by Mr. Hussein, or perhaps the Iranians or Syrians through Hezbollah.

Al-Qaida also has cyanide, ricin and nerve gas (a vial marked sarin was found in one of the al-Qaida caves). And there is no doubt they were smuggling radiological materials from Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia for a dirty bomb. One large shipment was stopped in Uzbekistan on its way to Pakistan and then to al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan.

It costs less than $10 per person to manufacture and distribute the WMD kits in Israel. People are taught how to make a sealed room if there is an attack, the kind of dos and don'ts they need to know and to keep tuned to radio or TV. There is a well-developed and effective distribution system for the kits, and they are periodically updated to ensure they remain effective.

In the United States, there are no government-supplied WMD kits, and while there are very well trained people in many American cities, including Washington, they are not connected to any system to inform the public.

In Israel, when Iraqi Scud missiles rained down on urban areas during the Persian Gulf war, there was no panic. There was a lot of fear, but people followed the advice they received from the civil defense system. One example was how the audience at a performance of the Israel Philharmonic in Jerusalem donned gas masks when an alert sounded during a Scud attack. The concert continued, and people stayed in their seats.

Good homeland defense presupposes a confident public that can't be panicked or stampeded by terrorists. This means real civilian defense. The Israeli model tells us a lot about how to go about training America's families, chiefly those in high risk areas, to deal with all kinds of potential terrorist threats.

The president, Congress, Mr. Ridge and all of us should insist we move forward immediately on protecting each and every American. It is surprising more hasn't been done by now. Waiting can be fatal.

Stephen Bryen was deputy undersecretary of defense for trade security policy during both Reagan administrations.

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