Dan Lindley

Terrorist Warnings? Increased Vigilance? Tell Us What to Do

December 5, 2001

The Bush Administration just issued its third general terrorism warning. Again, the country was urged to be vigilant. And again, the warning lacked specifics about place or timing. Accompanying news reports that bin Laden and al Qaeda may possess radiological weapons (conventional explosive bombs that disperse radioactive material)lend urgency to the warning.

Vague warnings of imminent terrorist attacks and instructions to increase vigilance have left most of us with more questions than answers: What are we supposed to do? What does heightened vigilance mean? Even law enforcement agencies are puzzled, with many claiming that they were already on alert. As we do not know what to do, we are left with fear. Fear can not be translated into action when nobody tells what to do and how to be vigilant.

The government will continue to issue terrorists alerts and many of these alerts will necessarily be vague. The vagaries of incoming intelligence can not be remedied. But the government should be more specific when asking citizens to engage in the war on terrorism.

President Bush's November 8 speech contained scant details about how citizens could help in the war, or how we should respond to warnings about terrorist dangers. Most of his ideas such as volunteering with the homeless and tutoring children are worthy, but have little to do with terrorism or the war. The most relevant idea was volunteer emergency crews, yet there were no specifics, and no pledges of significant federal funding - the true indicator of a serious proposal.

If we can not translate our fears into action, and if the government issues warnings without telling us what to do, this increases the chances we will become complacent and ignore the warnings. Repeated vague warnings contributed to complacency on December 7, 1941.

Here are two ideas for what the government should do to engage the public in the war against terrorism.

First, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation should make a film to explain how to recognize possible terrorist attacks, and to tell us what steps to take if we see something suspicious. Tell us to watch for vans parked oddly next to factories, bridges, or railroad tracks. Tell us to report neighbors stockpiling large amounts of fertilizers, or chemicals. Tell us to call the local police first, or set up an 800 number to report suspicions. Show the film on prime time television, and distribute it on VHS and/or DVD to each home in America, as well as to libraries, schools, police stations, public health offices, and so forth.

Second, the U.S. should help set up volunteer emergency preparedness teams, who could also serve to increase local vigilance. A model for this is the 1000 volunteers in San Jose, who receive at least sixteen hours of training, hard hats and vests. Some teams could specialize in patrols and surveillance, some in traffic management, and all in first aid. Volunteer programs could be set up nationwide, in any community that wanted one.

These ideas may cost millions of dollars. However, we can easily afford it and it will be money well spent. We now spend $170 billion less on defense as a percent of gross domestic product (3.2%) than the lowest amount we spent during the Cold War (4.9% in 1979). Indeed, we can afford almost any conceivable range of domestic, national security, and international initiatives if we find the will do so.

In World War II, we had volunteer coastal and aerial spotters, and practiced blackout drills. These things had little practical effect, but they engaged citizens in the war effort, and channeled fears in a productive direction. As today's war is being fought in part on U.S. soil, engaging the public in the fight may pay large life-saving dividends. Moreover, it will couple necessarily vague alarms about impending attacks to practical steps we all can take. We are a nation at war. Make the public part of the effort.