We Are (Still) Not Ready

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, July 9, 2005

The front pages of The Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on Thursday brought all the big news of the day but, of course, not a word about the London terrorist attacks. That's because the bombs exploded after the newspapers went to press. Nonetheless, the absence of any terrorism-related story in space normally reserved for news with broad impact was striking. We learned an important lesson on Sept. 11 and were reminded of it by last year's Madrid railway bombings and again with this week's attacks in London: Terrorism is a continuing, deadly international problem, and we don't know the day or the hour it will strike.

Islamic jihadists, we seem to forget, haven't limited themselves to creating havoc in Iraq and Afghanistan. America and the West remain on their list of targets. Yet until and unless some horrific event such as London comes along, Americans don't act like a nation living on the edge of peril.

Surely the adequacy of preparations for a possible domestic terrorist attack should be as much of an attention-getter as Disney's deal to connect kids with cell phones or the jockeying in Washington over Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's replacement. But most of what we have seen and heard in recent weeks would suggest that Sept. 11 never happened.

Within hours of learning about the bombs in London, a Metro spokeswoman stepped forward to tell us that our mass transit system, on which the entire Washington area depends, is vulnerable to attack, that it lacks funds for decontamination equipment, needs equipment to detect weapons of mass destruction, must expand its intruder inspection system and lacks a backup operations center.

It took an attack on London for us to find that out? What else don't we know?

As we've just seen, terrorists won't wait for us to get up to speed. As long as the jihadists are around, another terrorist attack in this country is inevitable. The question is whether we are prepared.

Have we bothered to find out whether our workplaces are prepared to protect us in the event of a chemical or bomb attack? What should you do if there's an explosion in the lobby of your building? Suppose the blast is followed by a fire? Are there evacuation plans? Do those plans take into account people with disabilities and senior citizens? How well drilled are we?

Or do we dismiss those possibilities, wait for the London furor to die down and the orange alert to be downgraded to yellow, so we can resume our daily lives worrying about what's for dinner, where to go on the weekends, and who's up and who's down on the job?

For starters, we need more than anger to get through this most recent episode of terrorism. I say this because there is no shortage of people in this country who are willing to say just how much they hate the Islamic fundamentalists who are trying to kill us. Defeating this kind of enemy requires something besides hate. Let's try preparedness: on the job, at home and as we travel. Making ourselves ready is the better course to follow. And how about throwing in courage, intelligence, resolve and a willingness to put up with inconveniences?

The last thing we need is a return to complacency. Sure, get on with living, but not to the point of becoming oblivious to the world around us. And we should go the terrorists one better: Don't give in to the kind of blind hatred that causes them to strike out at all who don't share their extremist ideology.

Regrettably, on the day of the London bombings, the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee felt the need to issue an advisory with suggestions for protective action to members of the Arab American and Muslim communities because of what the group describes as "historically documented hate-motivated attacks and acts of unlawful discrimination following similar terrorist attacks." That such a list of precautionary measures is deemed necessary is a sad reflection of our times. But even during these stressful periods, things are not always as they seem.

A case in point: Last week's column ["Let's Proudly Hail the Rights of All," July 2] listed five anti-Muslim incidents that occurred in June, including one in which a bag stuffed with burned Korans was left in front of an Islamic center in Blacksburg, Va. Several readers brought to my attention an Associated Press story reporting that a Muslim student had left a partially burned Koran and other papers at the center in the hope that staff members would have the means to properly dispose of it. That news is a relief.

Unfortunately, we're still not out of the woods on this kind of thing. The column, which also discussed the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, drew this response at 6:18 a.m. last Saturday: "Yes, Mr. King, Japs were Japs, and towel heads are towel heads. . . . Let's hope they don't take this thing down into darkest Africa, where you know whats will be you know what. Tom."

Will it ever end?

kingc@washpost.com


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