I n an election, you have plenty of time to wrestle with the question of trust. You sniff out the candidates, decide whom you feel comfortable with and take a chance.
In an emergency, you have no such luxury of consideration. You either trust the authorities or you don't, and that decision, in an instant, could determine whether you live or die.
Right now, election results notwithstanding, most of us don't especially trust anyone to keep us safe.
What would happen in the event of the terrorist acts that we try not to talk about -- the outbreak of smallpox and the dirty bomb?
Over the past year, a huge study of people across the country, but especially in the Washington and New York City areas, has sought to figure out how we would react if we got hit. Through polling, focus groups and detailed discussion with planners and citizens, public health experts at the New York Academy of Medicine found that many of us would refuse to cooperate with government directives after an attack.
Commuters from Prince William County and residents of the District alike said that no, they wouldn't follow the order to go to a public health facility to get a shot of smallpox vaccine (only two-fifths said they'd comply), and no, they wouldn't agree to stay in place in the immediate hours after a dirty bomb exploded (only three-fifths would do as they were asked).
Public health measures work only when nearly everyone complies. If a majority of those who are directed to get the vaccine refuse to do so, the disease spreads far more rapidly. If people decide that they will not stay inside their offices after a dirty bomb hits, but instead will head out to find their loved ones, then the streets become impossibly congested, first responders can't do their jobs and far more people die.
People in our part of the country, as you'd expect, worry a great deal about an attack. In Prince William and the District, three times as many people said they think a lot about a terrorist attack compared with folks across the nation. More than half of us in this area believe an attack is very likely here in the next decade -- again, three times the number of people who believe that nationwide.
The crucial factor in any decision to comply with the authorities or disobey is trust. Again and again, people told the authors of this study that if they believed the authorities' motives to be good, if they trusted the plan, they'd go along with it.
If a dirty bomb were to release radiation, "people need to know that they and their loved ones would be safe and cared for in whatever building they would happen to be in at the time of an explosion," said Roz Lasker, the principal author of the study.
But the government can't meet that threshold because little effort has gone into developing plans to ensure phone and e-mail service in an emergency.
The lack of trust has deeper roots. Ever since 9/11, the federal government has treated Washington as one vast showcase for dumb, meaningless security measures. "How can you have trust in government when you have the armed camp around Capitol Hill?" asked D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson, the Ward 3 Democrat. "I can drive my SUV up there and if I show ID, I just get waved through. It makes no sense. Then when the government tells people something they really do need to do, people are much less likely to comply."
When the feds hire hundreds of security guards to pretend to look at ID cards for no apparent reason, but refuse to reroute trains that carry hazardous chemicals right through the center of federal Washington, "that undermines confidence in the authorities," Patterson says.
Spending gobs of money on bus ads that tell us to make our own emergency plans doesn't get to the root problem, Lasker concluded. Instead, public health officials should be telling us how to know whether the smallpox vaccine is right for us or is too risky because of our health problems.
Real security costs money, of course, but you didn't hear about that in this presidential campaign. Instead, both sides talked about cutting taxes.
Nearly half of suburban commuters and District residents alike told the survey they stand ready to help government plan how to react to an attack. Many of us cherish the spirit of cooperation and community that 9/11 created. We were ready to trust each other and our leaders. They didn't return the gesture.