Finally, the government has issued guidelines for what citizens can do to protect against terrorist attacks.
It's a start, but it's not enough.
Last week in Washington, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies convened a two-day conference on bioterrorism. Among the participants were doctors, academics, mayors, public safety officials, disaster experts and other first responders. I was there as a citizen representative. The purpose of the conference was to determine the best way to enlist public collaboration in case of an attack.
Two messages came across loud and clear: (1) The operative word is "when," not "if," there is an attack. And (2) "information, information, information." Nearly every speaker talked about the issue of panic and how to avoid it. In each example offered of previous disasters, the result was the same: The more informed the public was, the less panic there was.
Yet the Bush administration seems to be operating under the opposite assumption: "Don't tell them too much lest they panic." That gets it exactly wrong. The precautions issued this week look a lot like those on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Web site. These are the same guidelines used in the event of hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes. The only items added to the list were duct tape and plastic sheeting. The public needs to be told more.
The problem is that we are at war. We are at war with terrorists, and undoubtedly we will be in a war with Iraq in the near future -- which will only compound the danger. People are talking of nothing else. Scratch the surface, and enormous unease -- if not fear -- exists everywhere in the country. The fear is even greater in Washington, a designated target city.
In December The Post quoted a terrorism expert who works near the White House as saying that "they are going to kill the White House" and that he didn't feel safe working on that street anymore. Nobody feels safe anymore, and the reason is that nobody knows what to do in case of an attack, especially a bioterrorist attack. During the Cold War we had constant air raid drills, and the government urged people to build bomb shelters in their back yards.
Here is what Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge should do: Lead a news conference and provide a specific list of things every household should have in case of any kind of attack, particularly a bioterrorist attack. The government needs to tell the public that everyone should have an N95 mask (which costs $1) with them at all times. The government should indicate that there are easy-to-use, family-friendly gas masks available that could save lives.
Ridge should direct mayors (especially D.C. Mayor Tony Williams) to designate neighborhood facilities or hospitals where people can go for shelter, medical care and supplies. People should be told what to do in case there is an outbreak of smallpox and where to go to be vaccinated. Ridge should talk about the effects of sarin, ricin, anthrax and other agents that require different antidotes and what to do about them.
Ridge should tell us what medicines we need. Should people have iodine tablets, which would prevent thyroid problems in case of radiological attack? What about atropine shots to combat the effects of certain nerve agents? He should designate evacuation routes, and they should be clearly marked. Perhaps people could be advised to have bicycles for evacuation or, for those who live near water, inflatable kayaks. People should be told that the Metro system is particularly vulnerable. Metro riders should have N95 masks.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a physician, has written a comprehensive book titled "When Every Moment Counts." It outlines emergency preparedness and explains nerve agents, toxins and gases, and what effect each has on people. He recommends N95 masks as well.
Provisions should be made for those who are illiterate, poor or elderly or who do not speak English, so they can get the same information. Giving a Web site address is not going to work for the millions who don't have access to computers. They should know where they can get the supplies they can't afford.
Ridge should tell the nation that it is our patriotic duty, our duty as responsible citizens, to be as fully prepared as possible. A large portion of the population is in denial. Those people need to understand that they can do things to save their lives and the lives of their families. Ridge should schedule as many news conferences as needed to update Americans about new information, and he should withhold nothing that will not compromise national security. He should tell us what precautions are being taken for high-ranking officials and their families and for those who work in government buildings. Many are putting in filtration systems and other devices. We should be hearing from Ridge himself, not a variety of spokespeople. We want to know that the highest homeland security officer is telling us the truth. Trust is of the utmost importance. And so is one voice.
One of the common themes at the bioterrorism conference was that fear itself is healthy -- it motivates us to take care of ourselves and others. Panic is not. The only way to avoid panic is to tell us the truth. We can take it, Tom. I promise.
Sally Quinn is a reporter for The Post.