As a psychiatrist who works with both children and adults, I continue to see evidence -- three years after the attacks of Sept. 11 -- that many of us are ignoring the very real dangers posed by terrorists.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence that this is so is the answer to this simple question: Would the average person really know what to do if there were a nuclear, biological or chemical attack in his or her neighborhood? Do people know a great deal more now about what to do than they did before Sept. 11?
The answer is no.
Almost as compelling is a logical follow-up question: Are there fully developed, organized plans between the federal, state and local governments to handle any type of nuclear, biological or chemical attack? If these plans are organized, in place and well-rehearsed, does the general public know about them?
The answer is no.
Have we fully solved the pre-Sept. 11 challenge of agency coordination and response to terrorist threats? It's been three years. Are we treating this challenge as a true emergency and harnessing our best efforts? Have we used every bit of skill, leadership and leverage available to fully engage the international community in preventing terrorism?
It was heartening to hear in Sept. 11 commission testimony that if a rogue airplane flew toward a major U.S. city today, we would be able to respond much more efficiently than we did before Sept. 11. But that information does little to prevent or deal with the consequences of the next attack, unless, of course, we really expect the next one to be an exact replica.
The rationalization that's bandied about is that the government doesn't want to scare anyone by making specific recommendations -- for example, designating schools as places to obtain medical care and issuing instructions on whether to stay put or to exit cities via selected routes. If there's too much open preparation for a nuclear, biological or chemical event, the reasoning goes, panic will ensue. Another rationalization is that too much explicit focus on contingency plans would sap the economic recovery: People would be too worried to shop.
But even if these rationalizations were true, would that be a reason to expose the public to risk? Shouldn't government's first concern be the safety of its citizens?
In all likelihood, a policy of collective ignorance will actually fuel a major economic catastrophe if a terrorist attack occurs, as happened after Sept. 11. In Israel, where there's a hardened acceptance of the reality of terrorist attacks, life goes on. Economic progress continues, and there's very little panic. Panic and economic disruption occur when there is a lack of preparation and a patronizing government policy.
Is there a deeper reason (other than simply the government's desire to pretend the sky isn't falling and the public's wish to hide its head in the sand) for the current policy? Americans may have a very low tolerance for feeling helpless. To our credit, we've been able to use our distaste for helplessness to mobilize through two world wars, a long Cold War and numerous other challenges. But the nature of the terrorist threat is different: Some degree of tolerance for feeling helpless is a part of the new reality. Unless this reality is dealt with, it leads to denial. Denial, in turn, undermines preparation and effective action.
The current denial is broad-based. Most Americans are not clamoring for more guidance on what to do if . . . . The media are more focused on what we are doing than what we are not doing. But when the issue is survival, the news is in what's not being done. Our government is working hard to prevent terrorist attacks, but it has not yet organized a multifaceted, comprehensive plan to protect its citizens.
In order to deal with our denial, the public, the media and the government need to ask tough questions every day, not just periodically. A TV special or news report or this or that government commission won't solve the problem. What's needed is an ongoing focus on the questions raised above. We need to ask the very toughest questions, even at the risk of alarming us all.
Recall that the Sept. 11 commission reported that the original terrorist plan was for 10 airplanes, not just four. Could the next attack involve multiple weapons of mass destruction, for example, nuclear and biological in multiple cities at the same time? Do we have contingency plans for this type of emergency?
We monitor the stock market and weather daily. So far, however, we haven't been monitoring our readiness to survive. It's time to ask why not.
The writer is a professor at the George Washington University Medical Center and co-author, with Stuart Shanker, of "The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved From Our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans."