The State Department's training course on combating terrorism has gained sudden popularity among diplomats, U.S. employes and relatives heading abroad, but many are questioning the adequacy of the one-day class in a world that has become increasingly dangerous for Americans.
The decade-old course is mandatory for diplomatic personnel taking new foreign assignments, but some traditionally have skipped class. The Foreign Service Institute, which runs the class, says 10 percent to 15 percent more people are enrolling this year, mostly relatives of Foreign Service employes.
The institute says interest apparently has been spurred by an increase in terrorism directed at U.S. citizens.
The course is supplemented by another one-day course at each foreign post, the institute says. Regional security officers there describe specific threats people may face and how best to cope.
As perceived by the Foreign Service Institute, the course is to focus on a variety of threats facing Americans abroad, be it from terrorists, criminals or natural disasters, such as fire.
The "coping with violence" course here includes fire protection, how to avoid burglary, how to handle the psychological problems of dealing with terrorism, lessons in hostage survival, recommendations on rapid evacuation of families and how to escape assassination or kidnaping attempts.
"What we do in Washington is the more generalized approach on how to increase the perception of people to the threat of being overseas," said course manager Arnold Campbell. "The threat is not just terrorism; it is also criminal. In some countries, our people are more subject to criminal acts than terrorism."
But many who have taken the course say it fails to answer basic questions, and sometimes raises fears without offering solutions.
"When I was told to take the course last year I was expecting to be told what I should do if a car filled with explosives goes off in front of me and whether I should run away from the place or jump into the building and try to save as many people as I can," said a State Department employe who said she could not speak on the record without permission from the department's public affairs office. "They did not tell me anything of the sort. They simply say in cases like this common sense is the best tool."
A mother who took the class with her teen-age daughter said the course had a negative effect on her daughter because it introduced different forms of violence, some of which they had never thought of, but left the audience unclear on how to cope with them.
"I had to spend hours talking to her at home to erase the [impression] that course created on her mind," she said.
Carol Madison, an assistant public affairs officer in Beirut in 1983-84, wrote in the Foreign Service Journal:
"The 'coping with violence' seminar (a title that is clearly euphemism for 'dealing with terrorism') is supposed to provide the training material for security of Americans overseas. However, when I took the class last May, I found it largely inadequate for preparing the Foreign Service people for dealing with stress -- both physical and psychological -- that are part of living with terrorism.
"That day, they started defining terrorism for us, which they said ranges from a threat of terrorism to a successful terrorist act and everything in between them. That was fine. But then they did not tell us how to cope with it. I do not expect them to tell me how to prevent it. That is not my job. That is the job of our security people, and God knows they are doing a fabulous job.
"The course should be just treating the subject of terrorism, not fire or burglary and things like that which are fine to be discussed, but in a separate forum."
Critics say one problem is that the course forgets people are going to live in alien surroundings.
"As part of the course, they showed us a movie on home security," Madison said. "It was an enjoyable film, but apparently it had never occurred to the organizers of the course that most of the Foreign Service people will not be living in the same type of homes we have in this country."
The organizers respond that their concern is to show techniques everyone can use anywhere. It is not necessary to shoot a movie in a foreign country, they say, to make people realize that a second lock on a door could lessen the risk of burglary.
As part of the course, critics say, a film is shown on how to maintain enough distance between your car and the one behind you -- presumably carrying terrorists -- so that you will always have enough space for maneuvering. That is unrealistic in many instances, they say.
"If someone wants to argue that you can never find enough space for maneuvering in Rome and that such an option is physically impossible, well, then there is nothing more we can tell you," trainer Campbell said.
"We have shown you the available techniques. Now, if you are in a situation where escape is not feasible, then how can we possibly tell you how to save yourself?"
"We are aware of the criticisms, and we are working on ways and means of upgrading and updating the information given in the course," said a State Department official who asked not to be identified.
Officials in the State Department and Foreign Service Institute say that recent events have made the organizers seriously consider course revisions. According to a course organizer, the institute may include more material on how to deal with car bombs, suicide attacks, kidnaping and hijacking attempts.
Some critics emerge from the class saying one day is not enough time for in-depth discussion and questioning, but others point to worthwhile aspects of the program.
Suzanne Greene, wife of an Agency for International Development employe who has been assigned to Asia, said the course leaders were "very honest about what they were going to offer us and what they possibly could not teach us.
"The day my husband was told to take this course was about the same period of time that there had been five terrorist incidents including bomb explosions in Frankfurt airport and the Air India plane crashing.
"I was afraid in the beginning to take the course because I thought it would increase my tension, especially since it was not required for me anyway," Greene said. "They told us in the course that they are very well aware of the shortcomings . . . and that they were going to tell things the best way they had figured them out themselves. Such confessions made me feel much better."
Greene also said fire safety is a legitimate concern. She noted the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan was attacked and burned in 1979.
Many families took the course "and I am sure many of them had not heard of things they told us," she said. "There were some very good suggestions, like trying not to jog in the same route every day and how to protect yourself and other things I would have not thought of had I not taken the course."