Skip to comments.America Is Dangerously Vulnerable To Panic In Terror Attack, Experts Say
Posted on 08/22/2002 9:40:22 AM PDT by Stand Watch Listen
For a year the focus of the war on terrorism has been on tightening borders, coordinating intelligence and protecting buildings, but little has been done about thwarting a more chilling terrorist goal: collapsing American society.
Specialists who have studied chaos and panic say America is dangerously vulnerable.
"I am worried about terrorism causing the collapse of civil society," said David McIntyre, a terrorism expert and former dean of the National War College. "There are things we can do" to prevent such an outcome, he said. But so far, "I don't think we are doing enough."
Clark L. Staten, executive director of the Emergency Response and Research Institute in Chicago and a Pentagon consultant on disaster preparedness, agreed.
"The psychogenic aspect of this -- panic, if you will -- has been given short shrift by planners," he said. "And yet it is at the root of what terrorism is all about."
To be sure, the horrifying events of 9/11 caused little panic. On the contrary, the twin attacks on New York and Washington pulled the nation together. Defiant American flags blossomed. Thousands volunteered.
The ensuing anthrax scare was a harder test because there was little public information and authorities argued over what was happening and what should be done. But again, there was no widespread panic.
Imagine instead a prolonged series of attacks, gut-wrenching in their relentless progression. How long would it take for the concept of collective solidarity to disintegrate?
"We feel like Americans. Could that unravel? We've had one incident," McIntyre said. "Suppose we had 20 -- or 200?"
Envision small bomb explosions, say, in Hartford, Akron, Green Bay, Baton Rouge, Tucson, Bakersfield. The government seems powerless to prevent them, and while authorities assure people they are safe, wildfire rumors have the explosions spreading radioactive and maybe even germ-infected debris. People start avoiding shopping centers, ponder keeping the kids home from school.
Amid rising tensions come real outbreaks of disease, smallpox or perhaps a virulent form of measles or even West Nile virus. The Internet accelerates rumors. Hospitals are overwhelmed by patients with real or imagined symptoms. Police barricade city and state borders. Armed guards patrol quarantine lines that may divide neighborhoods and even families. Supermarkets run low on food. Authorities plead for calm as violence and looting break out. Highways clog as people try to flee.
In this kind of arena, government officials at every level would struggle against humans' oldest survival mechanism, the cascade of powerful hormones that stimulate the body to action and appear to shut down reason and long-term planning.
"The authorities are up against several million years of evolution," said Gil Reyes, a psychologist at the University of South Dakota's Disaster Mental Health Institute. "People will follow instructions just so long as everybody else does, too.
"But when there's panic at a rock concert or a British soccer match and people are getting trampled, nobody's listening to the guy on the loudspeaker saying, `Stop!"' Reyes said.
"So prevention is the key."
Analysts have found that two critical actions can help prevent public panic: giving people fast and credible information, and giving people something to do, allowing them even an illusion of control.
During the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, for instance, parents were told: Your kids are OK and are under the protection of the sheriff's department. Here is a phone number for you to call to check.
On a national level, the federal government's ability to provide fast, accurate and credible information is in doubt, experts say. Past experience suggests there will be arguments over jurisdiction and disagreements about who should provide the single, accurate, authoritative voice.
What to say in a crisis remains the subject of a struggle within the government, according to disaster planners who asked not to be identified. Officials with a counterterrorism background argue for withholding information that could possibly be of use to terrorists, while those who come from a disaster relief background argue for the fullest possible disclosure to help calm the public.
All these problems were on view during the anthrax scare last fall, when local and federal officials vied for attention and sometimes issued conflicting information.
"We were not prepared for the anthrax bioattack and the fear generated by it far outweighed the health threat," said C. Everett Koop, who was U.S. surgeon general from 1981 to 1989.
As for communicating quickly and believably to the public, Koop said, "I would not give the government high marks."
Coordination problems still bedevil emergency planning. In July, the White House scripted an evacuation plan for the nation's capital. Yet there was no public announcement and even the District of Columbia's Emergency Management Agency was unaware of the plan's details. Officials at the two White House offices involved, the Office of Personnel Management and the Department of Homeland Security, each referred this reporter's inquiries to the other.
And yet there is an intense need for accurate public information to forestall widespread, blind panic. How many Americans, for instance, know the evacuation routes from their cities or towns? Clogged local roads can hamper emergency vehicles, triggering even more panic.
How many people are familiar with crude but effective decontamination techniques in event of a chemical or biological attack?
In the event that authorities do order an evacuation (or, conversely, ask that people stay home), how many Americans -- especially elderly and shut-ins -- belong to phone trees or groups that can make sure they get the word?
The Bush administration, recognizing that effective organization is a local responsibility, has tried to stimulate the formation of neighborhood watch and disaster response organizations. In July the administration released $10.3 million in grants to help local organizations recruit and train volunteers.
But so far only 75 groups have enlisted in the Citizen Corps that Bush established in January to help local communities deal with terrorism.
Most of these groups already had deep roots in their communities and seem like effective barriers against panic.
In Ponca City, Okla., where a major oil refinery fuels an underlying public anxiety about man-made disaster and terrorism, the police force of 56 officers is reinforced by 20 trained and experienced volunteers, and has 10 more about to undergo the 24 weeks of training.
"These are retirees, a stockbroker, a couple of nurses, who work crowd control and have an extremely quieting effect because they are known," said Lt. Dale Henshaw, a patrol supervisor. "When they have to get people to move, it's `Hey, Larry, we need you to move back.' It's very effective."
In Port Deposit, Md., just downstream from the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant, a church group has organized a search and rescue team of 21 volunteers. Training for Nehemiah's Watchmen came from the federally funded Community Emergency Response Team program.
"It's been hard to keep people motivated" through the long hours of training, said Jill Lee of the Pleasant View Baptist Church. "But if there were a crisis, people would be there."
She acknowledged that their training would help fend off panic.
"Panic is a natural reaction, but the more training you get like this, if something were to happen you would go into the mind-set you've trained for," she said.
"A lot of older folks, they kind of depend on the government to take care of them. But that's not going to be the case. We have to take care of ourselves."
Occasionally I find myself looking forward to the collapse of society. We could then rebuild it without the liberals. Claire Wolfe is right on target: "America is at that ackward stage. It is to late to work within the system and too early to shoot the bastards."
My first posting on this was sort of tounge-in-cheek. I do, however, maintain a library in my home with some forthought given to rebuilding society following a calamity. Some of these books are very expensive. The "Foxfire" series provides significant insight regarding survival and comfort in frontier-like situations. I also keep uncanny equipment that would have important use while "starting over".
Anybody else out there doing this kind of thinking?
The first sign the article is a puff piece.
We have not tightened the border
After a major storm this summer we were with out power in some areas for 16 hrs. People were in the stores buying frozen dinners and microwave popcorn, because their stoves did not work, and the resturants were closed.
A major power interuption in several large metro areas at the same time......riots by middle aged couples forced to talk to there children for the first time.
Where do you live ? Cowlumbus?
West Nile virus is here, in the south and now reported in Colorado. None of what the author describes has occurred, except the clogged highways, but I think the people are trying to flow not flee.
I see our priority schedules line up rather nicely.
This is another good book on survival written in a novel form.
Nice on-line survival manual too, BTW.
I thought we had the stupidest population in the USA....
You should see how people here act when a few inches of snow is predicted.