Are you ready?
Duct and cover? Government advice on terror and safety triggers both panic and skepticism
Nearly 17 months ago, the nation was shocked to learn that a Florida newspaper editor had died of inhalation anthrax, the first casualty in a bioterrorist attack that through the fall infected 22 people and killed five.
Last week, the government put Americans on high alert, warning that another biological, chemical, or radiological attack may be near. And for the first time, officials at the newly formed Department of Homeland Security issued guidelines to citizens for making themselves, their families, and their homes more secure. This week, DHS is beginning a national ad campaign to publicize those guidelines.
Terrorism preparedness has been ongoing for a year and a half. More than $1 billion has gone to state and local health departments and hospitals to develop plans, conduct exercises, hire staff, vaccinate, and more. Some state and local public-health labs have improved their testing capability. A national system to track disease outbreaks and monitoring for airborne biological agents is being put into place.
But at the same time, only a small percentage of the nation's first responders in police and fire departments have received any of the $3.5 billion in funding for preparedness training and equipment promised after the anthrax attacks. Nearly 80 percent of local health departments are reporting that they'll have to use all their bioterror funding--and some budgeted for other important public-health problems--to pay for costly smallpox vaccinations mandated by the president in December.
Bioterrorism experts say Americans are better prepared today than before the anthrax attacks. But how much better, for which threats, and how much individual citizens can actually do to prepare remain open questions:
1 How much do we know about the actual risk of a biological, chemical, or radiological attack?
Fortunately, building and deploying effective weapons of mass destruction remain very difficult. If al Qaeda operatives do pull off another terrorist attack on American soil, they will most likely use conventional explosives. The latest U.S. terror warning, however, is based in part on intelligence about a specific plot to use a radiological dispersion device, or "dirty bomb." But intelligence agencies have no proof that al Qaeda has ever successfully tested such a device.
Chemical weapons are sparking new concern following recent arrests in Europe that exposed plots to use cyanide gas and the poison ricin. But ricin, while often fatal, cannot be widely dispersed, and it is not clear if the terrorists have any way to effectively deliver cyanide. A biological attack could be particularly devastating, but U.S. intelligence officials believe that such attacks are even less likely because they are so difficult to stage.
While al Qaeda prefers spectacular, mass-casualty attacks like 9/11, it may settle for acts that are less dramatic but nevertheless terrifying and disruptive--exploding bombs in shopping malls or subways, for example, or even something akin to last year's Washington sniper spree. "Terrorists have learned how effective an attack of mass disruption can be," says Matthew Levitt, a former FBI terrorism analyst now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's been a while since al Qaeda hit us here. And they want to."