By William Broad, New York Times, December 15, 2010
Suppose the unthinkable happened, and terrorists struck New York or another big city with an atom bomb. What should people there do? The government has a surprising new message: Do not flee. Get inside any stable building and don’t come out till officials say it’s safe.
The advice is based on recent scientific analyses showing that a nuclear attack is much more survivable if you immediately shield yourself from the lethal radiation that follows a blast, a simple tactic seen as saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Even staying in a car, the studies show, would reduce casualties by more than 50 percent; hunkering down in a basement would be better by far.
But a problem for the Obama administration is how to spread the word without seeming alarmist about a subject that few politicians care to consider, let alone discuss. So officials are proceeding gingerly in a campaign to educate the public.
“We have to get past the mental block that says it’s too terrible to think about,” W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in an interview. “We have to be ready to deal with it” and help people learn how to “best protect themselves.”
Officials say they are moving aggressively to conduct drills, prepare communication guides and raise awareness among emergency planners of how to educate the public.
I recall driving through Niagara Falls NY, back in 1963 or 64, and seeing a triangle painted on a sign on the wall of a large public building, indicating a fall-out shelter. At the time, I was coaching a Canadian basketball team on its way to play a private college in the U.S., and the memory is vivid. As I recall, the lines and letters were in yellow or orange, and the background was dark navy.
I remember thinking, I wonder what these young men, between 16 and 19, were thinking about the kind of world they were inheriting, with a real danger of nuclear war. And that was then, and the cold war, and now, fifty years later, the U.S. is announcing drills, preparing guides and proceeding to eduate the public about the measures to take, in the event of a nuclear device landing in a city near you.
We have returned to the world of the unthinkable, after we thought and believed that, with the ending of the cold war, and the long-standing dispute with the then Soviet Union, that we had "escaped" that bullet.
Only to learn that while the Congress of the U.S. considers the START treaty, reducing the number of nuclear devices in both Russia and the U.S., while providing verification processes apparently satisfactory to several former Secretaries of State in the U.S., the U.S. government, albeit the announcement comes from FEMA, not exactly from the state department, or the Pentagon is making overt, public plans for an education plan to "save lives".
Does this announcement mean that the U.S. has succumbed to the notion that either a rogue state or a terrorist organization, or some combination of both, is now more likely (than yesterday, for instance) to either design and build a nuclear device, or steal or purchase such a device, and that it will likely be targetted at a U.S. city?
Does this mean that the psychology of the cold war, in which many of us grew up, and which held the breath of at least one or two generations, is back, or perhaps that it never left, and we were seduced into thinking that we were safe?
Proceeding gingerly, to say the least, would be prudent. To move aggressively into these waters would be to evoke panic in all the major cities, and put considerable additional strain on already over-stretched budgets, human resources, and the basic psyches of all the inhabitants of the country, not to mention the inhabitants of many other countries.
Talk about "not raising the threat" on the terrorist danger warning scale. This blows that scale all to simthereens! There is no longer any need for such a warning system. Now, we will learn the sounds of actual sirens in the streets, along with drills, and escape routes, and the inevitable mistakes along the way for the process will not be foolproof.
Is the U.S. government actually telling its citizens that the country is that close to experiencing a nuclear device dropped on its territory? Clearly, that must be the message!
Otherwise, there is a loose cannon in FEMA who needs to be removed, immediately.
Isn't it interesting that a low level civil servant now has the power to release such a statement, amid all the calming statements of all the other American leaders, whose credibility would trump that of this man, in a heartbeat.
I know that my heart skipped a beat when I read this story, the first time. And I can only imagine that many other hearts will skip a beat, at least one, perhaps many more, as the news seeps out across the country, and the continent, and then across the many oceans, where already millions of people are struggling to survive, without anything other than hope to sustain them, and now this!
Once again, the American "war" mind-set is taking over, and the price just of this announcement, could be lost lives. And who will be responsible for that?