With terrorist explosions taking place around the globe on a daily basis, anyone who has not considered what steps to take to protect themselves and others from injury or death in a terrorist attack needs to do so — now! It’s become apparent that, despite the extraordinary efforts of law enforcement, the military, and the intelligence communities from the Russian Steppe to Bali, Islamic terrorism has the world in its icy grip and is able to reach out at will to slaughter the innocent, leaving behind chaos and terror. Each day, the morning news delivers another tale about the injury and death of ordinary people, whose lives were taken in an unexpected blast detonated by terrorists. For those of us who are the targets of terrorist rage, the time to act to defend ourselves is now.
I live in what I believe to be one of the world’s potentially deadliest non-combat zones: the island of Manhattan. Don’t be misled by New York’s low crime rates, its highly trained police officers, or the resiliency of its citizenry (even when subjected to the barbarism of the events of 9/11). New York City represents everything that the current cadre of terrorists despises most: the ability of disparate people from all over the world to live together in harmony, prosperity, and freedom. It is an example they are bent on destroying, and New Yorkers are learning, ever so slowly, to defend themselves.
We have long discussed the problem of how to secure our mass transit system, the largest mass transit system in the world, from a terrorist act. Only now, after the events in the London Underground over the past two weeks, are we making a serious effort to control the ability of a terrorist to detonate a bomb in our subways.
I fear, however, that the current efforts to screen passengers with bags and parcels will not be enough. The bombs deployed in London weighed just six pounds and could be as easily hidden on a person as in a bag. Though we have been aware of the vulnerability of our surface transit systems to terrorist attack, we are still unable to come up with a serious program to defend against one. The solution to identifying terrorists and explosives lies in profiling and technology, and we aren’t there yet on either, for reasons more social than technical. It is not because our law enforcement personnel lack the skill necessary to provide reasonable security, even under these circumstances — it is because there simply are not enough public servants, nor will there ever be, to cover every potential target.
The potential for a successful terrorist event in the United States is only limited by the imagination of the terrorists and the lack of preparedness throughout our society. While we lament the recent tragedy that has befallen Britain – the attacks on its commuter rail and bus networks — we must remain mindful of the fact that equal if not greater deadly harm could have befallen them, and us. What if the terrorists had decided to attack public institutions such as schools or hospitals, food supplies (before or after processing), the water we drink, the air we breathe, or the power grids upon we which we rely to keep our lives running. In short, the potential for the destruction of our economy and social structure from acts of terrorism is both real and palpable.
The threat calls for every American to make a commitment to preparedness through training in security awareness. We must learn to see acts of terrorism before they occur where possible; to institute obstacles to deter such attacks through the elimination of security vulnerabilities; and to develop the confidence and ability to face an attack and survive it. To achieve this, organization and training must be undertaken in communities across America so that the raw power of a free nation can be harnessed to counter the machinations of the largest, most cunning, best-financed and most deeply motivated opponent the free world has ever faced.
The most immediate need is for a population which is trained to recognize a terrorist threat before it commences. Identifying terrorists may be more difficult than identifying terrorist conduct. While the nation continues to debate the propriety of ethnic, gender, and religious profiling as a matter of public policy, common sense and training are likely to provide the intelligence necessary to predict, and thereby prevent, a terrorist act. Learning to understand what some are calling “Reasonable Suspicion” can provide a sound basis for alerting us early to people, institutions, and activities that are likely to feed terrorist activities. Such training can, in general, be accomplished quickly and in small increments for most of us. More advanced training can also be provided for volunteers who wish to play more active roles in the nation’s overall anti-terrorism programs. But basic security awareness requires that we all set aside some time to learn how to develop its techniques and learn how to respond to what we see, hear, and sense.
The time to train America arrived on 9/11, and we have yet to heed its call. As the threat against the traditions and institutions of the Western World increase in number and frequency, we must prepare ourselves to stand against it before it overwhelms us here at home. Organizations and individuals with the skills to help ordinary citizens prepare for extraordinary roles in the nation’s homeland defense are stepping forward around the country to share what they know with those willing to spend the time to learn.
As our children return to school this September, millions of adults must take return to school as well to learn new fundamentals of survival called for by these extraordinary times. In a few hours of their time, a force of millions of Americans can be trained to make a significant contribution to the battle against terrorism by learning how to identify, record, and report persons and activities that may pose a threat to their communities and the nation. They can be taught what to look for, how to provide vital specific information, how to direct appropriate law enforcement and other responders to the sources of their concerns, and to so with self-confidence and efficiency.