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Lee Clarke
  From Rutgers Focus, April 14, 2003. The original is here.
Being prepared for terrorism at home
By Lee Clarke

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge stated that "terrorists will attempt multiple attacks against the United States and coalition targets worldwide in the event of a U.S.-led military campaign against Saddam Hussein."

The head of comparative politics at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo said that "if America starts winning tomorrow, there will be suicide bombing that will start in America the next day."

Although these predictions have not come to pass, we are, apparently, to assume the worst: more terror attacks in the United States. Are we prepared? Not very well.

In a sense, preparing for the worst case is impossible because we can't know what the worst case is. All worst cases are beyond imagination. Imagine arguing Sept. 10 that the World Trade Center towers could fall down after two hijacked airliners were flown into them. Only Hollywood writers and terrorists would imagine that. We can barely predict what the weather's going to be next month, let alone the wild fantasies of zealots hell-bent on destruction.

Still, we could do more. Our leaders aren't doing enough to prepare us. They have an alert system that is opaque to most people. They have intelligence, but they don't share it. The Department of Homeland Security has a lot of money, but local and state governments aren't getting what they need.

We know how to warn people: you give them specific, accurate information about what the threat is and what people can do; you create multiple messages, in multiple languages, with multiple credible messengers. Alas, leaders ignore the research.

We also know how to better prepare for a terror attack, although here, too, social research is ignored. Sociology counsels that we should prepare for disaster as we prepare for life. Our lives are organized by networks. And we live in specific social situations—work, houses of worship and schools. That's where we'll be if disaster strikes. But most plans are far removed from daily life, are based on top-down notions about how the world works and are fed by several myths.

Despite what many leaders appear to believe, sociologists know that panic is rare in disasters, that people won't automatically follow their leaders, that there should be more than one spokesperson and that people do not become inured to warnings. There is no "cry wolf" issue.

A key problem with extant plans is that the police, firefighters and so on are official responders, not first responders. If your car is crushed in an earthquake, complete strangers are the ones most likely to get you out. If you're in a burning theater, your friends and family will likely save you. By the time official responders arrive at a disaster scene, most of those who are going to die are already dead. The most important first responders in the country are school personnel. Twenty percent of Americans are in K–12, five days a week. The implications of this fact, for preparation and response — especially evacuations — are enormous but neglected.

Truly effective preparation would include the public in creating plans, in establishing communication networks and in transmitting information. We need to think through scenarios and, in some cases, practice response at the local level. We need openness rather than secrecy. Authority and resources for preparation and response should be pushed down to the community and local levels.

We live in dangerous times. One would hope our leaders wouldn't make it worse.

Lee Clarke is an associate professor of sociology on the New Brunswick campus and the author of "Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disasters."