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Week of: February 11, 2001

America Must Prepare for Terrorism

by F.R. Duplantier

If Americans don't know in advance how to respond to terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction, they could make matters worse.

"Although the number of incidents of terrorism has declined since the end of the Cold War, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- radiological, biological, and chemical weapons -- could lead to a dramatic increase in the number of casualties from terrorist attacks," warns Eric Taylor, professor of chemistry at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. "Many experts agree that the only question is when, not if, such a catastrophic act of terrorism will occur."

In a report published by the Cato Institute, Professor Taylor asserts that the governmental response to an attack with weapons of mass destruction "must be directed at minimizing potential injury and death from the initial exposure and implementing actions to prevent harm to those individuals not immediately exposed at the time of release. Attaining those objectives requires rapid isolation and decontamination of the attack site, identification of the agent class (radiological, biological, or chemical), evaluation of exposure levels, and evacuation of exposed individuals to appropriate facilities equipped and staffed to deal with the specific agent class involved. Those governmental actions," he emphasizes, "will require the full cooperation of the individuals in the immediate area of agent release."

Taylor notes that local government is "usually the first to respond to any disaster -- natural or technological. If local agencies are taxed beyond their capabilities," he observes, "they turn to state-level agencies for additional resources, which are coordinated through the state Offices of Emergency Preparedness. If the incident is of such magnitude that state resources are also insufficient, then the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) . . . is called upon only after an appropriate declaration by the President."

Taylor underscores the importance of "educating the public and encouraging citizen involvement" in the response to nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks. He argues that the government's "foremost concern" following an attack with weapons of mass destruction "should be to minimize -- if not prevent -- widespread panic and chaos. If the public has not been educated about the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks and remedial actions required in their aftermath," Taylor warns, "the panic and chaos that ensue will complicate and frustrate efforts of first responders."

Americans must learn how to respond quickly and competently to terrorist attacks, but we must also do more to avert such attacks in the first place. Better intelligence can tip us off to impending threats, and a more judicious approach to foreign policy can reduce the intensity of anti-American sentiment. Taylor blames American vulnerability to terrorist attack in part on "profligate U.S. military interventions around the world. The United States is the target of 40 percent of terrorist attacks worldwide," he reports. "Yet the United States has no quarrels with its neighbors nor an internal civil war to spawn terrorist attacks." Taylor recommends that the U.S. "adopt a general policy of military restraint overseas but respond forcefully and without public fanfare to isolated terrorist incidents against U.S. targets." At last, a commonsense approach to national security! Do what's necessary. Do what works. Stop meddling.


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