Thursday, September 11, 2008


Seven years ago today, America was attacked.

So now, seven years later, what to do Americans think about the prospects for another attack? And the aftermath? A new nationwide poll provides some answers.

According to the Washington DC-based Benenson Strategy Group, nearly two-thirds of Americans say that they are aware of the danger of a “dirty bomb” (that is, a radiological dispersion device). But less than half, 47 percent, say that they are confident that the government is prepared. And only 42 percent say that they themselves would know what to do in the wake of a dirty-bomb attack. Just 34 percent say that the government has done a good job of informing people about what to do.

A dirty bomb is especially insidious because components for such a weapon are spread so widely across the United States. Deadly “dual use” materials are found in medical offices, industrial sites, and, in minute quantities, even in household devices, such as smoke detectors. And yet radiation is radiation: If enough radioactive material is gathered together, and then dispersed in a malevolent manner, thousands of Americans, even millions, could be at risk. That’s a problem.

The Radiological Threat Awareness Coalition (R-TAC), which commissioned this opinion survey, believes that the government has indeed done much to prepare for a dirty bomb—but it needs to do more. R-TAC believes that the government has been less effective at communicating information about what to do in the wake of a dirty-bomb attack. And yet public awareness isn’t just a job for the government, it’s a job for all of us.

Interestingly, just 27 percent of Americans know that a medical antidote to radiation poisoning exists. Broadening awareness of post-attack medical solutions might not be everyone’s duty, but if—some say when—such an attack comes, everyone will surely want to receive treatment. So now is the time to look ahead, and think ahead.

The challenge for all those involved in homeland security, in both the public and the private sector, is to strike the right note. We must not be naïve about the risks, but we must also not give in to either panic or fatalism. With the right mix of duty and diligence, we can protect our country while at the same time protecting our civil liberties.

To keep us safe, R-TAC envisions a Pyramid of Preparedness. Here’s the architecture: At one of the four corners of the base, there’s the government—federal, state, and local. These are the people and agencies tasked with overseeing and coordinating the effort at detection, and, if that fails, response and recovery. At another corner of the pyramid are the men and women of science—those who can build the sensors, those who can invent the cures. At another corner is the business community—those who can mass-produce, at the lowest possible cost, the tools for protection and remediation. And at the fourth corner is the citizenry. As individuals and as groups (including R-TAC), we all have an obligation. In a time of possible emergency, we are all our brother’s, and sister’s, keeper.

Together, R-TAC hopes, the four corners at the base of this Pyramid will converge into an Apex of Awareness—alert to threats, quick to respond. We have seen the pyramid on the back of a dollar bill, the one with the eye in it. That image is a reminder: If we are looking out together, we are more likely to be safe.

The results of the R-TAC public opinion survey tell us that the America people are aware of the dirty-bomb danger, but they need to know more. They need to see more—and that’s where the Pyramid of Preparedness comes in. It might seem visionary, but we have all seen what happens when there is no vision.

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