Friday, November 14, 2008

The People's War on Terrorism

At the moment, I am reading “The Unthinkable” a fascinating book by Amanda Ripley, examining who survives disasters and why, and how we can improve our chances. It certainly a good read, the author’s style makes what might be a gruesome subject into a really interesting study. I would like to quote now a passage:

Terrorism is another hazard like any other except that it demands even more initiative from regular people. Civilians are the involuntary draftees after all. We should not forget this after 9/11, says Stephen Flynn, a homeland security expert and former US Coast Guard officer. “There were two narratives after 9/11. One narrative was, :There are bad people coming to kill us and we have to take the battle to them.”

That was the narrative deployed by President Bush as sent American soldiers to fight overseas and told the American people to stay calm and keep shopping.

“The other narrative,”says Flynn, is the United Flight 93 narrative.” There was one plane on 9/11 on which regular people were well informed. The passengers on Flight 93 had time to learn that the plane would be used as a missile if they did nothing. And what did they do? They pushed past the denial stage fast. Then they deliberated, whispering behind their seat backs and gathering information over the phone. They acted as group. Then, in the decisive moment, they charged into the cockpit and changed history.

If regular people got into as panic-stricken in a crisis as most of us think they do, Flight 93 would have almost certainly destroyed the White House or the US Capitol. “It is highly ironic,”says Flynn, “that our elected representatives were protected on 9/11 by everyday people.” Latent resilience is everywhere, and it is the only certain defense against terrorism. Not every attack can be prevented, but just enrolling regular people in the everyday counter attack is in itself a victory. Because terrorism is not the same as the Cold War: it is a psychology war more than a physical war and in that distinction lies great opportunity. “Fear require two things,”Flynn says,”An awareness of a threat, and a sense of powerlessness to deal with that threat.” Without the powerlessness, terrorism is far less destructive. If we understand dread, we can starve it.

Terrorism as a Disaster

It seems to make a lot more sense to treat terrorism as not only a criminal act- which makes every law abiding member of society a potential suspect- but also as a disaster. Too much money has been spend on the prevention of a type of crime that, in reality, is probably beyond the capability of a free society. If, in the war on terrorism, the citizens who are most at risk lose all sense of liberty and freedom, when a normal life without fear or threat becomes impossible, and when suspicion and distrust of one’s neighbors is the norm, then what have we gained? We play into the hands of the terrorist if we lose our values attempting to defend them.

Government officials and policy makers must reach out to the citizens, teach them proper ways to deal with disasters, which includes terrorism, such as mandatory evacuation drills for all skyscrapers, mandatory first aid training for all teachers at all levels of public schools, paid classes for all citizen wishing to learn any emergency skill . A citizen’s network to provide logistical support should be developed to be used in times of crisis.

Regular citizens must be given the tools to protect or at least prepare themselves in case of attack. Extending this further, it could be possible to devise a neighbor civil defense program, in which a system for locally-arranged evacuation and emergency response training. The public must be given access to information, encourage to train and drill regularly- with feedback loops to continually improve our reactions. Local communities must be involved in the war on terrorism, at least, in terms of disaster preparedness training.

Sensationalism in the News

Another key ingredient in the terror dynamic is the news media and how it reports terror attacks. Terrorism effectively plays upon the sensational quality of modern new reporting- especially when shocking and dramatic news translates directly into profits. The Media Corporations must, therefore, report the news responsibly and must not be used indirectly by terrorist organizations simply to promote more fear and dread. But, in a free society, how can this be possible? Do we suppress the news of the terrorist events?

Of course not. But level-heads must also prevail. Risks to terrorist attack-while purposefully dramatic- must be put into their proper perspective. Your chance of being killed in a car accident are far higher than being a victim of terrorism, Your chance of being struck by lightning is higher. All of us have a far greater risk of dying of heart disease than by a bomb on a plane. Banal forms of death- no matter how common- are naturally less interesting. It is only human nature that a fiery explosion, a dramatic rescues and images of suffering should grab more attention than an obese man choking on an olive pit. And yet, it is in fact a distortion of reality for us to live in constant fear and dread.

I am not suggesting relaxing our guard at all. But, when our representatives give such mixed messages as raising and lowering security alerts without explanation and then telling us to carry on as normal, it serves no purpose to the common welfare. At best, it leads to confusion, at worse it leads to indifference and hopelessness.

The War Effort

Civilians in World War II were asked to participate in the war effort, collecting scrap metals and rubber goods, buying war bonds and blackout patrols. It was a wise move. It harnessed a source of energy that Americans, perhaps more than any other nation, give and keep giving in an apparent endless supply- its sense of community. And, mind you, they had a lot less to give than most of us do.

The people were able to contribute voluntarily to protection of the society . Patriotism was more than waving flags and singing anthems. This was something that Bush and his friends never quite understood. The American people waited to be asked to contribute and they were merely told not to panic and keep shopping. In the war on terrorism, however, we must all become trained defenders and organizers in defense of our homeland because, after all, the citizens are terrorism’s primary target.

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