Calling all nitty gritty scribes

The Homeland Security Department desperately needs a few good scribes right now, writers who know how to make their sentences jump off the page, so that Americans are properly informed about the dangers facing us in the war against terrorism.

A recent editorial in the Washington Post summed up the current situation nicely. It pointed out that hardly anybody pays attention these days when federal agencies issue cryptic warnings about possible attacks against huge target areas such as "the nuclear sector" and urge all citizens to "be especially vigilant." The editorial also offered this timely insight: "What's missing here are some gritty instructions."

Yes, let's get to the nitty gritty. We need documents that explain specific details, such as how to tell whether or not your family has been exposed to a bioweapon. But talking frankly about potential disaster is tricky. If the tone is overly casual, the threat may not be taken seriously. On the other hand, too much blunt realism could trigger mass hysteria.

Whoever is in charge of national safety information should be careful not to emulate the breezy writing style that characterized many government publications during the cold war. I discovered one of them recently in our family archives, a booklet from 1950 entitled, "Survival Under Atomic Attack." In striving to maintain a calm, rational mood, it presents a nuclear explosion in adventurous tones, sort of like "The Hardy Boys at Ground Zero."

Under the heading "What Are Your Chances?" the reader is informed that most damage from A-bombs occurs within a mile of the detonation point, so "from one-half to 1 mile away, you have a 50-50 chance." By golly, the glass is half-full! And "even injury by radioactivity does not mean that you will be left a cripple, or doomed to die an early death. Your chances of making a complete recovery are much the same as for everyday accidents."

"If caught out-of-doors," the advice continues, "drop down along the base of a good, substantial building ... or else jump in any handy ditch or gutter." I have to believe this suggestion was aimed primarily at male readers, since we boys of the baby-boomer generation often had extensive firsthand knowledge of neighborhood geographical features such as ditches and gullies.

Even a hefty does of gamma rays wasn't overly alarming. "For a few days," says the booklet, "you might continue to feel below par and about two weeks later most of your hair would fall out.... But in spite of it all, you would stand a better than even chance of making a full recovery, including having your hair grow in again." Gosh. It's enough to make you think John Hersey only interviewed a few survivors with bad attitudes when he wrote "Hiroshima."

Let's be sure to use a different literary style for the next generation of civil defense news. The Hardy Boys approach won't work anymore. This time around we need a little more true grit.

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