Beyond duct tape: the new terror-awareness strategy

A Chicago stampede underscores the peril of panic, as a new preparedness plan begins.

At the start of the weekend, rumors swirled that the nation may go to Code Red - the highest level of terror alert and a warning that something dire was likely to happen.

But officials put that talk to rest. And a swirling of a different kind - one of the biggest blizzards to hit the Washington area in decades - calmed a jittery capital population that embraced the comprehensible challenge of up to two feet of snow. Suddenly, Washington shifted to Code White.

Terrorists don't like snow, people here told themselves, as they settled into life in the snow globe. For now, disaster preparedness means having enough hot chocolate in the house.

Nationally, the terror-threat level may soon be reduced, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said on Sunday. The end of the Islamic pilgrimage called the hajj, seen as a time of vulnerability for attacks, has passed without incident. Secretary Ridge also acknowledged in a CNN interview that some intelligence "may have faded in terms of accuracy or relevance."

But government discussion of preparedness has only just begun. Tomorrow, Ridge will fly to Cincinnati to roll out the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Ready Campaign, a multifaceted communication strategy designed to prepare the public for the range of terrorist threats. According to DHS communication director Susan Neely, the campaign will involve print and broadcast public-service announcements, the US mail, and town meetings around the country, some of which will include Ridge.

'An adult message' on terror

"We refer to it euphemistically as an adult message," says Ms. Neely. "It's a slightly complex message on a topic that people are rightly having some anxiety about." The point of the campaign, she says, is to reach Americans through a variety of avenues, over a sustained period, in a way that encourages people to get informed in a calm, rational way - not to panic and seal their homes in duct tape. Many public-safety officials have noted that overzealous use of tape and plastic sheeting could be lethal.

Though security officials have identified Washington and New York as the most likely targets of attack, because of their political and economic significance, the DHS selected Cincinnati as the launch point for the campaign to highlight the city's leadership in preparedness and to drive home the idea that terrorists could strike anywhere.

Government officials have been criticized for heightening anxiety by discussing terrorism preparedness in a way that seemed disorganized. The sudden mention of disaster kits and family-emergency plans led to a run on duct tape, batteries, and bottled water that seemed to be fueled more by blind fear than informed planning. By last week, most Americans had not sought out the extensive preparedness information on government and Red Cross web sites.

The Ready Campaign has a two-part approach, says Ralph Gomory, president of the Sloan Foundation, which has contributed $1.5 million to the effort. "First you get people to pay attention," he says. "If you consider a TV spot, you can't tell people anything worthwhile about terrorism in 30 seconds."

The idea, he says, is to use the short messages to urge people to read the long messages, which will come in brochures and on a website that is "easy to read and easily navigated." The Ad Council is also working on the campaign.

The stampeding deaths of 21 people in a Chicago night club early Monday morning - one of the deadliest stampedes in US history - demonstrate the danger of panic in an emergency. If the national terror-threat level is indeed decreased soon, Americans may be able to prepare in a less tense atmosphere.

A call for realism

Experts on radiological, biological, and chemical weapons are also recommending more realism about terrorists' capabilities. "I don't believe, and other experts don't believe, Al Qaeda is in a position to launch a large-scale attack with chemical agents," says Elisa Harris, a Clinton administration expert on weapons of mass destruction. "What we need to be concerned about is something much more low-tech - for example, targeting a commercial chemical facility with large stocks of chemicals."

Michael Levi, director of the Strategic Security Project at the Federation of American Scientists, says that if terrorists were to explode a "dirty bomb" - a conventional bomb containing nuclear material - the most serious effects would be in a limited area. If people were to flee a city en masse, the likeliest impact would be to impede first responders. "It's a weapon of mass disruption, not mass destruction," he says.

Levi suggests the administration put forward less-political figures as preparedness spokespeople - such as the surgeon general or the White House science adviser - so as not to muddy the message.

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