"Civil defense" conjures images of blackout curtains, backyard bomb shelters, and kids huddled under school desks for "duck and cover" drills. In today's world of massive terrorist attacks, defending the homeland is likely to mean much more.
Evidence abounds that the United States is on the kind of war footing most Americans have never experienced: Jet fighters roar off to patrol overhead skies; tearful goodbyes are said as sailors board warships headed for foreign waters; military reservists and National Guard members - citizen soldiers - are rearranging their lives in the face of imminent call-up to active duty; the US Coast Guard and immigration officials are stepping up efforts to protect borders and coastal waters; airport-security teams are wearing flak jackets and carrying assault rifles; and security is increasing at municipal water supplies and hydropower dams.
While these steps may be necessary reactions to the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, there is general agreement that much more is needed to prevent future attacks. The National League of Cities, for example, reports that nearly half of all communities have no plans to defend against, or respond to, terrorist attacks. And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission now acknowledges that the country's 103 nuclear reactors were not built to withstand the impact of the kind of aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon without releasing radioactivity - a reversal of the NRC's earlier position.
Homeland defense has been much on the mind of government officials and private analysts in recent months, including the Bush administration, which established a special task force under Vice President Dick Cheney in May. A string of reports warns that the country needs to do much more to detect, avert, and respond to terrorist attacks.
"We're not immune from attack," President Bush said in a speech before Congress last week. "We will take defensive measures against terrorism to protect Americans."
Mr. Bush's first action was to name Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) to head a new cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security. Governor Ridge's job will be to coordinate the activities of more than 40 federal offices and agencies. Finding ways to get those offices and agencies to share intelligence information will be an important first step.
Some say this doesn't go far enough. A bipartisan panel headed by former Sens. Gary Hart (D) and Warren Rudman (R), recommended an independent agency rather than a terrorism "czar" trying to deal with turf battles and entrenched interests.
"We are not prepared for the next attack," says Senator Hart. "That's all I can say, and I'll keep on saying it."
Beyond rearranging bureaucracies and spending more to fight terrorism, some experts say, defending American soil also may require a reordering of defense priorities to focus on issues closer to home.
"Despite the more than $300 billion we spend on defense," says Lee Hamilton, a former member of Congress who chaired the House Intelligence Committee, "we remain, ... extremely vulnerable to hostile attacks on our own soil."
Mr. Hamilton, who now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, adds that "we must invest far more resources in strengthening the security of our borders, airports, and cities, and in protecting the crucial infrastructure of our economy, financial systems, energy supplies, and computer networks."
Sept. 11 was a shocking day like few others. The days since then feel more numbing than warlike - at least when compared with the protracted conflicts in Europe and the Pacific more than 50 years ago or in Vietnam a generation later. Yet, when the final numbers are tallied, they likely will show that more Americans (along with those of other nationalities) were killed that day than died during the average year of the Vietnam War.
While those wearing Kevlar helmets and carrying M16s may be the most obvious defenders of US homeland for the foreseeable future, experts say all Americans have a vital role to play - especially at a time when the most dangerous enemy may be a terrorist hiding deep within society, perhaps living next door.
"Today, the 'first to fight' may well be a police officer, a firefighter, or an information security technician," reports the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "New actors must become part of the national security equation."
That includes all citizens, not just those who specialize in security, says retired Army Col. Daniel Smith.
"Perhaps the most effective counter [to terrorist attacks] is for Americans to shed their daily self-absorption, and become more aware of their surroundings," says Colonel Smith, chief of research at the private Center for Defense Information in Washington. "Today's widespread availability of wireless communications, ... can be used to alert authorities about abandoned cars or suspicious packages or anything that seems out of place. It may not seem much, but it can make all the difference."
In Medford, Ore., a small town thousands of miles from the recent terrorists attacks in New York and Washington, Americans are symbolically responding to the most blatant foreign attack on US mainland since the British burned the Capitol and the White House in the War of 1812.
Folks are delivering red, white, and blue bouquets to local fire stations, a way of thanking those who put their lives on the line during emergencies. Military recruiting offices are fielding more inquiries, not just from young men and women, but also from veterans of past wars well beyond the maximum age to enlist. Gas masks are sold out at Army-Navy surplus stores. And the sheriff's office is running out of applications to carry a concealed handgun.
In the weeks and months to come, Americans likely will be asked to do much more.
International terrorism "is not a crisis, ... [but] a condition with which we will have to deal on a long-term basis," the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported last Friday.