Closing the Safety Gap

With his counterterrorism team now in place, the president and his administration will need to provide more examples of what Americans can actually do to shift from being citizens to citizen-sentinels and create a "national neighborhood watch."

That change of behavior is being urged by Mr. Bush, his cabinet members, and his newly created Office of Homeland Security. They want Americans to become vigilant in spotting terrorist threats.

But without more specific guidance, these requests may risk raising fears and undermining faith in the government's ability to provide security.

In essence, government faces a conundrum: just what to tell citizens about potential attacks without causing alarm.

Avoiding that problem depends on how well citizens stay informed and don't let sensational and alarmist media distort the reality of a threat or available precautions. The ability to distinguish between false reports and real news can help calm fears.

Calls for improved domestic preparedness are warranted, certainly. People need to know about stepped-up national, state, and local security measures (the Coast Guard on alert or the National Guard at airports, for example).

Much has been written about the challenges facing the Office of Homeland Security and its director, former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania. How will he meld nearly 50 security-related government agencies into a seamless security effort, with no legal authority over their budgets or workers?

But even as he sorts out his enormous logistical task, Mr. Ridge can begin to address the fears beginning to sprout among Americans. How concerned should people be about the anthrax case in Florida? Is it right to buy a gas mask? Should people build a secure place in their homes?

The US strikes on Afghanistan and the responding threats from the Al Qaeda terrorist network have heightened the government's responsibility to let people know what it really means to be prepared - to be vigilant and maintain a "normal life" at the same time.

Then, together, Americans can better provide for their common defense.

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