Fear factor: Beyond a panic-driven approach to homeland security

Treating terrorism as terrifyingly different from other threats to Americans has, arguably, made future terror attacks more difficult to prevent and recover from.

Just imagine our nation's reaction if bioterrorists were behind the worldwide SARS epidemic. Or its reaction if a suicide bomber had triggered the horrific fire that killed 100 people at a Rhode Island nightclub in February.

In either case, the government and the news media, no doubt, would be depicting the nation as under siege. Many Americans would be pulling up the drawbridge and avoiding public places and encounters with strangers. And the already-shaky U.S. economy might well be in a nosedive.

But with SARS relegated to the status of an ordinary epidemic-one spread by natural means-the U.S. government has reacted by taking a calm, levelheaded approach that stresses such traditional disease-management techniques as travel warnings, hand-washing advisories, and quarantines. The nightclub fire, which began accidentally during a rock concert, was treated as an isolated tragedy and was largely forgotten by the news media and most of the nation. Perhaps it will result in tighter enforcement of fire-code regulations, at least in Rhode Island. The inferno, however, certainly has not made most Americans fearful of venturing out in the evening.

Perhaps there's a lesson to be learned. Because terrorism is psychological warfare, one of the best responses may be to gradually become less afraid of it-that is, to prepare for it not just with duct tape but with psychology. If Al Qaeda and its ilk conclude that terror attacks against a McDonald's in Birmingham, Ala., or the Sears Tower in Chicago would not bring the United States to its knees, perhaps such attacks will be less likely.

For the last year and a half, the federal government and the media have often acted as if terrorism poses threats unlike anything this nation has seen before. But treating terrorism as terrifyingly different from other threats to Americans' lives, health, and financial well-being has, arguably, made future terror attacks more difficult to prevent and to recover from.

"I think right now our message sounds like, `Be scared. Be very, very scared. But go on with your lives.' The message we want is, `Don't be scared. Live your lives. But this is a real threat to this country, so we want you to be aware,' " said Chuck Blanchard, Arizona's interim Homeland Security director. "That's a tough message to sell, because it sounds contradictory."

Terrorism itself isn't new. Asymmetric warfare dates back at least a couple of thousand years to Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, who advised, "Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected." And in significant ways, the terrorist threat that Americans face today resembles more-mundane threats that are psychologically accepted-muggings and lightning strikes, for example-and are routinely protected against.

Already, state and local leaders are discovering that the reactive, panic-driven homeland-security system that has sprung up since 9/11 is unsustainable. "I think up until now, everything was viewed as quote, `emergency management,' " said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who recently completed a comprehensive review of her state's homeland-security strategy. "You quickly come to the conclusion that you can't put a guard on every corner."

Psychologists note that people understand "new" problems more easily if they are explained in the context of problems that are already grasped. So, to the degree that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge begins to treat terrorism much like other crimes and disasters, he'll likely communicate more effectively. If the public comes to view terrorism largely as just another brand of crime, people will be better able to take government warnings seriously without becoming so afraid. Ultimately, that's where Ridge would like to take the public, says Susan Neely, assistant secretary for public affairs in the new Homeland Security Department.

Ready or Not

The late-night talk shows might be the best message-meter for the Homeland Security Department. In late April, David Letterman quipped, "Are you scared about SARS? Tom Ridge, Homeland Security director, you know what he said today? He said you are supposed to duct tape your nose."

How the Department of Homeland Security is faring on late-night television is constantly on the minds of those running its press shop. Ridge's press aides have heard more than their fill of duct-tape punch lines. Neely, Ridge's communications guru, says that late-night TV's hijacking of homeland initiatives demonstrates how difficult it is to convey serious messages about terrorism preparedness. "I think it's a big challenge, and in some ways one of the hardest things we do collectively at the department, because it's hard to know when you've got it right." And Letterman and Jay Leno quickly let the press aides know when they've got it wrong.

The communications problems that Neely is triaging obscure an important fact: The department's national threat alert system is being taken seriously-maybe too seriously. The department, according to Neely, designed the five-color warning scheme to communicate with state and local officials, not with the general public. But because the public is clearly paying such close attention to the only terrorism warning system available, Neely has begun trying to retrofit the alert system for use as a public communications tool. She developed guidelines for her state and local counterparts to use in explaining, say, Code Orange. She's also thinking about ways to downplay threat announcements, such as sending out a press release rather than putting Ridge in front of TV cameras. And she said her department might begin issuing regional or industry-specific alerts instead of just one national one.

In mid-May, the department launched a weeklong exercise aimed at demonstrating the ability of federal, state, and local officials to respond to two concurrent terrorist attacks-in Seattle and Chicago. The hope is that it will reinforce the message that the government is on top of security. "Every day, we do everything we can to prevent, detect, and disrupt terrorist activity," Ridge said at a briefing earlier this month to announce the exercise, known as TOPOFF 2. "We are committed to a higher level of readiness every day."

The department is also planning a mini-embedding program. During half-day sessions, journalists and senior government officials will role-play responses to a fictional terrorist attack. The project's premise, Neely says, is that in a crisis, the news media's primary responsibility is to disseminate government information, not critique it. "It's a different role for the media and for all of us," she said.

Lost amid all the duct-tape jokes was the department's biggest public communications and education effort so far, its "Ready Campaign." In the works for months, Ridge's citizen-preparedness initiative tries to answer the public's continuing question of "What can I do?" The initiative produced six television ads, six radio spots, four billboards, and five newspaper ads, several of which are displayed outside Neely's office. The advice differed little from longtime instructions for preparing for earthquakes or hurricanes, but the $2.2 million campaign, financed by private contributions, put it all into the context of how to prepare for a terror attack.

The Ready Campaign is getting panned in some quarters. "The content is just a hodgepodge of stuff that might come in handy," complains Baruch Fischhoff, a professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. "It's not prioritized. It's not precise and, I think, not really comprehensible." The campaign's biggest shortcoming, according to Fischhoff, is that it ignores the public's most burning questions. One of the biggest ones is, "How worried should I be?"

In the view of Frank Cilluffo, who was a top adviser to Ridge at the White House, that's not the proper question: "They should be asking, `What actions can I take?' That was the thinking behind the Ready Campaign."

Thinking Differently 101

Looking for details about dealing with terrorism? Try Israel. Its government updates read like a police blotter: "On Sunday, April 20, 2003, Fa'ruz Ahmed Mahmud Makhil was arrested in the Balata refugee camp, near Nablus. [Makhil], a wanted female Palestinian, intended to carry out a suicide bombing inside Israel. [Makhil] was the fifth terrorist arrested during the past two weeks, three of whom intended to carry out suicide bombings."

Israel demonstrates how a country's populace can simultaneously adjust to the dangers of terrorism and bolster security on the home front. Elementary-school children there learn about chemical and biological weapons and how to use a gas mask. The Israeli government runs TV spots advising people how to keep an eye out for explosives in public places.

"Public awareness of bombs has been an important aspect of coping with terrorism here," says Ariel Merari, director of the political violence research unit at Tel Aviv University. "Indeed, in many cases, bombs have been found because of people's awareness." Yet, because the terrorism threat is different in the United States, the government may not want to go so far as to include Gas Masks 101 in the curriculum for second-graders.

When the chances of being a victim are so random, it is just human nature to jump to the conclusion that you might be next, especially if the threat seems new. "What seems to be the case with terrorism and the American psyche now is to generalize vulnerability," says homeland-security expert Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

So how can the government help the public view terrorism more realistically? With people generalizing the threat and becoming afraid, the answer is for government to make its information more specific.

Unfortunately, that's very difficult because "it's a dynamic and amorphous threat," observes Cilluffo, who recently joined the Center for the Study of the Presidency. "Since the [end of the] Cold War, threat forecasting has made astrology look respectable," he adds. "Everyone is looking for when and where. If you know the when and where, you don't have a communications challenge because you're going to stop it."

Still, there's plenty of information short of precise details about "when and where" that the federal government could share. First, it could put terrorism in a more rational context by drawing additional parallels to more-traditional threats. According to homeland-security consultant and former cop John Cohen, garden-variety crime is one of the best comparisons: Such crime is something to be aware of and try to prevent, but if it does happen, surviving victims must find a way to move on. Natural disasters, especially earthquakes, which strike without warning, are a useful model on the response side. In fact, the Ready Campaign looks a lot like earthquake preparedness.

Second, the government could offer a clearer sense of how unlikely it is that any given American will be the victim of a terrorist attack. Few people understand just how difficult it is for a terrorist to successfully deploy a chemical, biological, or radiological weapon. "I'm a little bit worried that [such weapons are] being overhyped," says Michael Powers, a senior fellow at the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute. The danger of overhyping, he adds, is that it amplifies an attack's effects-if such an attack ever comes. For example, if a radioactive "dirty" bomb were detonated in Washington, the weapon's kill range would vary, but would probably be within a radius of a few blocks. But because of the panic that would likely ensue, more people might be killed fleeing from radiation than by radiation.

Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, an analyst with Rand, is quick to put terrorism deaths in the context of everyday risks all Americans take pretty much for granted: About 43,000 people a year die on U.S. roadways. Some 17,000 a year are murdered. "Unfortunately, terrorism is just another fact of modern life. It's something we have to live with," he points out. "The problem is, you don't want to lull people into complete passivity and hopelessness."

The way to counter passivity, according to Larry Beutler, co-director of the National Center on Disaster Psychology and Terrorism, is to provide more-specific information. Ridge needs to get beyond the "pan-threat" warnings, Beutler contends, and instead give ones that apply to a particular industry or geographical area, so that the people most likely to be affected have been given enough information to stay especially alert. Beutler questions the usefulness of the current national threat warnings: "You can't keep a high level of alert that is general and nonspecific. Get specific, or don't do anything."

In his view, the federal government's terrorism warnings need to be tied more directly to instructions about how the public should behave. A Code Yellow alert, for example, might be tied to messages urging the public to report suspicious persons and packages. And Code Orange warnings might instruct people in an endangered region how to prepare for an emergency. Detroit is already linking its threat levels to specific advice to residents.

What if the federal government doesn't know enough about a threat to get specific about possible targets? Then it should at least communicate the level of uncertainty in the information it is using to set the current threat level, says Powers of the Chemical Biological Arms Control Institute. That would reduce the likelihood of panic, he argues.

The Credibility Challenge

One key to Israel's success in living with the constant threat of terrorism is the government's credibility on the issue. When the Israeli government announces that, say, it apprehended a terrorist outside a Tel Aviv cafe at 3 p.m. last Sunday, the Israeli public doesn't question the truth of the statement, any more than Americans do when their local police department announces that it thinks it has solved a murder.

Government terrorism warnings and announcements have to be credible, or the public won't take them seriously. Israel's Homefront Command has enough credibility to get away with having as its motto, "You Can Count On Us!" Ridge's Homeland Security Department is not there yet. Leno and Letterman would have a field day ridiculing the department if it tried to adopt such a motto.

In Neely's view, "You build up your credibility over time." How much credibility the Homeland Security Department develops will depend in part on whether Ridge keeps it out of partisan politics and helps the nation think more rationally about the terrorism threat.

Ridge will likely have a tough time making Homeland Security seem nonpolitical when President Bush travels to New York City next year to accept his party's nomination to a second term, just days before the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Neely says that the public is sophisticated enough to separate campaign politics from the safety programs the department advocates. But that distinction will be harder to see if Bush's re-election campaign intentionally chooses to blur the line by stressing how much terrorism-prevention money is flowing to New York and other locales.

Ridge already faces difficult political calculations involving what to say about the impact of the Iraq war on civilian safety in the United States. Many terrorism experts say that the war heightened the danger of terrorism. Reason No. 1 is that instability in the Middle East and a U.S. military presence in that region could turn out to be perfect recruitment tools for Al Qaeda and similar groups. A second reason is that the United States' unquestionable military superiority might be sending an unintended message to our nation's foes. "The lesson for any opponent is, `Don't attempt to match the U.S. on the battlefield, but find alternative ways of inflicting pain,' " warns Rand analyst Hoffman.

George Friedman, chairman of Stratfor, a global intelligence firm, calculates that "the probability of an Al Qaeda strike is higher now-the highest since September 11." But Ridge, asked last month whether the United States is safer thanks to the war, declared, "Absolutely, yes."

Politics aside, communicating with the public about terrorism threats will never be easy. Telling the public what it needs to know without fatally compromising security sources is a perpetual challenge. So is getting people to listen to unsettling messages that they would prefer to ignore, Neely says.

One of the biggest practical challenges facing Ridge is ensuring that his department's message about terrorism is consistent over time as threats change. "The way anybody loses credibility is if the message is either sent too frequently, or at the wrong time, or in a contradictory way," Beutler warns.

Yet duct-tape panic swept through hardware stores earlier this year because Homeland Security's first emergency-preparedness briefing (at which Ridge's aides extolled the benefits of duct tape) was held soon after the national threat level escalated to Code Orange. The department quickly planned the briefing when Neely and her team noted a heightened public interest in preparedness in the days after the threat announcement. Neely insists that the threat levels are not really for public consumption and that when a threat level rises, the department's advice is, "Don't do anything differently unless we tell you otherwise."

Under any circumstances, those messages would be difficult to convey. When the nation turns Orange on the brink of war, conveying that would be impossible.

Part of the problem, Powers says, is that conflicting messages have a political benefit. If a terror attack occurs, Ridge can say, "I warned you." And if another attack fails to materialize, he can say, "See how effective our prevention program has become." The Bush administration, as a result, can never be wrong. As Powers puts it, "It really comes down to political expediency. You cover your butt."

Practice What You Preach

For a clear message on homeland security and policies that match it, talk to Gov. Napolitano, who has spent the first few months of her tenure assembling the next generation of homeland-security plans for Arizona. She says she quickly recognized that she couldn't expect her state to be on a "heightened alert" indefinitely, so she began looking for ways to integrate homeland-security precautions into the daily routines of police officers, firefighters, public health officials, and her staff. Napolitano also decided against establishing a state department of homeland security.

Her focus on keeping Arizonans safe "is not just about terrorism," she said. "It's about dealing with all kinds of events. What system do we need for prevention, detection, and response, and how do we integrate that statewide at all levels of government?"

In the emerging homeland-security vernacular, this is called a "dual-use" approach, where a statewide public health information system, for example, helps the state track and manage diseases that spread as a result of either terrorists or Mother Nature. The clear advantage of dual-use policies is that they have a guaranteed payoff even in the absence of a terrorist attack.

Arizona's plan was born out of necessity-a recognition that the state didn't have the financial stamina to continue along the path it was on. Officials in other places feel similar pressure to find more cost-effective ways of dealing with the terrorism threat. "We really are at a crossroads," said Cohen, who now runs a homeland-security consulting firm, PSComm, and who helped Arizona draw up its new strategy. "We've been traveling along the road in response mode. Now we have elected officials around the country saying, `We've addressed the issues of September 11, but we can't do that in the long term.' "

Arizona plans to establish a new network for law enforcement ensuring that criminal information is immediately filed into the system both from headquarters and from the field. As a result, a police officer who has pulled someone over during a traffic stop can immediately find out whether the driver is suspected of terrorism, murder, drug dealing, petty theft, or nothing at all. By building such a network, the state will then begin trying to detect patterns that could lead to the busting of a drug ring or a terrorist cell.

Public preparedness can do double duty as well. "What we're really asking the public to do is to do something they really should have been doing before 9/11," says Arizona's Blanchard. "Be ready for an emergency and be aware of your surroundings-that's a traditional law enforcement crime message."

This dual-use idea has caught on in Houston, too. "Most cities continue to act in a kind of emergency-response mode, rather than devising a long-term strategy," Mayor Lee Brown testified at a congressional field hearing in his city last month. But "any strategy regarding urban terrorism must be worked into a city's day-to-day operations."

Calmly implementing dual-use policies requires everyone from governors to the cop on the beat to think differently about how to integrate homeland responsibilities into their daily duties. For police officers, says Cohen, this entails learning to look for signs of terrorist schemes or drug dealing, as well as learning to talk to the public about terror threats.

If states don't find a way to make homeland-security spending sustainable, worries Flynn, of the Council on Foreign Relations, they will take a see-no-evil approach and stop looking to see where they are most vulnerable to attack. "There is a growing trend toward dumbing-down vulnerabilities," he said. "There's some liability in documenting a vulnerability that you're not going to protect."

But if done right, a more holistic approach to homeland security could have enormous benefits, including making the whole topic of terrorism less scary. It could also prompt a wholesale revamping of public health and law enforcement systems nationwide, not to mention a host of technological innovations. "We're going to have to get through this rough patch because, ultimately, it will pay off in ways we cannot anticipate right now," says David McIntyre of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security.

Upbeat national mobilizations that tap into the can-do American spirit have a history of unexpected and lasting benefits. After all, where would we be without those unexpected boons of the all-out race into space, Velcro, Teflon, and Tang? In fact, the space program itself was a product of the Cold War.