Did you ever have your teachers back in primary school assign "busy work" to the class? I did while growing up all those years (and, truth be told, decades) ago. The idea was to keep we overactive children from causing trouble in the classroom, usually while a handful of kids at more or less the same reading or math level were being given small-group attention by the teacher.
Well, we Americans were- all this week after we were first put on code "orange" (the second highest of the five tiers of alert now under the control of the still-relatively new U.S. Department of Homeland Security)- given "busy work" by our government: we were told to begin putting together emergency kits including plastic sheeting and duct tape (ostensibly to be able to seal windows and doors in case of a terror attack involving biological or chemical [or even radiological] agents), to begin stocking up on a minimum of 3 days supply of food and water (1 gallon per person per day), to make sure we had batteries in our flashlights and a battery-powered radio in our homes-- all possibly useful precautions to be taken, perhaps-- but with absolutely no further useful guidance from DoHS.
So what did I see on the evening news here in America? People crowding the hardware stores in some areas of the country, raiding duct tape supplies almost as soon- if not even before- the cartons containing the latest shipment of same had been taken off the fork lift or hand truck; people already sealing their homes with plastic sheeting held in place by that ubiquitous duct tape (and I'm sure the indoor carbon monoxide levels in such homes are soon to rise, particularly here in the northern tier of the USofA where I happen to live, as the relatively cold winter we've been having hereabouts continues!)- some people putting the plastic sheeting on the outside of the house (which is not what one is supposed to do!!)... and why?... because our Department of Homeland Security did not do all that well as regards informing us as to when and how to use these materials!!!
Two days later, we heard about suggestions to be able to cover our mouths with a cloth and wash our hands as soon as possible should we happen to find ourselves in the near vicinity of a terrorist attack with, say, a "dirty bomb" or some other device which could disseminate so much biohazard. Maybe, instead, we should have all been told to put our heads down on the desk or to take 'Time Out'... or perhaps it should have simply been declared to now be National Nap Time!
There is a rather serious disconnect between Secretary Tom Ridge's DoHS and the American public, one that we cannot well afford when we have risen to "orange" alert (God forbid we ever have to go to "red"- the highest level!). Today (14 February), the Homeland Security Secretary assured us all that it was never intended that we seal our homes up now-- well, where was all this helpful information two days ago? Mr. Ridge also announced that there would be a series of Public Service Announcements on TV and radio which will better advise the public as to the best possible use to be made of any directives and advisories which, in future, may be issued re: homeland security. I only hope that these PSAs are at least a bit more effective than those that, many years ago, urged Americans to acquire publications put out by the Federal Government via a PO Box out in Boulder, Colorado!
Look... I will cut the DoHS some slack here (but only some!)... it is a still relatively new Department of the government that has only been legally operational since the weekend of the last Super Bowl a few weeks back as I type this. But one would think that at least some no little thought went into just which directives and advisories were going to be floated out there and how almost as soon as the legislation creating this new Department cleared the going-out-of-business 107th Congress this past Fall-- if not going back to not all that long after Mr. Ridge first started organizing the predecessor Office of Homeland Security in the immediate wake of 11 September 2001!
Now, I don't want to unnecessarily beat up on Tom Ridge, a man who has what is pretty much a daunting task which, through no fault of his own, is also- at the same time- a rather thankless job. Nevertheless, his Department had better soon understand that Americans- who, after all, are not used to such things- must be psychologically prepared for a possible future terrorist attack. There has to be significant community-level instruction regarding what should be done in case of a regional, if not national, emergency engendered by a terrorist attack using biological, chemical or radiological agents-- the DoHS has to develop guidelines (and develop them rather quickly) as to how best to assist State and local officials in making sure this instruction well filters down to the neighborhood and small town level. I saw none of that this past week!
What about what the military calls "Shelter in Place" techniques: it is rather likely that many of us will be at work at the time a terrorist attack takes place. Having 3 days worth of food, water and medicine at one's home isn't going to do one much good if the office is not as prepared; what about making sure that businesses have contingency plans re: how they will deal with employees who might end up stranded on company property for days at a time? Or is the Small Business Administration going to merely approve loans for the acquisition of rolls of duct tape?!
How about a little more information regarding the efficacy of a battery-powered radio of the proper type? I took it upon myself- having been a Radio Buff for now nearly 35 of my 47 years- to send an e-mail to many of my online friends and acquaintances advising them to make sure that any radio they might have on hand for emergency purposes be able to tune in at least somewhat distant AM radio stations (in other words, saying that just because you might have an AM dial on one's 'Walkman' just doesn't cut it!), in case domestic broadcasting in their immediate area should be knocked out (no electrical power usually means no TV and no stereo tuner), as well as at least some ShortWave- in case foreign news sources might have to be accessed for vital information (no electrical also usually means no computer-accessible Internet). Why isn't my government doing this?
These are but a couple examples of how Americans could be that much better prepared for an emergency such as that about which the DoHS seems to be most concerned! I could go on but then this Commentary would be too long.
Clearly, the DoHS still has "holes" in it. For example, and also today (14 February), it was announced that the FBI and CIA would- from now on- be working more closely together to coordinate the gathering and analysis of intelligence which might prove useful re: thwarting a potential terrorist attack. Putting aside the Civil Liberties issues which will certainly have to be monitored most vigilantly as a result of that "unholy alliance", I did not hear the words 'Department of Homeland Security' mentioned anywhere in direct relation to this new FBI-CIA joint initiative. We are here back to one of my own major criticisms of the set-up of the new Department- that is: the DoHS has no intelligence gathering capacity of its own and, therefore, must rely on that provided by other agencies!
I will close with an observation made by a friend of mine who happens to live and work in Manhattan. He noted the other day that there was massive visible police presence in and around New York City's Grand Central Terminal, complete with impressive-looking weaponry; he wondered, however, if this show of force was more an invitation to "death by friendly fire" than anything else. I myself- as I read his words- flashed back to that first journey I had made to New York City after September 11th, some 8 days after those horrific attacks: I had taken the train into Penn Station and, upon making my way upstairs from the train platform, noted the obvious presence of National Guard troops- without, however, any such weaponry (I remember thinking to myself 'What are they going to do if someone should threaten the people here in the Penn Station concourse? Use their berets like so many Frisbees?!').
Neither solution- relatively unarmed soldiers in so much camouflage (as I saw back on 19 September 2001) or SWAT teams deploying from armored vehicles, wearing bulletproof personal armament and themselves armed to the teeth- seems particularly effective right now. In the end, it will be we Americans who will have to shoulder the burden of protecting our homes and loved ones, come what may; we need help- in the form of good advice- while doing this: we don't need to be given so much "busy work"!