Wednesday, February 16, 2005

America's First Defenders

The recent terrorist alarm, that raised counter-terrorism professionals to a heightened state of alert from California to Boston, proved, in the words of the FBI, to have "no credibility." Now, in the aftermath of a nation-wide search for terrorists who were not there, many are raising the question of whether the alert should have been publicized at all.

The debate over when and even whether to sound an alarm when information is received about possible threats is not a new one. But this apparent hoax, perpetrated by a man who was reportedly carrying a grudge, has authorities second guessing their actions and wondering if their current policies warrant re-examination.

The question is not a simple one; but the answer lies in the outcome of last week's alert.
In this case, the tip was called in anonymously from Mexico to the California Highway Patrol. The caller claimed that he had smuggled four Chinese nationals and two Iraq i nationals into the United States across the Mexican border. Although he did not show up for a subsequent meeting with Federal investigators, he left the names and photographs of four Chinese nationals.

In his information, he said that they were awaiting a shipment of radioactive material, and that they would be traveling to Boston to carry out a terrorist attack. The devil was in the details. The report contained more than the usual amount of specific information, and this is what made it so compelling.

The response was swift and to the point. Although authorities continually stressed that the information was uncorroborated, they also continued to update the public on the outline of developing information. The Massachusetts Emergency Operations Center partially activated its emergency response team, and President Bush was briefed on the threat. Boston Mayor Tom Menino called a press conference at which he acknowledged the threat, but urged the people of Boston to go about their lives. Governor Mitt Romney, in Washington, DC for the Presidential inauguration, returned to Boston almost immediately upon hearing of the threat.

The response was appropriate. The threat was taken seriously, and the people of Boston lived up to the spirit of their revolutionary history. They continued to go about their affairs, in spite of the dramatic nature of the threat. They did not cower in their homes, and there was no panic. There was only discussion and a heightened awareness. They studied the photos in the subway stations and in the newspapers, and they kept their eyes open. They felt that they could be part of the solution, not just bystanders.

I have written about this phenomenon more than once. Over a year ago, I wrote "In a war that targets civilians, we, the people, are all soldiers. We are America's first line of defense -- an army, 280 million strong, against this dark and malevolent enemy! We must begin by recognizing that our country is in danger and play a meaningful role in the defense of the freedom that we cherish." And so we did.

In the end, it turned out that the threat was no more than an expensive hoax. It was also an excellent exercise that made us all just a little better prepared for the real thing. And the people of Boston proved an important point. They proved that in spite of the terrifying nature of the supposed threat, they coped and provided additional willing eyes and ears for law enforcement.
Those who now question the wisdom of publicizing last week's threat need to ask themselves two questions: Did the release of the information, sketchy as it was, cause panic among the population? Had this been a real threat, what would have been the effect of the publicity?
The answer to the first question is simple. There was no panic. People did not flee the city, but rather they went to their jobs, took their children to school, and generally went on with their lives. And they listened to the news. They were a little more alert when they took the T, and when they walked along the street. And they felt empowered to help.

The answer to the second question is more complex. There is a great deal of evidence, from parts of the world that suffer from ongoing terrorism, that the publicity of a potential threat can often thwart the attack just by virtue of making it public and alerting the population.
A fundamental paradox inherent in this approach, however, is that by preventing the attack, you may never know what might have happened or what the impact of the strategy was. Such a lack of knowledge is difficult to defend when budgets are created and political campaigns crafted. A simple truth, however, is that the deterrent effect of publicity, which marshals the attention of the public and supports the efforts of our first responders, can be an enormously powerful tool to keep America safer.

I, for one, have great faith in the ability of the American people to rise to the challenge of the terrorist threat just as the people of Boston did last week. Information, such as the FBI provided in this instance, empowered the people to participate in the solution. In a real emergency, I will put my money on the American people every time.


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