Blackouts, air raid drills, raid sirens… hallmarks of a country at war, fearful of an attack on homeland-circa WWII. Through the cold war of the ’80s, we thought our civilized people had moved past this, or maybe it was simply that Americans knew that hiding under a desk with the lights out during a nuclear bombing attack was simply futile.
Gone are the days of air raid drills and nuclear bomb shelters in people’s back yards – enter terrorist attack drills. Many companies and schools around the country have implemented terrorist preparedness plans, essentially, drills to prepare the company or school in the event of a terrorist attack.
Many large companies have long had bomb threat plans. In fact, when I worked for Chevron, the ‘Bomb Threat Guide” was a plastic card with instruction printed on it as to what to do in case someone called in a bomb threat and you received the call. These instructions were on a slide panel under every single phone in the building.
We have long had fire drills, tornado drills, flood drills – and as children and employees – we have learned what to do in the event of a natural disaster. For a fire drill, the alarms go off, and we proceed, single file, calmly and rationally, to the nearest exist, and then there is a designated meeting place where a head count is taken for the fire department. For a tornado, we move to the interior most location, away from as many windows as possible, and tuck our heads between our legs and cover them with our arms. If there’s a closet, and enough room, or an interior room with no windows, that’s safer than a hallway.
I distinctly recall sitting on the floor, crouched over, covering my head when I was in elementary school. I recall standing outside, with our backs turned away from the school, because the teachers said it was disrespectful to watch the school burn. Years later, when I was teaching at an elementary school, I learned the adult truth-they didn’t want us facing the school, in case any of the firemen had to carry out a burned or dead body. Makes sense to me, but as a child, they were never so morbid as to tell us that.
My mother can tell stories of years back when she was in elementary school, where they would hear the sirens and knew that they were supposed to turn off all interior lighting and crawl up underneath their desks, remaining absolutely still and silent until the ‘all clear’ siren was heard.
Sometimes, we knew when these were drills, and other times, they surprised us, but mostly, I don’t recall most of the students taking these very seriously, and we simply were happy for the time out of the classroom and the break in the day. I must admit, the same could probably be said about drills in the workplace, except, I used to always grumble about how I had too much work to do to waste my time with these things.
Granted, the likelihood of a fire or natural disaster seems slim to most of us, but with recent events such as the hurricanes to ravage our Southern and Florida costs, the devastation to Louisiana, and the media coverage of these events, along with the resulting floods, fires, and damage, Americans have been more aware of the fact that natural disasters and fires do indeed happen, and they can indeed be devastating.
Nothing like a little media coverage and fear to make us pay attention.
But what of terrorist attacks?
After Oklahoma City, I remember the sadness, the loss, the devastation, the grief… but I don’t recall the sheer terror that resulted from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Perhaps we have come almost to accept that horrible things can and will be done by people on our own soil, but there is a fear in being attacked by the unknown or the foreign.
So now, we have terrorist preparedness plans. I suppose the one thing I’m most curious about with these terrorist preparedness plans is this-we, as typical Americans, probably never expected anyone to wield airplanes as weapons, use them like missiles, and slam them into the sides of buildings. How exactly can you be prepared for that?
I mean, I’m not talking about the airline safety and security here. Of course, some of that probably could have been handled better, but I’m talking about exactly how the people inside those buildings truly could have prepared themselves for what occurred. Not only that, but there are other things that we could probably not even fathom would occur. The list of potential ‘attacks’ is long, and it would take a criminal mind to even conceive some of the more obscure ways a terrorist would actually attack.
So how do you prepare for a terrorist attack?
It’s not like a fire preparedness drills, where we can be taught, “Don’t go through a door if it feels hot. Stop, drop, and roll. Move away from the smoke, and crawl on the floor, where there is less likely to be smoke, because smoke rises.”
It’s not like a tornado preparedness drills, where we can be taught to move away from windows, find an interior room, duck and cover, and wait it out.
The point here is, we know how fire acts, for the most part. We know how a tornado will act, for the most part. Because of this, we can prepare for these disasters, as much as we possibly can, and even then, we know that the risk still exists.
However, we cannot possibly prepare for a terrorist attack. We do not know how a terrorist will act. There are simply too many scenarios of potential disaster to have an effective terrorist preparedness plan. Anything we could possibly dream up to prepare ourselves for and protect ourselves from will be the things terrorists will not do. That’s why they are called terrorists-if we were prepared for them and knew what to do, there would be no ‘terror’ from terrorists.
One local elementary school has taught students to turn out the lights and hide in the event of any type of attack on the school. The terrorist preparedness plan for the school district where I live has these children practice finding good hiding places, and how to be still, be quiet, and not be found. The classroom doors go on lockdown, the hallways are cleared and no one can leave or enter the school until the lockdown is over.
This is great if there are gunmen in the school, and perhaps it is good for the children to be prepared, but how exactly do you explain to your 5-year-old kindergarten student that you need to practice hiding in a closet and being very quiet so that someone doesn’t shoot you?
These particular drills would do nothing in the event of, let’s say, a bomb threat. During a bomb threat, they do not evacuate the school. Instead, the put the school on lockdown and they bring in the bomb sniffing dogs. Everyone must stay in their classrooms, quiet and still, waiting for the dogs to sniff out the bomb. In the meantime, the school could blow up, and any students in the near vicinity will be blown to oblivion. How do you teach an older child who might understand that there is a bomb in the school that the best thing they should do is sit there and wait to be blown up?
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be prepared; we absolutely should, but I feel that more energy needs to be put into terrorist prevention plans and less into preparedness plans. When we ‘prepare’ for terrorist activity, we are, essentially, perpetuating the one thing that terrorist actually bank on – our terror. When we do this, live in fear and terror, planning for the worst instead of preventing it, the terrorists win.
So I propose we actually look at designing terrorist prevention plans, and not terrorist preparedness plans. Remember this, terrorist thrive on two things other than our fear and terror: ignorance and apathy.
Be involved, know what’s happening in your world. You don’t have to follow politics to take a stand against terrorism. Trust me, there were democrats and republicans, and all sorts of different religious denominations and faiths killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Terrorism doesn’t play favorites. I guarantee there was someone who died in those terrorist attacks who believed, wholeheartedly, that nothing like that could ever happen to them.
Be knowledgeable, know what the rules are at your place of employment or your children’s school. Be vocal-take a stand. I am not talking about living in fear and terror. In fact, if we actively seek terrorist prevention strategies, we greatly reduce the fear and replace it with the comfort of knowing that we are not preparing to recover from a disaster, but rather prepared to prevent one from ever happening.