All Citizens Now First Responders


Mar 24, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in USA Today on March 24, 2003.

Fallout from Iraq

Americans are wondering whether the war in Iraq will spark new terrorist attacks here. What, indeed, does the new orange alert on the five-color Homeland Security Advisory System really mean?

Most people don't realize that the color-alert system is mainly a way to consolidate all available intelligence and then communicate a judgment to those who have security responsibilities.

The primary targets of these warnings aren't individual Americans, but federal agencies, state and local governments, the country's approximately 18,000 police jurisdictions and those in the private sector with security responsibilities. They all have contingency plans to put into effect based on the specific alert level. Police departments, for example, might increase the number of uniformed officers on the streets. Corporations might tighten access control.

But what are individual Americans supposed to do?

After decades of being persuaded to behave as litigious victims, it's time the public became more realistic and accepted individual risk. Americans have to learn to take care of themselves, to be mentally tough and self-reliant. Those who expect the government to protect them from everything are in for a lot of disappointments.

If homeland security is to succeed, it needs to involve Americans in the defense of their communities, neighborhoods and families. In countries dealing with on-going terrorist campaigns, such as Israel and the United Kingdom, the authorities depend on public vigilance. With proper instruction, the entire United States can be turned into a vast neighborhood watch—a difficult environment for terrorists.

Look to each other, not authorities

First, Americans need to accept the fact that police and firefighters, no matter how brave or skilled, cannot protect them all at all times. There are just not enough of them, and there never will be. In most cases, the first people at the scene of an attack are the people who were there before the attack—employees, students, customers and anyone else unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So more Americans need to learn how to save and protect each other before the professionals arrive.

More "news you can use" stories in newspapers and on TV newscasts can give Americans information about the dangers they may face in a terrorist attack and what they can do to protect themselves. Schools, employers and private organizations can give practical instruction on what the real threats are and how to prepare and cope with them.

More individuals can sign up for CPR and first-aid courses or learn how they can volunteer with law enforcement organizations. Two federal Web sites— and—contain advice, the first for individual citizens and the second for schools.

Tools exist; use them

America has about 2 million people involved in the private-security industry, the equivalent of the entire U.S. armed forces in the 1980s during the Cold War. Special training could be mandated for these security workers so they can become an even stronger backup force for police and firefighters.

The country used to have air-raid wardens. Office buildings have fire wardens. Why not neighborhood-security wardens—trained volunteers armed with communications equipment so they can offer immediate guidance in emergency situations?

Americans are not helpless victims doomed to spend their lives hiding under kitchen tables. They are strong and brave people living in a strong and brave nation. Further terrorist attacks must be presumed, but they will not bring this country down.

Ultimately, the United States will prevail. Its most important defense will not be duct tape, but Americans' determination, wisdom and courage.

Brian Michael Jenkins, who has studied terrorism for more than 30 years, is a special adviser at the non-profit RAND Corporation.

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