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More Civil Defense, Just Don't Call it That

When the IRA was blowing up London, one saw posters in the Tube and everywhere else people congregated warning people to tell the police about unattended packages. They were simple posters, a bit scary and they worked pretty well. People reported packages and the police were able to isolate bombs on several occasions before they went off. The famous IRA warnings helped as well.

After the Madrid bombings, the British put up new posters showing a woman looking at an unattended suitcase: "If You Suspect It, Report It." In Israel, a stray cigarette pack can draw the public's attention. But you don't see many warnings in New York or in Washington about packages of any sort, though there are occasional posters and security warnings. And, of course, we all remember former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's famous efforts to get the public to prepare their homes for a major catastrophe. (Mention of duct tape still draws rueful smiles from many of our friends who live in the city's center.)

So when I asked the head of Northern Command, Air Force Gen. Victor Renuart if thought the US needed better civil defense efforts to deter the sort of small scale attacks (suicide vests etc) Al Qaeda and other terrorists might turn to, he approached it gingerly. He told the audience at the Heritage Foundation today that "personal prevention and our ability to be resilient in the event of an attack" were crucial. He noted that Al Qaeda faces serious command and control difficulties when it tries to mount smaller scale attacks. But, when pressed, he agreed that the country needs better "civil awareness programs."

Perhaps we should wait until the next administration before trying to launch anything new on this front since the Bush administration has generally lost so much credibility when it comes to terror warnings and efforts to mitigate the effects of terrorist attacks. And there is always the chicken and egg problem -- which came first, the small bombs and random shootings or the posters warning of them -- but the American people aren't really aware of the threat and their government is doing relatively little to ensure they can help be part of the intelligence system.

As Gen. Renuart made clear at the end of his talk, the topic carries heavy political baggage. After acknowledging the need for more civil defense, he smiled and told me: "Just don't build a bomb shelter just yet."

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