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U.S.: Washingtonians Skeptical Of Government Advice To Prepare For Attacks

  • Jeffrey Donovan

With terrorist warnings on the rise, the U.S. capital Washington increasingly feels like a city on the verge of an attack. But not everybody is taking seriously the government's advice to prepare for a possible terrorist assault and buy duct tape and plastic sheets.

Washington, 14 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Back in the early days of the Cold War, the American government prepared schoolchildren for a possible nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.

They did it by showing educational films -- black-and-white movies that draw laughter nowadays for their seeming naivety regarding the horrors of nuclear war. They show neatly dressed kids following the example of a cartoon turtle who has just withdrawn into his shell. The children dive under their desks in so-called "duck and cover" drills designed to prepare them for a Soviet nuclear strike:

The announcer would say: "Be sure and remember what Burt the Turtle just did, friends, because every one of us must remember to do the same thing. That's what this film is all about: duck and cover."

A half-century later, the U.S. government is again recommending that citizens take steps to prepare themselves for a new attack -- not from Russia, but from terrorists like those who killed some 3,000 people on 11 September 2001.

Few Americans take lightly the threat of chemical, biological, or even nuclear attack -- threats which recently prompted the military to deploy air-defense missiles and jet patrols around Washington. The U.S. capital and New York City are considered prime targets for terrorists.

But some Washingtonians are questioning recent government recommendations on how to prepare for an attack. They say some of the proposed measures, such as buying sheets of plastic and duct tape -- a strong, waterproof tape -- to seal their homes during a chemical or biological strike, seem as silly as the Cold War duck-and-cover drills.

"I don't really know how much those kinds of efforts would help if something drastic were to happen," said John Vitali, a resident of nearby Arlington, Virginia, who works in Washington. Vitali, like others interviewed by RFE/RL, said while he trusts the authorities are doing all they can to prevent an attack, he has no faith that duct tape or plastic sheeting will help him much in the event of a catastrophe.

Yet Americans, by and large, appear to be heeding the government's advice. Sales of tape, sheeting, gas masks, chemical suits, and bottled water have reportedly spiked around the country since the government issued its recommendations on 10 February.

Michael Hodges, an assistant manager at a shop in central Washington, said sales for those kinds of items have been brisk. "Sold a lot of water. I'm talking about gallons of water, not the small ones. Actually, I had one lady this morning that bought a gas mask -- the last one I had in the store, we had them for like two years now. Lots of duct tape -- I mean, it's amazing," he said.

Hodges added that he's surprised people believe they can help themselves this way. "You actually got people listening to [the government recommendations]. I guess they're taking it seriously. Me? What happens, happens."

One of Hodges' customers, Dwayne Taylor, is leaving the store with a bag full of duct tape, a strong, waterproof adhesive tape that can be used for a variety of purposes. When asked why he bought it, he said: "I don't know. It made me feel better. Maybe it's stupid, but I wanted to get it, so I did."

The government's advice has also drawn fire from members of the opposition Democratic Party. Its leader in the Senate, Tom Daschle, had this to say on 12 February, after an audiotape surfaced of a man purported to be Osama Bin Laden urging Muslims to defend Iraq and attack Americans: "As I look at the threats presented to this country -- the threat posed by bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, the threat posed by North Korea -- our lack of real coordination with regard to homeland defense, and this new admonition that people ought to go out and buy duct tape as a response, falls far short, I think, of anyone's expectation and ought to be reconsidered. We have to do better than duct tape as our response to homeland defense."

Television news stations have fueled fears by airing numerous stories on how people can prepare for the worst. Duct tape and plastic sheeting continue to top the list of do-it-yourself home-defense items, even as experts warn that chemical or biological attacks could penetrate most American houses regardless.

Vitali, a 33-year-old businessman, said the media onslaught and government warnings are contributing to a growing sense of hysteria. "I think that people are feeding into a kind of paranoia and they want to do something, so they feel that going out and buying duct tape is at least doing something," he said.

Janet Klein is a middle-aged office worker who lives in downtown Washington's Dupont Circle, not far from the White House. Klein is skeptical of the government advice and poked fun at the government's five-level warning system, which uses color codes to denote the level of terrorist threat. (On 7 February, the government raised the threat level from yellow to orange, the second-highest level. The levels are: green - "low", blue - "general", yellow - "elevated", orange - "high", and red - "severe") "It's kind of ridiculous. I guess you just hope for the best. I guess you could get some water and some food in. They say [we should] be prepared to evacuate, but where are we going to evacuate to? So I guess I will put some money aside, maybe some food, but I think we just have to hope for the best," Klein said.

But Klein added that she is pleased to see that officials appear to be taking concrete measures to protect the city, with this week's deployment of air defense missiles and jet patrols. She also noted that police in the capital have won praise from the media and federal officials for responding quickly to a number of emergency calls this week, including bomb threats on the metro and a bridge. All of the calls turned out to be false alarms. "If only they all turned out to be false," Klein said.