BY BOBBY HALTON
America was attacked sev-eral times this year. The attackers were thwarted at the point of assault by passengers, off-duty cops, and an alert street vendor. In the Fort Hood attack, many lost their lives. These attempts to destroy the American way of life are not over, not by a long shot. There are people who hate our way of life, our unique exceptionalism.
The size of this threat is nationwide, its scope touches the lives of each and every American, and its seriousness cannot be overestimated. Too many politicians and others would like to pretend that the war on terror and terrorism in general is something that is fought and exists only on foreign soil. They were quick in the case of the Times Square bomber to say it was probably a domestic right-winger, and they speculated the bomber worked alone. They were wrong on both counts, and they displayed their biases and prejudices.
We engaged in public safety recognize that we need to be on guard for domestic terrorists, international terrorists, environmental terrorists, and those unstable persons who would create a terrorist environment solely for the purpose of killing and injuring innocent civilians. We cannot allow ourselves to be assuaged by our political preferences for right or left. A threat is a threat regardless of the ideology behind it.
I believe that Margaret Thatcher, when she was serving as the British Prime Minister, once said that the terrorists only have to be lucky once but we have to be lucky all the time. In New York City, courageous leaders constantly remind New Yorkers to be on the lookout for suspicious activity and persons. Slogans on buses and on railcars remind them to report anything they see that might be suspicious. That heightened awareness and that willingness to participate in aggressive preemptive social education paid off in the Times Square incident.
Many would say that it’s not politically correct to ask people to be exceptionally alert to and exceptionally aware of their surroundings and of others’ suspicious activity. Those same people will be the first to say after a tragic event that we should have been more alert and more aware of suspicious activity. We in law enforcement, fire, and EMS do not have the luxury of 20/20 hindsight. Rather, we must be constantly focused on potential threats and be ready to deal with the unimaginable.
We should always remember that the primary tool of the terrorists is still mechanical devices. Simply put, terrorists prefer bombs because they are simple to assemble and easy to deploy. Bombs also have devastating effects on civilian populations, and the use of an incendiary explosive device (IED) in a heavily trafficked area is a tactic terrorists have used for the past several decades. Bomb squads should review and update their protocols for IEDs and review the latest military methods being successfully deployed in the Middle East.
One needs to question what the intent of a terrorist activity was: Was it to kill and maim as many civilians as possible? Was it to record the activities of the first responders’ deployment and of the civilians? We need to review our deployment protocols in terms of secondary devices, dirty devices, and the possibility that terrorists might be lingering in the area with the intent of causing further harm with other types of devices such as guns and chemical weapons. We should be reviewing our weapons of mass destruction protocols, our interagency communications capabilities and procedures, and our tactical medical programs.
American public safety did not pay a great deal of attention to the attack in Mumbai, India, on November 26, 2009. This is very unfortunate. When one looks at that devastating attack in which a small group of terrorists—reportedly only 26—were extremely effective in bringing an entire nation to its knees and killed more than 160 people, it was a wake-up call through which we slept. These terrorists mean to bring the battle to our doorstep, and we need to be ready.
The war on terror is not over; terrorists intend to continue to try to harm us, and we must be ever vigilant. Second, we must recognize that the well-informed and well-prepared citizen is our best defense and should do everything we can to increase awareness and education relative to the threats. Third, we must be prepared in our responses to be able to communicate efficiently and effectively among fire, police, EMS, homeland security, public utility, media, transportation, various levels of government, and federal law enforcement.
It is not enough to just have policy and procedure binders full of rules and regulations and bullet lists of things to do if the unthinkable is successful on American soil. We must develop the relationships needed to facilitate supportive decision making and instant access to resources and decision makers when the needs arise. Just having a plan is no plan at all. Communities must provide the opportunity for members of all agencies to come together and review the intricacies and potential failure points that can occur when trying to respond to and manage a terrorist event.
The lessons we learned from our good fortune these past few times are the following:
- Citizen awareness must be increased across the nation.
- Good policies need to be developed, and good relationships need to be fostered.
- Remember that America is still vulnerable to attack and, because of our freedom and openness, always will be.
- Enhancing the use of integrated communication and GIS systems is necessary.
- Remember that every American city has an iconic location that is a potential target.
- Review mass-casualty response, including decontamination and triage.
- Appropriately reinforce your community’s high-profile targets.
- Never forget the lessons of 9/11 and the dear price in human treasure we paid to learn them.