America needs a 'Duck and Cover' for domestic terrorism

At the dawn of the nuclear age, the “Alert America!” initiative to educate Americans on nuclear preparedness became the first big civil defense push of the Cold War era. 

The “Survival Under Atomic Attack” program was published in 1950 which contained the catch phrase "Duck and Cover."

The next year, the child-orientated film “Duck and Cover” was produced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration.

"Duck and cover" exercises quickly became a part of Civil Defense drills that every US citizen, from children to the elderly, was encouraged to practice so that they could be ready in the event of nuclear war. Since the cold war, America has been faced with other threats, but none that have been as ubiquitous as the various acts of terrorism; ranging from the 9/11 attacks to the active shooter incidents which occur at movie theaters.

The stark difference between the threats of the cold war and the ongoing terrorist threat America lives under now is the lack of consistent messaging to keep Americans vigilant and prepared.

While history has made it very clear that “Duck and Cover” would have done little to save lives in the event of a nuclear attack, the nation had a unified message to prepare and empower citizens who outwardly expressed fear during the beginning of the arms race. 

America is culturally different now. While we enjoyed a brief period of nationalism following 9/11, it is clear that we are so divided as to how to approach the threat of terrorism that it has prevented us from some of the vital, pragmatic needs in preparing for possible attacks that have proven far more possible than an atomic attack ever was.

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A stark reminder of the need of such an effort occurred on Jan. 6, 2017 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport when, at just before 1:00 PM, Esteban Santiago, a veteran of the Puerto Rican National Guard who was reported to have become an Islamist radical; pulled a pistol and ammunition from his checked baggage after a flight and opened fire, killing five people and injuring eight others in a bloody shooting rampage that terrorized travelers in a key American tourist destination.

The attack at the baggage claim area spread panic throughout the airport when people ran through terminals and across the airfield at one of America’s busiest airports. In addition to the people slain, eight others were brought to area hospitals, all with apparent gunshot wounds, while dozens of others were injured in the chaos that followed the shooting.

Active shooter incidents are now, unfortunately, part of the American lexicon. As some of my prior articles have mentioned, they have become highly politicized. Many policy experts use the aftermath of suck attacks to call for gun control while others immediately call for calm and the protection of those who may have the same ethnic and/or religious background as the attacker. 

Those of us who specialize in security, however, cannot afford to politicize a threat or vulnerability presented to those we are charged to protect. Therefore, we have to identify best practices in protecting people from attacks and mitigating them if and/or when they occur.

This brings us to the need for a national, uniformed effort to educate citizens on what possible irregular behaviors to look for leading up to a potential attack and what to do if/when one were to occur. This initiative should not be confused with the various political debates surrounding one’s motivation (if any) to bomb, shoot, or even drive a vehicle into a group of citizens. If you compare the United States with other countries that have been under the threat of attack for some time, such as in Israel, we have not done sufficient work in making sure our citizens know what to do and prepare for possible attacks.

Two such American initiatives that should be recognized are the “See Something, Say Something” campaign created by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the “Run, Hide, Fight” video produced by the City of Houston in cooperation with the US Department of Homeland Security. This simple message was so powerful and acceptable that it was later adopted throughout the United States and by the Department of Homeland Security; but most jurisdictions don’t have the back-end support of 37,000 sworn police officers as New York does; leaving room for the program to be tailored to fit each place it is currently being used. 

“Run, Hide, Fight” is a concise six-minute video produced in Houston, TX that walks people through the steps to be taken if an active shooter were to attack their workplace.

Both examples show the building blocks of a program to educate citizens on what to do if an attack occurs, but what is needed is for the political will of public and private leaders to make sure their stakeholders receive this training. Municipal Directors of Public Safety should be partnering with schools, faith-based institutions, community organizations and workplaces to assure training and drills for possible attacks. 

If they never occur, as a nuclear attack never did; then what was the harm of preparing our fellow citizens. If we don’t prepare them, however, because leaders are afraid of the conversations, debates and public nerves related to accepting this ongoing threat…then the cost of not acting could possibly result in lives lost.

In looking at the airport shooting in Fort Lauderdale, it is clear that had citizens been more prepared for the possibility of an attack; there would have been less panic, a more orderly response, and maybe even fewer lives lost.  

A. Benjamin Mannes is a national subject matter expert in public safety and regular contributor to The Hill. He serves as a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Board at St.John’s University and the Peirce College Criminal Justice Studies Advisory Board in Philadelphia and is a Governor on the Executive Board of InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public-private partnership for critical infrastructure protection. Follow him on Twitter: @PublicSafetySME


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