Because terrorism is psychological warfare, one of the best responses may be to gradually become less afraid of it–that is, to prepare for it not just with duct tape but with psychology, says Government Executive magazine. State and local leaders are discovering that the reactive, panic-driven homeland-security system that has sprung up since 9/11 is unsustainable. “I think up until now, everything was viewed as quote, `emergency management,’ ” said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. “You quickly come to the conclusion that you can’t put a guard on every corner.”
To the degree that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge begins to treat terrorism much like other crimes and disasters, he’ll likely communicate more effectively. If the public comes to view terrorism largely as just another brand of crime, people will be better able to take government warnings seriously without becoming so afraid. Ultimately, that’s where Ridge would like to take the public, says Susan Neely, assistant secretary for public affairs in the new Homeland Security Department.
The communications problems that Neely is triaging obscure an important fact: The department’s national threat alert system is being taken seriously–maybe too seriously. The department, according to Neely, designed the five-color warning scheme to communicate with state and local officials, not with the general public. But because the public is clearly paying such close attention to the only terrorism warning system available, Neely has begun trying to retrofit the system for use as a public communications tool. She’s also thinking about ways to downplay threat announcements, such as sending out a press release rather than putting Ridge in front of TV cameras. And she said her department might begin issuing regional or industry-specific alerts instead of just one national one.
The department is also planning a mini-embedding program. During half-day sessions, journalists and senior government officials will role-play responses to a fictional terrorist attack. The project’s premise, Neely says, is that in a crisis, the news media’s primary responsibility is to disseminate government information, not critique it. “It’s a different role for the media and for all of us,” she said.