First we went from Yellow to Orange. Tom Ridge’s Homeland Insecurity Department was telling everyone to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal their windows against chemical or biological attacks. Then we heard about Capitol Hill cops and White House guards hanging gas masks on their gun belts. By Thursday, the chem/bio detection trucks were on the White House lawn. This was apparently provoked by specific intelligence information indicating an attack after last Thursday, the end of the Muslim hajj. CIA Director George Tenet said it was the most specific information they’d seen since just before 9-11. The media took Tenet’s words, stirred in Ridge’s alert and served us a big Chicken Little cocktail.
For those of us introduced to that most useful of all tools at an early age, the Washingtonian run on duct tape was pretty amusing. (My primary concern is that if women find out how many of life’s problems can be solved with duct tape, they might give up on men altogether.) Many of the libs went out to buy duct tape at Tom Ridge’s suggestion, wondering what part of the duck it’s made out of. People are stocking up on bottled water and cans that have Dinty Moore and Chef Boyardi on the labels. The New York Times was even advertising an “urban survival kit” for $595. It contains a NATO surplus gas mask, an anti-exposure suit, and a hammer to smash windows to escape through. The next thing will be an upscale version, with monogrammed plastic suits in fun spring colors, all stuffed in a Gucci backpack. C’mon guys. Let’s calm down, and put things back in perspective.
The simple fact of the matter is that if we are attacked with chemical or biological weapons, 90% of the damage will have been done before we know it. Our intelligence and physical detection systems aren’t good enough to give us much if any warning. Duct taping plastic sheets over your windows isn’t likely to save anyone from anything. But we can get smarter and plan to actually help ourselves.
A pal of mine — a retired SEAL senior officer — forwarded an e-mail he’d gotten from a retired senior sergeant that tries to sort this out. Red Thomas is a retired sergeant first class, a former drill instructor, and also an armor master gunner. He’s seen it all, and trained the young ‘uns to fight through almost any kind of threat. Here’s some of what SFC Thomas said:
“Chemical weapons … are not weapons of mass destruction, they are ‘area denial’ and terror weapons that don’t destroy anything. When you leave the area you almost always leave the risk. That’s the difference; you can leave the area and the risk but soldiers may have to stay put and sit through it and that’s why they need all that spiffy gear.
“These are not gasses, they are vapors and/or airborne particles. The agent must be delivered in sufficient quantity to kill/injure, and that defines when/how it’s used. Every day we have a morning and evening inversion where ‘stuff’ suspended in the air gets pushed down. This inversion is why allergies (pollen) and air pollution are worst at these times of the day.
“So, a chemical attack will have its best effect an hour of so either side of sunrise/sunset. Also, being vapors and airborne particles they are heavier than air so they will seek low places like ditches, basements and underground garages. This stuff won’t work when it’s freezing, it doesn’t last when it’s hot, and wind spreads it too thin too fast. They’ve got to get this stuff on you, or get you to inhale it for it to work. They also have to get the concentration of chemicals high enough to kill or wound you.”
Hiding in the basement or in the garage ain’t a good idea.
Nukes? If the terrorists manage to detonate a real nuclear weapon, a lot of people will die and there’s not much anybody can do to save them. A “dirty bomb” is much less of a threat, and the explosive charge is probably more dangerous than the radiation it spreads. Says Thomas: “The good news is you don’t have to just sit there and take it, and there’s lots you can do rather than panic. First…you just gotta try and avoid inhaling dust that’s contaminated… and you’ll be generally safe from them.” In the Sarge’s book, bio weapons are about the same sort of risk. About that, I respectfully and heartily disagree. The terrorists can make bio weapons, and infectious diseases are a bigger, different threat. Anthrax is treatable and not contagious. Smallpox is contagious and untreatable. If you can, get your family and yourself vaccinated.
So what do we do? As I write this, there isn’t a damned thing we can do. Not because the terrorists are so good at what they do. It’s because Washington is being socked with the biggest snowstorm in at least seven years. Nobody — including al-Qaeda — can do anything until the roads are cleared. But we all need to remember Red Thomas’s main point: “The government is going nuts over this stuff because they have to protect every inch of America. You’ve only gotta protect yourself, and by doing that, you help the country.”
There are some things we can do to protect our families and ourselves, and there’s no harm in trying. None of them can do more than give you a small measure of protection, and you may still be killed, sickened, or incapacitated. We can’t let the threat shut us down. I can’t tell you what to do. All I can tell you is what I’m doing.
First, I’m trying to be aware of what’s around me. If I smell something where it shouldn’t be (as Red Thomas suggests) I’m out of there and upwind. Fresh air is the best defense against most chemical attacks. If some oily substance (other than Hoppe’s No. 3) gets on my skin, I’m headed for the nearest water to scrub it off fast. I’ll worry about what it was later.
Second, I went to the hardware store and bought a couple of N95-rated painter’s masks. They are pretty good, and will keep most — but not all — of the particulate matter in the air out of my lungs. One package is at home, one is in the office.
Third, I’m going to leave a “go bag” in the car. I’m going to buy a small backpack. Into it goes about two liters of bottled water, my best hiking boots, a Leatherman multi-tool, an extra battery for my cell phone (which probably won’t work in an attack anyhow), and a couple of changes of socks and skivvies. I figure it’s a three-day walk from where I work to where I live. This means I will also have some seasonal stay-warm-and-dry clothing, a couple of protein bars, a rain poncho and a small first aid kit. Next, I’ll put in prescription medicine, aspirin, a cigarette lighter, a small flashlight, and some water purification tablets. After that, a map of the local area and a compass (because known routes may be blocked). Just to make me feel better, I’ll include two N95 masks. It may be one helluva hike, but if I survive the initial attack, I’ll make it home. You can too. (Special thanks to Red Thomas for making us all a little calmer and a little smarter.) Saddam delendus est.