Sept. 11 attacks spawn mixed messages: Be normal, be alert

Posted: Thursday, October 04, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The government says terrorists are likely to strike again but Americans should get back in airplanes. It says Americans are safe from biological attack but the threat of it must be taken seriously.

Reassurance and red flags are coming out of Washington in roughly equal measure. The nation's leaders say: Be normal. They say: Be alert.

One possible effect: Be confused.

As the government feels its way through an unprecedented crisis, it may be setting off needless alarms here and spreading a false sense of security there.

The task is huge: Return people to their routines for the sake of the economy and the national spirit, yet ensure they don't let down their guard as the country prepares for war and the prospect of more terrorism.

''It's a very fine line,'' said trauma specialist Dr. Alan Stewart, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida.

''Our belief in a benevolent and predictable world is shattered,'' he said. As a result, ''there's information to sift through. It's not just taking for granted our safety.''

This week, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson surprised public health specialists and countered some of the government's own reports when he declared that Americans are not at risk from biological weapons.

''We've got to make sure that people understand that they're safe, and that we're prepared to take care of any contingency, any consequence, that develops for any kind of bioterrorism attack,'' he said unequivocally on CBS' "60 Minutes.''

Not so, said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who has held many bioterrorism hearings as chairman of the House national security subcommittee.

Shays said terrorists will have access to biological weapons if they don't already, and ''I'm absolutely certain that they'll use them.'' He said the government cannot handle a massive number of victims.

On one hand, President Bush has declared that Americans must not give up their freedom to travel. On the other hand, the State Department warns that it is ''deeply concerned about the security of Americans overseas.''

On the day Bush told the public, ''Get on the airlines, get about the business of America,'' his administration also publicly clarified the chain of command should the need arise to shoot down a threatening commercial airliner as a last resort.

David Murray, who studies risk as part of his research for the private Statistical Assessment Service, says the government's dual messages of comfort and caution are appropriate, if hard to follow.

''You don't want to sound the all clear but neither is it the time to go into the bomb shelter,'' he said. ''It's probably sound to say, 'Go back to normal, the averages are still with you.'

''The marginal, small uptick in overall risk is real but it is not that overwhelming.''

Some public health experts, however, said Thompson's assurances about the country's ability to manage a biological attack were bewildering.

''Mr. Thompson has presented a very optimistic opinion of what we would be able to do,'' said Dr. C.J. Peters, a well-known virologist who recently retired from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

''It's really hard to say that we have things in place that would really and truly defend against a large-scale bioterrorist attack,'' he said. ''His remarks only refer to a very small-scale episode.''

The CDC would be at the forefront of managing the response to a biological-weapons attack.

If Thompson was eager to keep people calm when many are rushing to buy gas masks, Attorney General John Ashcroft has emphasized the potential dangers to Americans to justify the need for tougher anti-terrorist laws.

He spoke early this week of the ''likelihood of additional terrorist activity'' and a ''very serious threat of additional problems now,'' and even more so in the future when the assault against terrorism is fully engaged.

Such warnings of looming but vague danger are probably not helpful because they scare people without giving them useful information, said William L. Waugh Jr., a public administration professor at Georgia State University. Waugh developed a college-level course in terrorism response for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Sept. 11 attacks have officials at all levels thinking about when and how to warn of danger, and how best to restore confidence.

Psychologists say that in urging people to resume routines, the government is like a trainer telling someone who fell off a horse to climb back on.

Many people cope best by going back to the activity associated with the trauma, Stewart said. So might a nation, he said, despite the danger of another spill.

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