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During the Cold War, Americans in large cities went about their daily lives accepting the very real possibility of nuclear attack. Faced with that reality, they did not flee in large numbers, stop going to work or divest from the stock market. Instead, Americans, in their finest tradition, developed a culture of preparedness.
School children learned to duck and cover. Store owners turned their basements into fallout shelters and fathers dug them in the yard.
In short, given a far greater threat, Americans went about their daily lives but did so knowing what to do should the sum of all fears be realized.
Recently, Bostonians of this generation faced a threat of both higher probability than nuclear war and of lesser impact. A radiological or dirty bomb, though devastating, is altogether a much lower order of magnitude threat. Moreover, education and preparation about this threat can dramatically reduce the loss of life in a way that preparations for nuclear war with the Soviet Union could not.
At his press conference, Boston Mayor Tom Menino urged calm, but failed to take the opportunity to discuss preparedness. In so doing, a critical opportunity was lost.
Regardless of whether four Chinese and two Iraqis ever posed a threat to Boston is largely irrelevant. If and when an attack on this or any other city occurs, it is likely that the public and possibly law enforcement will not know about it until there is a boom followed by a column of smoke. Such was the case on 9/11 for New Yorkers.
Calm should only be the product of proper preparation. Business as usual should mean that individuals, communities and businesses, confident in their preparations, will be ready should disaster strike.
A dirty bomb disperses radioactive material in the dust created by the explosion. The overarching goal of anyone exposed is therefore simple: Avoid inhaling dust that could be radioactive.
If you are outdoors in the vicinity of an explosion, cover your nose and mouth with your clothing and get indoors.
If you are indoors, and the explosion has not affected your building, stay there. Close windows, turn off ventilation systems and wait for authorities to tell you it is safe to exit. If you have been exposed, shower thoroughly. More information can be obtained from the RAND Corp. at www.rand.org/publications/mr1731 . Alarmingly, the federal government's online resource for terrorism planning does not provide as much useful information.
Every family should have a disaster kit with enough water and food to avoid going outside for three days as well as any medications you might need. Families should discuss disaster planning with their children, emphasizing that the most important thing, while counter to instinct, may not be to return home. Cell phones may not work and transit will likely be clogged.
Boston's dirty bomb scare was a time for officials to ask with a sense of urgency whether the citizenry and municipal agencies are prepared for such a crisis. Public health officials should ask how hospitals would handle not only large numbers of casualties but also thousands of the worried well. In short, civic leaders should use crises even if they turn out to be false alarms as invaluable opportunities to transform fear into preparedness.
HBO recently premiered "Dirty War," a film that realistically depicts a dirty bomb attack on London. The film shows an ill- informed public running rampant. Every Bostonian should watch it (PBS will run it starting Feb. 23). The tagline of the film is, "How do you prepare for the unthinkable?"
The answer is that such an attack is not unthinkable.
Daniel B. Prieto is research director of the Homeland Security Partnership Initiative at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Robert Knake is a graduate student at the Kennedy School and a former research associate in homeland security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.