by Rod D. Martin
February 27, 2003

Tom Ridge’s high-profile launch this week of, the Homeland Security Department’s online counterpart to its much-publicized ad campaign, represents a significant shift in government thinking on how to prepare for terrorism.

The question, though, remains:  Will that shift ultimately encompass real civil defense?

Unlike most government action to date, which has focused heavily on top-down actions to thwart terrorists, is all about you:  how will you plan for a disaster, how will you “duck-and-cover” in the event of a nuclear attack, and so forth.  It has links to Red Cross training, FEMA disaster preparedness manuals, and sections devoted to making an emergency kit, developing a family emergency plan, and surviving a dirty bomb.

All of this is excellent, both practically and philosophically:  government cannot protect every American from every contingency, and ought to empower them to defend themselves at need (this is, after all, the purpose of the Second Amendment).  It is the sort of thing “homeland security” ought to mean.

Yet even so, it barely scratches the surface of the need.  What should Americans do after they duck and cover, one wonders?  There remains absolutely no means to protect our population — or any sizeable portion thereof — in the event of a major attack, whether from North Korea or al-Qaeda or the nut of the month (and in a week of accidental disasters, the consequences of a Bhopal-like chemical plant disaster ought not be ignored either).

America needs more than a public service announcement:  it needs a civil defense.

The president of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, Dr. Jane Orient, explains this need very simply: “If that soot raining down in Brooklyn [from the World Trade Center] had been radioactive, there would be many thousands, maybe millions of people dying slow, agonizing deaths from radiation sickness that could have been prevented had people had access to shelter.”

But there are no shelters.

After an early rush to protect Americans in the 1950s — from the construction of fallout shelters to air raid drills in schools — civil defense was effectively gutted by JFK.  Shelters and emergency stockpiles didn’t fit with the spirit of MAD (“Mutual Assured Destruction”); nor did they have big-ticket defense contractors to lobby for them.  After a brief revival under Reagan, the Cold War ended, and with it the program:  Bill Clinton officially abolished the Office of Civil Defense, selling off the few emergency supplies which remained.

During the Cold War, calls for even the most basic civil defense measures were met by leftists with derision:  “Why waste time on civil defense?” they asked.  “When you came out of the shelter, there’d be nothing left.”  The very idea of protecting American families was ridiculed by peaceniks with slogans like “after a nuclear attack the living will envy the dead.”

These “analyses” were moronic even then; today, they are manifestly irrelevant.  After an atomic September 11 there would have been an entire country left, waiting desperately for news of its loved ones:  men, women and children whose lives could have been saved with just two weeks shelter from the radioactive rain.

Yet the legacy of this hippie foolishness remains.

Other countries were never so inane.  The Soviet Union built and stocked sufficient shelters to house over 90% of its population, and required regular civil defense training for all.  China’s system is so vast and so thorough that an entire city such as Beijing can be evacuated in ten minutes.  Switzerland’s civil defense network is designed to handle its entire population, as well as tens of thousands of refuges; it’s equipped to handle biological and chemical attacks as well.

Why should Americans have less?  Why, in fact, do Americans have nothing at all?

Civil defense is low-tech and low-budget:  starting from nothing, we could protect every American for a one-time investment of about $140 billion — $500 per person, or a little more than 5% of one year’s federal budget.  After that, it’s all maintenance and training.  It is the most obvious, most useful possible mission for the Department of Homeland Security.

A proper civil defense would give America – and Americans – the means to survive:  survive terrorist attacks, survive the inevitable wars of the 21st Century, survive even natural disasters like the tornadoes that pummel our heartland every year.

But above all else, civil defense is just the right thing to do, morally as well as constitutionally.  What kind of leaders don’t protect their own people?  And what sort of nation spends billions on weapons but leaves its cities — its children — undefended?  Earlier generations understood this well; and the true test of “homeland security” will be whether it returns to these roots.


Editor’s Note: This op-ed from Rod D. Martin was originally posted at WorldNetDaily.