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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Should We Change The Definition Of “Weapons Of Mass Destruction” (WMD’s) So Public Understands Threats Better?

February 9th, 2009 · 5 Comments

I recently attended a panel sponsored by New York University’s Center on Law & Society on the “World At Risk,” report released late last year by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism. As I wrote previously, “World At Risk” includes a refreshingly significant focus on the role of the citizen in addressing the issue.

In its report, the WMD Commission argues that the incoming Administration should make an effort to inform and engage the public on the subject of WMD’s. I agree. And, I suggest officials consider starting that process by defining (or redefining) what a WMD actually is. At present, it is most common to define a WMD for the public as a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (or “CBRN”) weapon.

The Commission report, however, focuses primarily on the dangers of biological and nuclear terrorism, both of which could be absolutely catastrophic. By contrast, a chemical or radiological (better known as a ‘dirty bomb’) weapon could be very serious but would likely not cause as much lasting damage. In fact, both a chemical and radiological attack would likely be a one-shot event seriously impacting those directly near the event, closer in result to a ‘traditional’ terrorist bombing. A nuclear bomb or biological incident, however, could have wide and long-lasting ‘mass destruction’ impact to humans, property and the society itself.

As the report’s Executive Summary explains:

“While the mandate of the Commission was to examine the full sweep of the challenges posed by the nexus of terrorist activity and the proliferation of all forms of WMD-chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear-we concluded early in our deliberations that this report should focus solely on the two types of WMD categories that have the greatest potential to kill in the most massive numbers: biological and nuclear weapons.”

When I speak to experts (or attend panels like the one at NYU), they tend to divide nuclear and biological from chemical and radiological. I believe they should be communicating that dichotomy to the public. In fact, I believe that a vital part of educating and engaging citizenry on terrorism is giving them a more precise sense of potential terror weapons. It turns out that some of those threats are actually not as scary the more you know about them. But the time to tell people is before an incident not during it. That’s important because it allows policymakers and responders to focus time, money and public attention on the most dangerous threats.

The Obama Administration has taken the advice of the Commission and will appoint a WMD Czar, Gary Samore. I would hope that one aspect of his job is public education — and that defining (or redefining) what exactly WMD’s are is part of that effort.

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