I wanted to point out a story now playing out in Las Vegas, Nevada, which to me is another example of how the public is too often infantilized when it comes to information on serious terrorist threats, including weapons of mass destruction — And, as a result, why we as citizens are not as prepared or as informed as we should be.
FEMA has scheduled its 2010 “National Level Exercise” (formerly called TOPOFF) — which is designed to test the capabilities of local, state and federal responders to catastrophic events — for Las Vegas in May. The planned scenario is a mock nuclear blast; 10,000 responders are expected to participate in the drill.
However, the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority, backed by the state’s senior senator, Majority Leader Harry Reid, is asking FEMA to postpone the drill, and if not at least change the scenario from a terrorist attack to natural disaster, citing the city’s economic woes.
Reid sent a letter to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano arguing:
“At a time when Las Vegas is beginning to recover from these economic ills, to simulate a nuclear detonation in the heart of the city would unacceptably harm the Southern Nevadan economy…at this time, economic recovery efforts would be stymied, or reversed entirely, by artificially creating anxiety surrounding tourism and investment in Las Vegas.”
The senator’s web site has this addendum:
“While Reid acknowledges the importance of these training exercises and appreciates FEMA’s recognition of Las Vegas as a high profile target, holding such an event at this time would create unnecessary anxiety and harm efforts to boost tourism and investment in Las Vegas.”
I realize the concern is that the exercise will highlight the fact that Sin City is a top potential terror target. But it probably is, something Reid acknowledges in the letter. I find somewhat farfetched to believe that having a drill there will impact tourist/conventioneer decisionmaking? I covered the TOPOFF 3 drill in 2005 in New Jersey and Connecticut, which also included a weapons of mass destruction simulation. I don’t think that had much of an effect on slot playing at Atlantic City and or Connecticut’s Foxwoods & Mohegan Sun casinos.
The opposition to the disaster drill is a bit ironic as the #1 movie on screens across the U.S. for the past couple weeks has been “2012″ in which the entire Vegas Strip is dramatically destroyed in a…disaster. Do you think audiences are changing their travel plans upon leaving the theater?
THE LAS VEGAS STRIP IN THE CURRENT DISASTER MOVIE “2012″ (ABOVE)
The thing that bothers me most here is not about the exercise itself, but the contention that somehow having a practice drill with a nuclear weapon would scare Americans from traveling to Vegas. It just plays into the narrative (I would say canard) that the public cannot handle any discussion of serious potential terror threats (particularly involving weapons of mass destruction) without becoming scared out of their wits. And as a result, it prevents our leaders from having an open dialogue which might actually improve our ability to respond to a scenario — which has been acknowledged as a possibility by U.S. Presidents of both parties.
One of the major themes of this blog is that there is a need for government officials to raise potentially ’scary’ topics with the populace but do it in a responsible, constructive way – and that public can deal with that information if it is delivered in a trustworthy manner in the proper context. Conducting a nuclear explosion drill does not mean that officials expect such an incident to happen in Vegas any time soon, but the possibility makes it useful to train for such a catastrophic occurrence — and I believe Americans will comprehend that.
I understand that Senator Reid is just trying to be responsive to his constituents. But is his opposition here really serving Nevadans best interests? An article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week indicated that FEMA has already agreed to move the exercise off of the main Vegas Strip to another location in the County. With the Majority Leader up for reelection in 2010, I imagine there may be some armtwisting done on DHS to make further changes, including postponing the drill. But if the FEMA believes the Vegas nuclear exercise is important, I hope the agency ends up making the decision based on preparedness rather than politics.