American policymakers and members of the United Nations debating society are not the only ones talking about VX nerve gas, anthrax, and other terrorist weapons. On a Southwest Airlines flight out of Phoenix last week, two couples, fortyish, half-joked about the merits of duct tape and pre-cut plastic for blocking terror toxins. The same week, listeners to a popular San Diego radio show called in to vent the anxiety they're feeling as the nation's terror alert system bounces between yellow and orange.
It's folks like those that worry Red Thomas. The retired Army Master Gunner unwittingly launched his own "15 minutes of fame" in October 2001 when he penned a plainspoken treatise against post-9/11 panic. Before retiring from the Army in 1991, Mr. Thomas-a weapons expert and tank specialist-had studied explosives, as well as nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) warfare. Glued to the news like the rest of America in the weeks following 9/11, he became enraged-literally yelled at the television-as reporters and talking-heads stirred up what he believed was undue fear among ordinary Americans.
"I saw the 'network news ninnies'-that's what I call 'em-just scaring the hell out of people," Mr. Thomas-who immediately insisted on being called "Red"-said in an interview in his Mesa, Ariz., home. "I would've given everything I had to be able to reach into the television, smack one of them in the back of the head, and say, 'Knock it off!'"
Instead, Red sat down and banged out a three-page paper he called "The Real Deal About Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Warfare."
"Forget everything you've ever seen on TV, in the movies, or read in a novel about this stuff, it was all a lie," reads the opening paragraph of his Everyman primer. "These weapons are about terror; if you remain calm you will probably not die." Then, in a neighborly, back-porch fashion, "The Real Deal" went on to explain why Red believes there is less to fear from a terrorist attack than from, say, the network news ninnies.
Of course, print journalists also do their part to paint a grim picture of what terror may befall small-town America. A March 2 article in the Wilkes Barre Times Leader, a northeastern Pennsylvania daily, led off this way: "A worst case scenario: School windows sealed with duct tape, buckets and bags storing human waste, trapped children drinking from toilet tanks as they spend sleepless nights waiting for danger to pass and help to come."
In all, U.S. print journalists have since December published at least 700 articles on bioterror, at least 500 on chemical terror, and a database-search-overload number on nuclear terror and the risk of domestic attacks. Think tanks feed this, busily churning out studies on the homeland terrorist threat and the nation's generally vulnerable state. Meanwhile, corporate America is entering the terrorism discourse: State Farm this month notified 40 million customers that it wouldn't be picking up the check should customers' automobiles be vaporized in a nuclear attack.
To be fair, all these people are only doing their jobs. And on the upside, an increasing number of recent news stories say the nation is better prepared for unconventional terror attacks than it was two years ago. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services reported last week that many of the nation's hospitals have both increased their capacity to handle mass-casualty events and set aside special rooms for treating patients with infectious diseases. Also, a new smallpox vaccine is in the final testing stages.
Part of such progress can be attributed to reporters who rattle cages to raise awareness. But the public sometimes sees such journalism as fear-mongering, and sometimes they are right. That's what motivated Red Thomas to write "The Real Deal." He'd seen enough citizen fear while stationed in Cold War Europe. Once, while patrolling the CzechoslovakiaÐWest German border, he watched a Czech farmer plowing his field, while an armed soldier rode on the tractor fender to ensure the farmer didn't escape to the West.
After 9/11, Red saw a citizen fear taking root in his own country: "I just couldn't stand the thought that there were little old ladies in northeast Ohio who couldn't sleep at night for fear they would be killed in a terrorist attack." So, "The Real Deal"'s central message was, "Don't let fears of an isolated attack rule your life. The odds really are on your side."
Here's "The Real Deal" on chemical weapons: "Contrary to the hype of reporters and politicians [nerve, blood, blister, and incapacitating agents] are not weapons of mass destruction. They are 'area denial' and terror weapons that don't destroy anything. When you leave the area, you leave the risk.... Soldiers may have to stay put and sit through it, and that's why they need all that spiffy gear."
"The Real Deal" on nerve agents: "You have these in your house, plain old bug killer (like Raid) is nerve agent.... What a crop duster uses to kill bugs won't hurt you unless you stand there and breathe it real deep, then lick the residue off the ground for a while."
"The Real Deal" on radiation: "Gamma rays are particles that travel like waves.... It takes a lot to stop these things, lots of dense material. On the other hand, it takes a lot of this to kill you."
Red's advice for surviving a terrorist attack includes such common-sense admonitions as "fall to the ground," "leave the area and head upwind" and, if you get a "blob" of syrupy liquid on you, "scrape it off."
First sent to a handful of friends and family-and for vetting purposes, to a certain retired brigadier general-"The Real Deal" soon began popping up on listservs and websites, then in e-mails and even hard copy, to people far outside Red's own circle. In December 2001, The Washington Post carried a story about his unconventional approach to unconventional weapons. Red also did a couple of dozen radio and television interviews.
Media interest came in waves after that. Then last month, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge launched his "Ready" campaign which included some admonitions similar to those Red had made 18 months before: Don't panic, stock basic disaster preparedness supplies, and forgo buying a gas mask, even for your mother. Suddenly, interest in "The Real Deal" picked up again. The question now is, was Red a man ahead of his time?
He doesn't think so. He figures Mr. Ridge didn't get around to the Ready campaign sooner because he had bigger fish to fry. In Red's view, government policymakers are in a no-win situation: "If Tom Ridge had told people 18 months ago that the way to deal with terrorists was get some canned food and chill out, people would have freaked." Now, when Mr. Ridge recommends canned food and duct tape, people make fun of him, Red Thomas laments.
Sitting at his worn and beloved cherry desk (inherited from the Army because it wouldn't fit through the door at his last duty station), Red, in his blue-checked button-up shirt, jeans, and black tennis shoes, is anything but fancy. At 46, he has a round, friendly face, a feather-duster mustache, tinted glasses, and hair the color of fire. Married for 25 years to "Miss Aggie," whom he met in the 8th grade and unfailingly calls "my bride," he has three grown children, three cats, and a one-story house in a working-class suburb of Phoenix. A big American flag hangs out front.
Formerly a tank commander and munitions expert (known to ride along with arson investigators in his spare time), Red didn't want to retire from the Army. He would have marched all the way to the 30-year-career mark had he not been diagnosed with clinically severe osteoporosis at age 37. That was after 17 years of service. He only made it to 20 years by promising doctors he'd give up tank turrets and saddle up in a desk job. He did, then retired in 1991. Today, he is a shooting instructor, certified by the National Rifle Association. He also shoots in competition, but sometimes, because his bones ache, he must do so from a wheelchair.
Red's home office is decorated sparsely with Army mementos. An olive drab tank commander's helmet perches atop an upended cable modem, "RED" scrawled on the front with a permanent marker. On the wall is a "shadow box," the traditional military retirement gift that displays a service member's insignia through the years, along with his ribbons and medals. Red's include a Meritorious Service Medal, an all-service-branch award superceded only by such high-end honors as the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Behind his cherry desk hang four photos of Red with various tanks and APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers). In one, Red's APC has broken down and he is pointing at it with a fake pistol, pretending with mock sadness to shoot the APC like a lame horse.
Red may be a likeable guy, but terrorism experts have judged "The Real Deal" on its technical merits. For example, Randall Larsen, director of the Virginia-based ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, gave a cautious thumbs-up to Red's advice on chemical agents, but takes issue with his assertion that washing your hands and abstaining from "sloppy kisses" are the best remedies for a bioweapons attack. "There is some truth to what [Mr. Thomas] says about chemical weapons," said Mr. Larsen, an editorial board member for a Johns Hopkins University quarterly journal on bioterrorism. "However, his knowledge about bioweapons is seriously deficient.... Modern biological weapons are sprayed into the air in a 3-micron, particle-sized mist. You breathe them in and they go directly into your bloodstream. Washing your hands will just mean you will die with clean hands."
In 2001, a pair of Army officers shellacked Red's conclusions on the March 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on Tokyo subway commuters by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. In "The Real Deal," Red wrote that "given perfect conditions for an attack, less than 10 percent of the people there were injured (the injured were better in a few hours), and only 1 percent of the injured died." The officers countered that the attack was "poorly executed" and affected "well over 5,500 people," most of whom "remained hospitalized for days to weeks, for some, months." The low fatality rate didn't demonstrate that sarin isn't all that dangerous, the Army analysts said; few died because "the sarin liquid remained in the vials inside a briefcase that was supposed to disseminate the sarin via a small, portable fan that did not work."
Red may have been more right than the officers-on this incident at least. According to a July 1999 article in the Centers for Disease Control journal Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID), Aum Shinrikyo deployed the sarin in plastic bags (not vials) wrapped inside newspapers (not a briefcase). Once placed on subway car floors, each bag was punctured with a sharpened umbrella tip, and the material was allowed to spill into the cars, spreading deadly vapor. The EID article also differs with the Army on the number injured in the attacks (just under 3,800) and the number hospitalized (nearly 1,000). All agree that 12 people died in the attack.
It is sometimes tempting for military officers to blow off the opinions of a former enlisted man. After all, there are legions of retired majors and colonels with opinions to offer.
But it's helpful to understand the role of a Sergeant First Class. The rank (or properly, "grade" for enlisted people) was probably made most famous by Louis Gossett Jr. in 1982's rogue-officer-candidate-makes-good flick An Officer and a Gentleman. Mr. Gossett played a hardcore Marine Corps "gunnery sergeant," the same grade ("E-7") as Red's when he retired from the Army. An E-7 directs junior enlisted troops and senior supervisors and also acts as a technical adviser to commissioned officers, who often deal more in policy, tactics, and strategy than in the nuts and bolts of the battlefield.
Still, the Army officers in 2001 rightly criticized Red's paper on such topics as the effect of freezing temperatures on chemical agents, and the long-term effects of post-nuclear-attack radiation exposure. But on such points, Red had already conceded. "There are a million caveats to everything I wrote here and you can think up specific scenarios where my advice isn't the best," reads a one-paragraph disclaimer near the end of "The Real Deal." His paper, he wrote, "is supposed to help the greatest number of people under the greatest number of situations."
And on that score, terror experts have praised Red's work. "My firm has pretty high-level consultants on these topics," Gavin de Becker, author of the 1997 bestseller The Gift of Fear, told The Washington Post in 2001, "but Red was plainspoken and accessible, and caring, and anxiety-reducing."
Red estimates he's received more than 500 e-mails and phone calls from people thanking him for demystifying such angst-producing concepts as "ionizing radiation" (the kind that causes radiation poisoning) and "cholinesterase inhibitors" (nerve agents). For example, one Phoenix woman said that before she read "The Real Deal," she had been convinced that a nerve agent attack, even on the other side of town, would kill her within 10 minutes. After reading Red's explanation of how nerve agents work, she sleeps better at night, she said.
"I never said these weapons weren't deadly," Red explained. "I just said they weren't as deadly as people can imagine. And with TV and movies always focusing on the worst-case scenario, people can imagine a lot."