Cover Story

'RED' ALERT

One man's "fear-mongering" on terror is another's "preparedness," but clearly the threats are taking their toll on the nation's psyche-particularly as Americans consider the possibility of terrorist retaliation after the first shots are fired in Iraq. But a plainspoken, ex-Army Sarge suggests that Americans put away the duct tape and plastic wrap and calmly learn to stay safe

Issue: "Weapons of mass hysteria," March 15, 2003

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!'"

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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."

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