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Friday, May 7, 2004

Doomsday Planning: Steeling the Soul & Ungluing the Tube

Capitol Building-Washington, D.C.
Last month the U.S. House of Representatives passed a "Doomsday Bill" as it planned for the contingency of its being wiped out. The legislation is designed to speed the replacement of the lawmakers in case of a devastating loss. The bill passed April 22, 2004 on a 306-97 vote. It would require special elections within 45 days if the House lost more than 100 of its 435 members. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.

The New York Times Sunday Magazine just ran the front page headline: "Could We Lose The War On Terror?" The lead article was subtitled "Lesser Evils" by Michael Ignatieff. It starts by saying:

Consider the consequences of a second major attack on the mainland United States -- the detonation of a radiological or dirty bomb, perhaps, or a low-yield nuclear device or a chemical strike in a subway. Any of these events could cause death, devastation and panic on a scale that would make 9/11 seem like a pale prelude. After such an attack, a pall of mourning, melancholy, anger and fear would hang over our public life for a generation.

An attack of this sort is already in the realm of possibility. The recipes for making ultimate weapons are on the Internet, and the materiel required is available for the right price. Democracies live by free markets, but a free market in everything -- enriched uranium, ricin, anthrax -- will mean the death of democracy. Armageddon is being privatized, and unless we shut down these markets, doomsday will be for sale. Sept. 11, for all its horror, was a conventional attack. We have the best of reasons to fear the fire next time.
The idea of a second devastating terror attack is now conventional wisdom. The government is planning for it. Strategic thinkers and writers are writing about it. However, is the American public really mentally prepared for the possibility of a more horrific attack. The 9-11 attack sent a shock wave through the country that resulted in a month long economic paralysis that kick started a multi-year recession. A recession that we are just coming out of.

Can the U.S. afford to have the next attack put the economy into another deep recession. Everyone would of course say no. How then to you prepare the country to go about its business in the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack? The news media would focus all of its energies on bringing the "news" of the attack into every home on a 24x7 schedule. The collective anxiety level and blood pressure of 300 million citizens is jacked up. How do you keep the nation's productivity up and the economy perking when the media is working so hard to glue people to the television tube and paralyze them?

It seems impossible. Freedom of the press would prevent any restrictions on the coverage of such an event. Telling people to just go about their daily lives would be like trying to persuade a backup of motorists not to rubberneck at an especially ugly auto accident. Human nature takes over, everyone slows down and looks to see what happened. Magnify this on a nationwide scale over weeks and the "slow down" is economically significant. "Macro" rubbernecking would be a good name for this phenomena.

How then does a democracy prevent itself from going into an economic tailspin? This is a serious issue that the government and strategic planners should be considering.

U.S. House Approves 9/11-Inspired Doomsday Bill [Reuters, 22-Apr]
Lesser Evils [NY Times, 2-May]
updated: 8-May-04

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