Amanda Ripley

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The United States of the Resilient and Psychologically Prepared?

17th Feb 2010 posted in Resilience

Disaster after disaster has shown that regular citizens are the first-responders, so it’s nice to see federal reports acknowledging this reality. The recently released, first-ever Quadrennial Homeland Security Review Report places a much-needed emphasis on a resilient and psychologically prepared public:

“Despite our best efforts, some attacks, accidents, and disasters will occur. Therefore, the challenge is to foster a society that is robust, adaptable, and has the capacity for rapid recovery. In this context, individuals, families, and communities—and the systems that sustain them—must be informed, trained, and materially and psychologically prepared to withstand disruption, absorb or tolerate disturbance, know their role in a crisis, adapt to changing conditions, and grow stronger over time.”

OK, but how do we get there? One of the Review’s five homeland security missions is “Ensuring Resilience to Disasters,” but the report is vague at best—a nice fantasy island but no map pointing the way:

“Individuals and families must be prepared to care for themselves for a reasonable period of time after a disaster—some experts have suggested the first 72 hours—and assist their neighbors, reserving scarce public resources to assist those who are injured, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to care for themselves.”

Yes, but we have known that for a long time. How do we motivate people to do this? The report mentions community disaster response programs such as Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) and other Citizen Corps programs, and those are promising notions. But for now, they are not nearly as big, creative and well-funded as they would need to be to make a major difference. As this Newsweek story points out, the U.S. hasn’t put up the “funds necessary train ordinary citizens to handle disasters and terror attacks”.
   
It’s one thing to say the public must be psychologically prepared and another thing to say how. Most of us are so busy trying to survive our day-to-day lives, it’s hard to imagine that rhetoric alone will make much of a difference. As things stand, we are dramatically less resilient (and thus more vulnerable) than other developed nations. As Newsweek notes:

“After the 7/7 attack on the London Underground, which killed 52 people, Londoners, recalling their pluck during the Blitz, gamely showed up en masse the next morning for their daily commute. The Israelis make a point of rebuilding blown-up cafés in a matter of days after an attack; similarly, they return to targeted bus lines the day after a bombing. The message is clear: we’re not going to let terrorists break our spirit. Had America rebuilt the Twin Towers in the first years after 9/11, they would be standing tall today as symbols of defiance. Instead, when I drive by Ground Zero, still a gaping pit, I wonder how we would react if New York were hit again.”

That particular story places the blame mostly on politicians (hence the title: “Terror Begins at Home: Fearmongering politicians are scoring cheap political points at the expense of the American people.”), and there’s no doubt that such shameless politicking represents part of the problem. But surely there’s more to it than that.

After all, the UK and Israel have, per capita, about as many opportunistic, divisive politicians and sensationalist media outlets as we do. One obvious difference is that they have had more practice with terrorism—and they may be more sophisticated in their attitude as a result. But that can’t be the whole answer either. Advanced human civilizations are capable of evolving to counter new threats without having to experience them on a routine basis. This is the mystery—and the conversation we should be having, even if it’s uncomfortable.