As an intern at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, I grew accustomed to cringing whenever anyone asked what I did at work. “I study homeland security” could spark a variety of disapproving reactions.
Those who replied “Oh, I’m sorry” assumed that studying terrorism made me too scared to leave the house without a HazMat suit in my purse. Others quipped, “So you’re contributing to the further construction of Fortress America?” Even though as an intern I was not important enough to construct anything except nametags, these people assumed that my job meant I now supported implanting ID chips in neonatal Americans. And those who replied, “Well, that must be an exercise in frustration” must have heard about the unwieldy homeland security bureaucracy and assumed that it couldn’t do much more than lengthen the lines at airport metal detectors.
I don’t own a HazMat suit. I still believe in privacy. I’m also not without hope that the United States can protect itself. But I will admit that studying terror attacks all day changes one’s concept of fear.
My first indication that I had been initiated into the homeland security world came early in my internship last spring. Glancing out the window during a particularly long meeting on biological weapons, I noticed something white floating through the air and assumed it was anthrax.
This wasn’t some fleeting worry; my heart began to race. I had just finished reading a pile of articles that calculated the tiny amount of biological agent required to swamp American hospitals. What were those articles’ strategies—quarantine? vaccination? decontamination?—and hadn’t we waited too long to use them if I were seeing lethal powder in the air above K Street?
When I looked again, the particles appeared more like cherry blossoms than white powder, and my GER science was enough to tell me that they were far too big to be inhaled. Bio attack wasn’t imminent. (Though I checked washingtonpost.com right after the meeting to make sure the top headline wasn’t “Outbreak.”)
I’d heard about med students who began to feel the symptoms of each disease they studied. Each time I read about a new type of threat, it began to seem inevitable. In addition to worrying about hijackers on my flight out of National, I now thought about which type of nozzle could turn a Kansas crop-duster plane into a dispersal device for smallpox. About whether a container of radiological material could slip past the Coast Guard into Long Beach. About the damage one truck bomb could do on I-95 on the eastern seaboard. Preventing a successful terrorist attack required predicting how one could be created—in essence, thinking like a terrorist and then imagining how that terrorist could be thwarted. As I listened to the members of our team—people who had spent years in international security or science policy jobs—do this kind of hypothesizing, I often felt that the vulnerabilities seemed endless.
Culture shock was a factor in my fear, too. I’d come to Washington right after a quarter abroad at Stanford’s campus in Berlin. Our nation’s capital had fortifications everywhere I looked—biological weapons detectors at Metro Center Station, wire fences and concrete barricades surrounding the monuments, police
cars parked on every corner downtown. Nothing in Berlin seemed so guarded—except the area around the U.S. Embassy.
Humans can get used to a lot of changes, though, especially if the changes occur gradually and become integrated into daily life. By the end of my four-month internship, it seemed impossible that I could have been so fearful or felt so hopeless. The more days I spent with hypothetical threats, the more desensitized I became.
Security and threat level both increased during the time of my internship, but I (and I suspect most Americans) had become more jaded. I got used to walking the long detour around Pennsylvania Avenue, designed to keep potential villains away from the White House but effectively keeping people like me from ever getting anywhere on time. I stopped noticing the sirens that, under Code Orange police presence, have become a D.C. soundtrack. (During cell-phone calls, my family stopped asking “Good lord, what just happened?” and “Are you under arrest?’’ and waited, unfazed, until we could hear again.) On the August day when new warnings about threats to New York and D.C. financial institutions were atop washingtonpost.com, my co-workers and I didn’t skip lunch at our favorite sandwich shop, situated in the shadow of the World Bank.
Being desensitized does not mean that I am no longer afraid of terrorism. Quite the opposite. Like everyone, I still don’t know what the terrorists want to do or where they want to do it. That reality has been, and always will be, scary. But now I also fear that we will lose touch with the useful aspects of fear—that the proliferation of color-coded threat alerts, and our skepticism about their politicization and cost, will distract us from real threats that demand real preparations. We may lose the ability to answer the question that crossed my mind every day of my internship: are we really doing what we need to do to make ourselves more secure?
Our current government strategy revolves around “a system of systems”—a “layering” of inevitably imperfect defenses. Such a defense hopes that if terrorists slip past one system, they will be stopped by another, or another. Yet I was struck by the fact that, at every meeting of experts I attended, each reached the conclusion that a smart terrorist could get by any system. The next step was always the question: by investing billions in a “system of systems,” are we strengthening our ability to prevent attacks, or are we, as one Center for Strategic and International Studies official suggested, “looking for the same needle in an ever-bigger haystack?”
It’s hay, not cherry blossoms, that spooks me now.
MEGAN WILCOX-FOGEL, '05, is a history major from Los Altos, Calif.