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Individual efforts can aid national defense


© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 15, 2001

[AP photo]
"Rosie the Riveter" was introduced in the 1940s to encourage women to work.
In Mary Christian's war, citizens pitched in.

Men and women with jobs and kids in school walked their neighborhoods at night, enforcing blackouts. They patrolled the beaches looking for submarines and scanned the sky for the silhouettes of foreign aircraft. They rationed gas, bought war bonds, planted victory gardens and saved rubber and scrap metal.

"There was a terrific sense of excitement," she said. "You were embarrassed if you weren't doing something to help. Young boys talked about what branch of the service they were going into, not what college they planned to attend."

Mary Christian was Mary Baynard in 1941, a 15-year-old sophomore at St. Petersburg High, wide-eyed at the changing world around her. She recalls a sense of shared purpose, a common goal that brought people together and put them to work.

"We felt like we were all in it together," she said. "We were going to lick them, so let's go do it; let's get it done."

Today, 60 years and three wars later, the nation is trying to "get it done" again. While victory gardens and scrap metal collection may not be needed in the new world war on terrorism, some World War II-type citizen vigilance may be just the ticket.

"We have to revert back to that earlier age," said David McIntyre, deputy director of research at the nonprofit Anser Institute for Homeland Security.

In early America, he said, security depended first on neighbors, then on government. "I think we need to return to that."

Through the Cold War and conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, "People in this country have thought that national defense is something our national government does somewhere far away -- overseas," McIntyre said.

"We all have to understand that the world has changed in a fundamental way. In today's global economy, with the ability to move information and money rapidly around the world, small states, criminal enterprises or even tribes have the kind of power once available only to nation-states. This kind of threat (of terrorism) is now a fact of life."

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge last week became the nation's first director of the newly created Office of Homeland Security. "While the effort will begin here," Ridge said in a statement, "it will require the involvement of America at every level. Everyone in the homeland must play a part."

He called for a "national effort" and cited World War II and putting men on the moon as examples.

Ridge faces a monumental organizational challenge, McIntyre said. The work of dozens of federal agencies, "from spies to the Federal Reserve," will have to be coordinated layer by layer with state, county and city offices around the nation.

"And that's just the first skin of the onion," he said, noting that government agencies must work hand-in-hand with private interests such as hospitals and physicians, too.

"It's going to take a while to sort all this out," he said. Meanwhile, citizens in the "new war" can do three things:

Take care of yourself and family. Specifically, keep about a 10-day supply of water and nonperishable food on hand. "You do it for hurricanes and don't think twice about it," he said. "So why not for other emergencies, too?"

Be alert. "Ask hey, where did that briefcase come from? Whom does that package belong to?" A mail carrier should take note if he is delivering biological materials to someone living alone in the woods. People should ask why a car has different license plates on the front and the back.

"We don't want to become a nation of spies, watching each other," McIntyre said. "But we do want to become a nation of people that watch out for each other. That's a different thing."

Demand that local officials pay attention to the issue.

"We will find something for every American to do," Ridge said as he took over the new Homeland Security office.

But apart from staying vigilant, it's not clear what will be needed. No one yet knows the dimensions of this new war, nor how long it will last.

In World War II, Americans at home answered the call for economic sacrifice. In subsequent, narrower conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, that was not necessary.

Then, after the Sept. 11 attack, American consumers were given a much different message: Keep spending, they were told, or the terrorists will have succeeded in damaging the most powerful weapon in the world: the U.S. economy.

In the Senate there was brief discussion of issuing war bonds to help defray the costs of the campaign, but the idea hasn't gone far.

"The sky is not falling," McIntyre said. "Don't buy gas masks and don't buy a bunch of antibiotics that will be out of date in a year. America lived for 50 years with the threat that the world could end in 30 minutes. But people still fell in love, got jobs, got married and had kids.

"We'll get through this, too. In the end, we'll be okay."

-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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