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America needs a 'civilian' defense force

The list of nightmare terror scenarios got one item longer in the wake of the Russian school-house massacre. What human heart could fail to be rent by the images of slaughter and cruelty that emerged from the terrorist takeover of the school in Beslan?

The taking of children as hostages by Chechen rebels was bad enough. That the hostage-takers refused to accept food or water for the children and gunned them down when they tried to escape only compounds the horror and inhumanity.

The outrage echoes that which Americans were feeling three years ago today, when similar atrocities were visited upon our soil.

Could the situation have been handled better by the Russian authorities and military? Undoubtedly. But it’s always easy to see what could have, should have, might have been done after the fact. What might have been done differently if we could have precisely anticipated the events of Sept. 11, 2001? The list is long. But had such safeguards and defensive measures been proposed pre-Sept. 11, they would have been laughed off as the product of paranoid minds.

One of the terrorist’s tactical advantages is that when all you really have in mind are mayhem and murder, preferably of the innocent and vulnerable, there are a potentially endless variety of targets available. And for those playing defense, it’s impossible to guard against every possible nightmare scenario.

Many reflexively turn to government for the answer. But government doesn’t have enough resources, manpower, competence or extrasensory powers to anticipate every possible attack or defend every potential target. It’s time we think about equipping common citizens to better serve as the first line of defense against terrorists. This is only proper, since they are the terrorists’ first target of choice.

This will involve redefining the meaning of the term “civil defense” and overcoming our habit of thinking that our nation’s security should be left to “professionals.”

What do we have in mind? Why not think about screening, training, deputizing and possibly even arming a volunteer cadre of ordinary American citizens to intervene when and if our enemies begin taking aim at soft targets such as schools, theme parks, sporting events, shopping malls, concert venues, churches, etc?

As the Russian school-house massacre shows, those we call the “first responders” usually aren’t first on the scene — the intended victims are. All the more reason, therefore, to empower more of them to intervene when time is of the essence. By the time the professionals arrive, the attackers have either succeeded or have the upper hand.

Training a civil defense force of this type would not guarantee attacks would be thwarted, of course. But it might have the same deterrent effect undercover air marshals are supposed to have against air piracy, by greatly complicating the planning of our adversaries. They will no longer be able to assume that average Americans inside the school, shopping mall or business headquarters will be unarmed and defenseless. Sometimes, they’ll find the sitting ducks fighting, and even shooting, back.

This is not, we know, a perfect solution. No approach to combating terror — including an overreliance on government — is without risks, costs, trade-offs. An unconventional war demands unconventional thinking on such matters, however. And as the risks, costs and casualties of conventional approaches to civilian defense grow ever higher, ideas that once seemed extreme or unconventional suddenly have a way of appearing more reasonable.