Sally Quinn

We Can Take It … the Truth That Is, Part I

VTR Date: January 12, 2004

Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn discusses the threat of bioterrorism.


GUEST: Sally Quinn
VTR: 1/12/2004

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is one of several efforts to follow up on “Thinking the unthinkable, in order to be able to do something about it”. That was the title of our program some time back with Sloan Foundation President, Ralph Gomory, who was directing considerable of its resources to help develop American civil defense against bioterrorism.

To be sure much of that defense has to do with how much we know and how straight we think about the matter, which is just why I’ve invited Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn to The Open Mind today.

As a reporter in the nation’s capital she has a front and center view of what both our government and our press are doing and not doing to help Americans deal realistically and practically with the potential threat bioterrorism poses to each and every one of us.

As a citizen and a parent, of course, Sally Quinn’s needs along these lines are as great as yours and mine, no more and no less. But as a powerful journalist in a great newspaper, her words carry particular weight as when she participated in and reported on last year’s noted Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies Conference on bioterrorism.

“Two messages,” she wrote, “came across loud and clear there. One, the operative word is “when”, not “if” there is an attack. And two, “information, information, information. Nearly every speaker talked about the issue of panic and how to avoid it and in each example,” she writes, “offered of previous disasters, “the result was the same. The more informed the public was, the less panic there was.”

Which is why Sally Quinn ended up her report on the Johns Hopkins Conference by addressing herself to Tom Ridge, Head of Homeland Security, “The only way to avoid panic is to tell us the truth. We can take it, Tom, I promise.”

And I want to ask you, Sally Quinn, what makes you so sure we can take it?

QUINN: I think, well if you compare us to children and the government to the parents, you know when you hide something from children they always know that something is being hidden from them and they end up being a lot more nervous and insecure and unhappy and scared because they know that there’s something going on, but they don’t know what it is and so I, I think that the government really does need to tell people what they need to know.

You know, it’s, it’s simply a matter of … I, I just take myself, for example, and my own experience. When … after 9/11 …I, I really was very, very upset and very scared because everyone said this is going to happen again, this is just the beginning and … I think it is going to happen again. But no one was saying what we should do about it.

No one was saying how we should be prepared and, at that time, Tommy Thompson went on the air and said, you know, “We’re fine. We’re prepared, we know what to do. Don’t worry, relax, we’ll take care of it.”

HEFFNER: That’s when you blew your stack.

QUINN: And I went crazy. I went completely crazy because I knew perfectly well that not, not only did they not know what to do, but they were just completely unprepared. And I think that was right before even the, the Office of Homeland Security was even inaugurated. And it just seemed to me that it was the most patronizing attitude that the government could possibly have. And that what, what you really need to do is inform people so they can be prepared.

And I mean not just psychologically, and that’s a huge part of it because, as you pointed out, at the Johns Hopkins Conference, one of the things that every one of the scientists and the doctors and the medical people said was that the worst thing that can possibly happen is panic. And as, as … I mean that’s the whole point of terrorism anyway is to strike terror in people’s hearts and to create an atmosphere of instability and panic.

And … so I, I just felt that from that point of view it was really important that people, that people know about it. But also from the point of view of helping the government. The government … it just seemed to me it was a good idea, as a patriot and as a citizen to inform yourself and to do as much as you could to prepare yourself so that the government wouldn’t have to be obliged to take care of everyone. Particularly if they were going to have to take care of the young people and very old people and people who were sick and unable to take care of themselves.

And in order to be able to be prepared and to do what you need to do and take care of yourself, you need to have information. You need to know what to do. And I wrote some things down, I had some questions then. I mean that was two years ago, about, you know, what the government would like us to do. And should we wear gas masks or should we not have gas masks and what about duct tape and what about not and at that point they didn’t even have information.

There was the FEMA website which had what to do in case of hurricanes or tornadoes or some kind of natural disaster and obviously some of those things apply to a terrorist attack as well. But there just wasn’t enough information. And it was until two years after the fact that, that the Office of Homeland Security actually did put up their own website and had more specific information.

HEFFNER: What do you think of it? That website? What’s it called?

QUINN: Ah, oh … I knew you were going to ask me that … it’s just gone out of my head.

HEFFNER: That’s all right, I printed it out in fact, last night …

QUINN: So you knew the answer, you’re testing me … did you … [laughter].

HEFFNER: No, no, no. Not testing you, testing me because I can’t find what I did with it.

QUINN: [Laughter] I wrote it last year and I haven’t looked it up since then, so I haven’t …

HEFFNER: I thought it was a pretty good website.

QUINN: It … but I thought that the website was actually quite good and I think one of the reasons it was so good is because it was, you know, they had actually gone to people like Ralph Gomory …

HEFFNER: “Ready dot gov”.

QUINN: “Ready dot gov”, that’s right. And they had gone to people who were experts and they had actually asked them and gotten … and had a panel of experts to review the website and to put it together and to give their own advice and … I mean … I don’t think it was as comprehensive as it could have been. And I would have probably made it more specific. And I think again one of the things that they’re constantly worried about is how much information to give the public.

HEFFNER: Why do you say that, Sally? That they’re worried about that. Again you talked about paternalism. Is that the reason?

QUINN: Well, I think that, frankly, it’s about … it’s a class issue, it’s about money.

HEFFNER: A class issue?

QUINN: It’s about money, yeah. And that’s something that no one can ever talk about. They are afraid to give the public too much information about what they need to do and what they should be doing and what they can do, because a lot of these things cost a lot of money and a lot of people can’t afford it. And so essentially is what they’d be saying is, “if you want to get an escape hood, which costs $190 for every member of your family, you know that that escape hood, when you put it on, if there’s some kind of a chemical or biological attack, is going to protect you. But they can’t … the government can’t provide every citizen of the United States with one of those escape hoods and most people can’t afford that for every member of their family. So what good is it going to do to tell people that that’s the best thing they could do to protect themselves if they can’t afford it; it’s only going to create panic. Do you see what I mean?

HEFFNER: I do. But haven’t our friends the Israelis done something like that?

QUINN: Well, but that’s a very different situation. I mean Israel is a really small country and, and they can afford it and also, it’s not going to create the panic in Israel because their, their level of … I mean their level of, of anxiety is already so much higher than ours and for good reason. I mean they are …it’s, it’s not a probability … I mean it’s not a possibility for them, it’s a probability every day of their lives. And you can’t … and, and every part of Israel because it’s all reachable by missiles, you know, coming over from the other side. So that every single citizen in Israel is, is at, at risk every minute of the day, whereas in our country …it’s a vast country and lots of places where you, where it would be unlikely that terrorists would attack.

But I think that’s one of the essential reasons why you don’t get all of the information you need out of that website is because they know that that would create panic if they told people what they really needed to do.

HEFFNER: Is this purely hypothesis on your part?

QUINN: No, no.

HEFFNER: I have a sense you know more.

QUINN: Yeah. No, I know that, I know that’s a problem. And you know I think that it’s a real, they’re in a real jam because I, I think they’ve probably made what … a fair decision. If I were they, my instinct would be to say, as we did in the special section that we put out in The Washington Post, and we just sort of laid it all out. And basically what we said is, “here are X number of masks and this is the least expensive one and this is the most expensive one; and this is what each one can do for you.” And I think the government should do that. But I, you know, and I don’t think that creates panic. I think it at least lets people know if they’re buying an N-95 mask which costs a dollar, a dollar fifty or two dollars. They will know at least that they have some protection. And that, and that’s better than nothing and they will understand how much protection it will give them.

HEFFNER: When I was a young man and World War II came, we had the feeling that there was something we could do by way of civil defense. Now the reality of the attacks was, was minimal, I grant. But we didn’t know that immediately … something to do. And I gather than you feel that the “something to do” would be very important for us psychologically.

QUINN: Well, I think so. I mean I certainly, during World War II, was diving under my desk at school every time we had an air raid drill. And, you know, I don’t know whether that made us safer, but it certainly gave you a sense that there was something you could do, you could at least get under your desk. And people were building shelters and their bomb shelters in their back yard. And I know people who had bomb shelters. And maybe it was a stupid thing; maybe not. But I know that the people who did build shelters felt a lot better than the people who didn’t. They just had that kind of protection.

HEFFNER: Well, when we were fumpering around trying to remember “Ready dot gov” I said I went to the, to that site yesterday and printed out some of the materials. Make a kit; make a plan; be informed; they are trying to tell us …

QUINN: They are.

HEFFNER: … more than at the beginning.

QUINN: But you know, now we have to look at how many people have computers. There are an awful lot of people in this country who don’t have computers. We have the most educated and the most affluent having computers, the middle class, but there are an awful lot of people who don’t. And those are the people who are not going to help … be able to help themselves because they don’t know what to do. And that’s one of the points I’m trying to make about why …

I think it’s a really patriotic thing to do and to be a good citizen is to try to learn as much as you can … if you have the resources, and to prepare yourself. I mean I can afford to go out and buy duct tape and plastic and masks and water and flashlights and radios and all the things that you need to have. There are a lot of people who can’t and so, if the government has to take care of everybody, they’re not going to be able to do that if there’s a sudden attack.

It would be that much better if the people who could had prepared themselves so the government could focus on the people who couldn’t afford it, who couldn’t speak English, who didn’t have the money or resources, who were crippled or disabled in some way, or the young people.

HEFFNER: Are you saying that as a people we couldn’t afford now to supply even as large a population as we have with something closer to adequate protection?

QUINN: I think it would be exorbitantly expensive. And probably not the best use of the money.

HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean by that.

QUINN: Well, I think that to say, “okay, we’re going to give a gas mask” … or what … actually what I’m talking about when I say that … I mean “gas mask” is sort of this inflammatory word where everybody dies laughing when you say, well you need a gas mask … they think of World War II with things coming out your nose. But the escape hoods are these little plastic things that you just push down over your head.

HEFFNER: Making them fit right.

QUINN: They don’t even have to; the fit anyway … the escape hoods, because they just pull down over your head and they’re tied … you know, they sort of fit up around your neck. They’re all plastic, you can see through them. The real gas masks are the ones that need to fit and that’s why people should not rush out and buy a gas mask because they’re too expensive and you really have to be trained to use them and they have to fit perfectly. Or an N95, this is an N95, this piece is the little masks, they should have two rubber backer things and they should pinch right here (indicating over the nose) so that when you put them over your face they’ll fit right on your nose. Beards don’t work for a lot of these. This will work without a beard, obviously. But, but some of the gas masks you can’t do beards.

But these are a dollar, a dollar fifty and they can really protect you from a lot. But I think given the fact that so many places in the country are really not necessarily vulnerable, but I think it would be a really stupid waste of money to try to provide everyone in the country with an escape hood that cost $190 and is good for four hours and is one time use only. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.

But I, I think that, that the government would … what I think is that they should have a plan to prepare people so that when they have Orange Alerts, if they have to have Orange Alerts, they ought to have some kind of drill. I don’t mean air raid drill, but they ought to have some, something that goes across the air waves or the television where they say, “We’re now in Orange Alert and here’s what you need to do to prepare yourself.” You need to make sure that your car is filled with gas, so that if you have to get away you can. And that you have plenty of bottled water in your house.

And the safe room is a room to go to that’s sealed off … it’s not forever; it’s for two or three hours. In case there’s some kind of a chemical attack or a radiological attack where you’ve got this … the wind is blowing things toward you. It will pass after a while, so you only need it for a couple of hours. And I don’t people understand that. I think they think that if you go into a safe room you’re going to be there for three days or five days.

The reason they say that you need food for three days, at least three days, is not because you’re going to be hold up in a safe room, it’s because the stores will probably be closed. And you won’t have any place to find food or water. And that’s why you need to have a supply on hand just so you’ll have it when you need. And medical … you know whatever medicine you need. That, that sort of thing.

But, for instance, I would like to know because if there’s a small pox attack, if you get inoculated within four days after you’ve been exposed to small pox, you’ll probably be okay. I, I would like to know where to go in Washington, because I live in Washington, where should I go to get inoculated? And I should like to …I would to be prepared to do that. And if you’re going to go out in the streets to get inoculated and it’s out there, and you’re not, you know you haven’t been exposed you ought to have one of these because this will protect you from it, if you have to stand in long lines and wait. I think people should tell you that.

HEFFNER: Now, you’ve been talking about Washington, you live there. But you’ve also been talking about Washington, the Federal government.


HEFFNER: What about the communities?

QUINN: Well, I think the communities are organized, some of them better than others. And I, you know, there was, last year … two years ago, there was a terrible communication problem in the 9/11, the hospitals couldn’t even communicate with each other. Now they have a system set up where they have a special communications system where they can talk to each other and not have to go through the regular phone lines which makes a huge, great deal of difference.

But the government has these great big huge sort of packs that they can send along, and we don’t know where they are. I mean they’re in secret locations that have a lot of material and, and medical material and that sort of thing, to help communities. And the question is whether they can get them there in time. And where do they go? Where do they put them? And where should people turn up? And if you’re sick, if a parent’s sick and a child’s sick, do you go to a regular hospital or do you take your child to the children’s hospital?

I happen to be on the Board of Children’s Hospital in Washington and they have a plan that is a state of the art plan and is much more well thought out than any plan of any hospital in the country. In fact they’ve been going around the country giving lectures and explaining how, how they have set up this plan. And they are prepared to treat adults because parents and children aren’t going to be separated if they need to go to a hospital. They’ll have to be together, so that they have maintained an alliance with some of the adult hospitals nearby so that if they, if the whole family can go to the hospital, they can all be treated there. Because you know transportation would probably be very difficult anyway in that kind of instance.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you a very different kind of question. You talked about understanding why so little information is being supplied to us in terms of economics. You said it was an economic matter.

QUINN: Well, that’s not the only reason.

HEFFNER: No, no, no. I understand and that’s why I wanted to ask you to what extent is it a political matter too damn hot to handle.

QUINN: Well, that’s obviously a big problem. I mean, you know, the government is in a very … it’s a very dicey situation because … I started to say earlier and you asked me how much information is too much. And they have to make a decision about how much information to give that will be well received, will be understood and that people will be able to use to prepare themselves and at what point they go over the line and end up with so much information that people panic. And, you know, obviously they knew more about why they went to an Orange Alert over the Christmas vacation than they were willing to tell us. The question is did we need to know that or not? Since I don’t know what information they had that they weren’t telling, I just know that they had information they weren’t telling, I can’t assess that. But I,I do know that, you know, they’re pretty much assured that it will happen. That there will be an attack. And that we will need to be prepared.

And I just, my feeling is that … you know Ronald Reagan had this vision of a city on the hill and he was very optimistic about the future of the country and it was, it was … it’s a good news story and I think that George Bush wants to present this as a country that’s strong and sure of itself and together an all of that. And I think that, you know, just politically it is not smart for the President to be downbeat and gloomy and you know sort of predicting dire consequences if there is some sort of an attack.

So I don’t think that they’re as realistic with the public about it as they should be because I don’t … I think they want people to think that everything’s fine. I mean there’s a certain amount of repression going on. I don’t think anybody was as scared this last Orange Alert as we were two years ago or a year ago, even on the first Orange Alert. I mean there was, there was one last Fall I think in the beginning of the Fall where everyone was just in a total panic because they thought that the rumors around Washington were that they were going to attack Capital Hill and that the airport was going to shut down and that we were going to Red Alert immediately and that the Cabinet had been evacuated; I mean that’s the kind of thing that circulates around Washington when there’s an Alert.

And, but I think this time people sort of thought “ho-hum”. And I, and I think that’s too bad. I mean I know I was a lot more relaxed this time than I was last time, just because every time they raise the Alert and its Orange and nothing happens, people say, “well, you know, it’s like crying wolf and it’s never going to happen.”

But the fact is that it is going to happen and that I, you know, I don’t mean that we should get nervous and hysterical and uptight every single time they go, they go to Code Orange, but I do think that the government should have gone out there when they went to Code Orange and said, “Now let us remind you that …you know … we don’t know what could happen, but these are some of the things that could happen and these are ways you should be prepared and go to your websites and if you have … you know … or maybe go to a fire station or a hospital emergency room where they could have lists of things that people … you know … places in the community … churches … where people could go to get lists of things they need to supply themselves with, where they, where they know there’s a central place where they can get information.

Even neighborhood community groups where, you know, where I mean I would … you know, if I were running things [laughter] … I would arrange for communities, I live in a small community called Georgetown in Washington, that Georgetown should have it’s own emergency plan itself where, you know, every three months or so they have a little sort of test alert where they tell people where to go and what to do.

HEFFNER: You want the President to play a large role here.

QUINN: I do. I do. And, and you know, I know that the President doesn’t want to this because I think he doesn’t want to alarm people; I think he doesn’t want to put the message out that we’re afraid and that, you know, that the terrorists have won because look at we’re all hunkering down, we’re all rushing to get duct tape, or whatever.

But I, I would rather have people think that then to have people not be prepared.

HEFFNER: Sally Quinn, there is another aspect to this, too. And that at least one, and that has to do with what the press, our informational agencies are doing. And I wish you’d stay where you are and let’s do another program and talk more about the press. Okay?

QUINN: Fine.

HEFFNER: Sally Quinn, thank you for joining me on this Open Mind. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.