America's Secret Weapon in the War on Terror: Americans

As everyone knows, today's Americans are pampered, cynical, and self-absorbed. The Greatest Generation served nobly, but then the mold broke. After 9/11, the government asked Americans to give but little, and little is what they gave. As everyone knows.

Suppose what everyone knows is not actually true. Suppose President Bush called for volunteers in the war on terror, and thousands of people came forward. Suppose they created volunteer networks for disaster relief, emergency preparedness, and civil defense. Suppose they did most of this work at the community level, under the radar of the national media. And suppose it all happened not in the massive, militarized, top-down mode of WWII but in the networked, decentralized, bottom-up manner of WWW.

Well, brace yourself. Americans have heard the call.

WASHINGTON—In his office a few blocks from the White House, Leslie Lenkowsky waves a magazine editorial lamenting America's post-9/11 complacency. Then he fills me in on things the editorialists probably did not know.

Lenkowsky heads the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, a dinky (by government standards) agency that runs the AmeriCorps national-service program and makes grants for volunteerism. Two months after 9/11, Bush gave a speech challenging the public to volunteer "in our own communities" to make the homeland more secure. The national-service agency responded by rummaging through its budget and coming up with $10.3 million in grant money for 9/11 volunteerism. Five worthy proposals poured in for every one that the agency could fund. Nonetheless, by July the corporation had approved 43 three-year grants to nonprofit and public agencies in 27 states.

Some of the programs, Lenkowsky explains, are relatively conventional: money to place AmeriCorps workers with the Red Cross or to enlist volunteers in cities' homeland security efforts. Some, however, break new ground. Milwaukee will teach public-housing residents to patrol for suspicious goings-on, use two-way radios, coordinate with police, and so forth—skills that, not coincidentally, will also be useful against ordinary crime. A program in Manhattan's Chinatown will create an immigrant network to communicate with non-English-speakers in time of crisis.

Then there are the hams. "If you had told me we'd be giving a grant to a ham-radio group," Lenkowsky says, "I wouldn't have believed it."

NEWINGTON, Conn.—America boasts 650,000 licensed ham-radio operators. About 1,500 of them are certified in emergency communications and are prepared to rush to the scene of a forest fire, flood, or hurricane with a "jump bag" full of portable radio equipment. "Amateur radio has been doing this for decades, with their own equipment, at no cost to the government or any corporation or community," says Mary M. Hobart, of the American Radio Relay League. When there is a major train wreck or chemical spill, "sometimes hams will show up and not be needed, but hams will show up."

That can be crucial. When phone lines, radio towers, and even satellites go down, hams—broadcasting each to each, and operating self-sufficiently on batteries or generators—stay on the air. After September 11, when New York's cell phones turned into paperweights (remember that giant antenna atop the World Trade Center?), hundreds of hams, some from as far away as Texas and California, turned out to provide radio lifelines for emergency workers and relief agencies.

Not all of those people had been trained, and, says Hobart, "during an emergency is not the time to train someone." So, with its government grant and some private money, the Relay League has embarked on an effort to increase the country's supply of emergency-ready hams from 1,500 today to at least 6,500 in three years. Just since last month, 600 hams have begun the training. "We have the ability to create a national platform for emergency communications," says Hobart. "If, God forbid, something were to strike in both Virginia and California, we have the mechanism to connect those two together."

On 9/11, of course, all commercial air travel halted. If that happened again, how could hams, and other urgently needed personnel, be rushed to the site of an attack?

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va.—You may have heard of Angel Flights. Under the auspices of a national nonprofit called Mercy Medical Airlift, 4,500 or so private pilots around the country volunteer themselves and their planes to fly patients long distances for specialized medical care. "They pay all the costs, too," says Ed Boyer, the president and founder of Mercy Medical Airlift.

Within 24 hours of 9/11, Boyer says, half of the country's Angel Flight volunteers had called their regional coordinators asking to help. In the following weeks, the pilots flew 100 to 150 missions transporting blood, rescue teams, grief counselors, and more. "The airlines were grounded for—what, three days?" Boyer says. "Our planes were in the air on September 12."

Those missions were ad hoc, but they won't be next time. With its own grant from the national-service agency, Mercy Medical intends to establish a network of "minuteman pilots," ready to be airborne within two hours of a crisis. Within six hours, all Angel Flight pilots could be in the air, thanks to an improved system for alerting and mobilizing them.

"We're thousands of pilots and planes all over the country," Boyer says. "We say we're creating the national emergency air transportation system for homeland security." Apart from a couple of new staff jobs, it will be all volunteer.

FALLS CHURCH, Va.—Those people swarming around the Pentagon after 9/11? Many of them were volunteers, too. The American Red Cross, according to Susan Aarhus, is 97 percent volunteer. Aarhus is the chief operations officer (and a paid staff member) of the Arlington County, Va., Red Cross. It was her chapter that was tasked with responding to the Pentagon attack, providing everything from food and medical care to odd lengths of chain-link fence. "It's been described as setting up a billion-dollar corporation overnight," says Aarhus, perhaps not exaggerating all that much. Within 72 hours of the attack, she says, the Pentagon relief effort had 26 departments and 1,400 Red Cross people from around the country, the vast majority of them volunteers.

In mid-2001, the Arlington Red Cross had about 30 volunteers trained and ready for disaster relief. Then, on 9/11, the phone started ringing. A year later, those 30 volunteers have swelled to 300, increasing the chapter's total volunteer base to more than 1,000.

One Saturday morning this month, I stopped by the Red Cross's headquarters in Falls Church to watch as 125 or so Northern Virginia volunteers attended a four-day training institute. A public-affairs professional taught how to set up a press operation overnight, operating out of a Kinko's if need be; a 26-year-old volunteer practiced driving a lumbering emergency-response truck; two mental-health specialists explained how to help suffering victims while warding off TV vultures and "disaster junkies." Two new courses were on the curriculum: Weapons of Mass Destruction Overview and Mass Casualty Disasters.

One could go on. Maryland's Frederick County—home to Camp David and the army's Fort Detrick biowarfare lab, among other potentially juicy terrorist targets—is readying an Alpha Squad of police, fire, and medical units to respond to a bioterror attack. I missed their joint decontamination drill a couple of weeks ago, but later I caught up with Alan E. Imhoff, a retiree who is helping organize hundreds of the county's retired doctors, nurses, and other health personnel into a volunteer medical-reserve corps. "Basically," says Imhoff, "our whole focus is on what we do locally for the first 72 hours, until state and national assistance reaches us." He adds that preparedness programs are sprouting in Maryland so fast it's hard to keep up with the acronyms.

The jihadists of militant Islam are reported to believe that as they toppled the Soviet colossus, so, in time, they can topple the American one. What they do not understand is that the Soviet state made war on civil society for most of its 70-year rule. Americans, meanwhile, have nurtured their churches, charities, and clubs. The Soviet Union fell because it was brittle as well as brutal. America, with its countless nodes of activity and authority, is somewhat more vulnerable than the USSR, but it is infinitely more robust. More robust than Al Qaeda realizes. More robust, even, than many Americans realize.

"Through this tragedy," Bush said in November of 2001, "we are renewing and reclaiming our strong American values." So we are. This Thanksgiving, Americans have much to be thankful for—beginning with each other.