Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
Why does terrorism exist?” Sergio Mayorga asked.
It was my final CERT class. A box on the table behind him contained forty much-coveted CERT uniforms. At the end of the lesson, one of them would be mine.
“Envy?” An older woman in front of me responded.
“Anger?” an Asian businessman asked.
“It exists,” Mayorga said, “because it’s faster than the political system.” He paused to let the answer sink in. “It’s cheap, mobile, low-tech, and deniable. Most of all, it exists because it works.”
His argument made sense. Saying “Please keep off my lawn” is a much less effective deterrent than, for example, aiming a shotgun at the trespasser and saying, “Get off my lawn or I’ll blow your fucking brains out.” And then doing it. No one will set a toe on your lawn again.
“Do you know what B-NICE means? You can use that acronym to remember the different types of terrorist threats: biological, nuclear, incendiary, chemical, explosive.”
This decade, the James Bond supervillain—a non-national rogue with a heavily financed conspiracy to destroy the world with no material benefit to himself—had actually stepped out of the realm of fantasy and into reality. As John Robb put it in his book Brave New War, thanks to “the leverage provided by technology,” eventually “one man” will be able “to declare war on the world and win.”
“Though fires are the cheapest and most common form of terrorism,” Mayorga continued, “the one with the higher risk factor is biological, because it will take a week or two before people start having symptoms and figure out what’s going on. The water supply is one way for them to spread something. Another way is to use aerosol and spray the vegetable aisle in a grocery store or the salad bar at Souplantation.”
The room was silent as he spoke. Though wildfires and earthquakes were more likely, terrorism was more chilling.
He said, in the event of a nuclear attack, we should hole up in either a basement or the third-from-the-top floor of the highest building around, then cover all cracks and openings with plastic and duct tape.
I opened my class binder and started taking notes.
He said, a dirty bomb is more likely than a nuclear attack because it’s easy to make. All someone has to do is build a pipe bomb, then fill it with radioactive material, which can be stolen from any doctor’s office with an X-ray machine.
I was writing as fast as I could. I recalled the instructions for making a rudimentary pipe bomb from one of Kurt Saxon’s books—just stick a plastic baggie in a pipe, fill it with safety-match heads, add a piece of string as a fuse, and cap both ends. Even I could do that.
He said, if you’re in a shopping mall and someone sets off a dirty bomb, you have roughly thirty minutes to decontaminate.
Why was I taking notes so furiously?
He said, cover your nose and mouth immediately with anything that wasn’t exposed.
Was this ever really going to happen to me?
He said, never use a cell phone or radio within a thousand-foot radius of an explosion in case the frequency sets off a secondary device.
How many dirty bombs had even been set off in American shopping malls?
He said, if you rush toward the exits with everyone else, you risk not only being trampled but also getting injured by a secondary device planted there. Instead, head to the bathroom, find the sprinkler, bust it open, and decontaminate yourself.
And how often was I in a shopping mall? Almost never.
He said, if you have to remove contaminated clothing, don’t pull it over your head. Cut it off.
Yet I continued scribbling away, because I was haunted by the same demon everyone else in class was haunted by: Just in Case.
I was reminded of a book I’d recently read on the Inquisition. For five hundred years of Western history, the Catholic Church was much more extreme than today’s Muslim fundamentalists. Its armies killed all the heretics they could get their hands on, wiping out entire religions by torturing, slaughtering, and burning alive nearly every devotee. Like the fatwas of hard-line Muslims today, it even wrote edicts prescribing these genocidal terms. And because of these bloody measures, Christianity dominates the West today. In history, whether you look at the manifest destiny of America or the city-demolishing bombings that ended World War II, winning is killing.
He said, if you’re ever in a public area and someone starts spraying gunfire, get down on your stomach with your feet pointed toward the attacker, your face positioned away, and your hands covering your head. This way, it’s less likely that the bullets will hit your vital organs.
Scribble. Scribble. Now this seemed more likely to happen. Slightly.
He said, if you notice an absence of birds and mosquitoes, or you see people with drool, tears, and snot pouring out of their faces, it’s most likely a chemical attack. Cover your nose and mouth, head upwind, and use the rule of thumb—which means getting far enough away from a chemical incident that when you stick your thumb out and squint at it, your digit covers the entire scene.
Why hadn’t anyone told me this before? I was glad I had to wait for my second passport. Otherwise I might never have taken the time to learn about the dangers I was trying to protect myself from.
He said, if chemicals from the attack get on your skin, rinse them off for twenty minutes with cool water while cleaning with soap and bleach. Don’t use warm water because it will open your pores.
Fuck calculus. Fuck trigonometry. Fuck long division. This was cool knowledge, useful knowledge, life-saving knowledge. Even if my chances of using it were as likely as having to use the law of quadratic reciprocity in real life, at least it seemed practical—at least it slew one head of the many-headed demon Just in Case.
Afterward, with no test and little ceremony, we collected our uniforms and credentials—including this certificate, auspiciously signed by the mayor, stating that I was now qualified to serve the city in the event of a disaster. As a committed non-joiner of teams and committees, it wasn’t the kind of honor I’d ever expected to receive:
A few weeks later, I received a message that ten CERT members were needed at Fire Station 88. We were asked to bring our vest, hard hat, gloves, goggles, and a flashlight. I thought this might be a chance to put my newly learned skills to work.
Instead, it was just a media opportunity. For KTLA News cameras that night, we demonstrated how to remove a trapped victim from under a slab of concrete using cribbing. I was the safety officer. If you look at the still carefully, you’ll see me on the far left of the frame—the skinny lone wolf in his hard-earned green helmet, with his foot up on a slab of concrete and his hands protecting his crotch from some unknown threat.
As the safety officer, it was my job to make sure no one was injured. I accomplished this task by watching everyone else do all the work.
Some call it laziness. I call it a survival skill: