is an obvious target for any potential terrorist attack, but the
reality behind possible non-conventional threats might surprise
many. Deterrents in place range from building codes and restricted
air space to thorough policing and controlling fear and panic.
A non-conventional emergency may be comprised of several
different attacks: biological, chemical, and radiological.
- A biological attack is the deliberate release of germs or other
biological substances that can cause sickness.
A chemical attack is the deliberate release of a toxic gas, liquid
or solid that can poison people and the environment.
Radiological - A radiological dispersed attack is the use of
common explosives to spread radioactive materials over a targeted
One of the best ways for a terrorist to affect the largest
number of people is to release a large amount of chemical or
biological agents from relatively high above the ground, over a
heavily populated area.
This is very
difficult to do in the nation's capitol. The restricted air space
above the city is meant to prevent a light aircraft -- such as a
crop duster -- from reaching highly populated areas. Helicopters
patrolling the skies, tactically placed surface to air missiles
(SAM) sites, and military jets patrolling nearby all help to ensure
the air space above DC is watched carefully and any potential
threat is intercepted or eliminated.
another innate benefit. The city's building code restricts the
height of most structures. Someone with ill will towards American
citizens would not be able to release an agent from a 30-story
building and have it spread over a concentrated population.
Both of these
factors mean that any type of outdoor air-released attack will be
fairly contained and not pose the threat it could in other
would be releasing an agent in a highly populated, closed space,
such as the Washington, D.C.'s subway system. This occurred in the
Tokyo subway system in 1995 when Sarin gas was released. Tens of
thousands were exposed to the deadly gas, 5,500 passengers received
medical attention, and of those 12 died. While these attacks can
indeed cause fear and chaos, in reality, only a very small
percentage of those affected die from the exposure.
ground based explosion is another method for releasing a
biological agent. Other than the fact that the dispersement takes
place at ground level and, again, is relatively contained, an
explosion is one of the worst ways to spread a biological agent. An
agent such as anthrax, for example, is degraded by both heat and
light. In any type of explosion there is usually enormous amounts
of heat and light, killing or degrading much of the agent.
of a radiologically dispersed device, otherwise known as
a "Dirty Bomb," is not to cause mass casualties due to radiation,
but instead it is at its most dangerous through the fear and panic
that it causes. A dirty bomb would likely cause a ground-level
explosion of varying intensity, depending on the amount and type of
explosives used. Any type of radioactive material used would be
fairly low grade, such as cesium or americium. Plutonian and
Uranium are much more difficult to obtain and would be more
valuable in building a conventional nuclear device.
Once the explosion
occurs, the highest amounts of radiation would be around the
initial blast area. Most likely, the damage caused by the explosion
would harm more people than the radiation. Radioactive debris and
dust would travel relatively short distances - a few blocks -
before the radiation threat diminished significantly.
What Has Been
Washington, D.C., has taken steps to help prevent such attacks
by stepping up security, removing certain newspaper and trash bins,
and using canine units to patrol for explosive devices. Besides the
constant video surveillance, new sensor units have been installed
in metro stations to detect the first signs of a chemical agent
is very difficult for government at all levels to protect Americans
from a person willing to die for a cause. However, officials have
combined their efforts to increase the awareness of the average
citizen with thorough policing and monitoring, limiting airspace
access, and improved technology. Now, if an incident does occur,
the outcome will be far less tragic.
Dexter Ingram is a member of the Washington Metropolitan Council of
Governments' Bio-terrorism Task Force and a Threat Assessment
Specialist at the Heritage Foundation.