Duct Tape Madness

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Mr. Boyer, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and currently a visiting professor of history at the College of William and Mary, is the author of, among other works, By the Bomb's Early Light, American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (University of North Carolina Press).

Well, at least we now know who's behind the current terrorism crisis: Polyken Technologies of Westwood, Massachusetts, the manufacturer of duct tape. They must be making millions. As a journalist in the Daily Press of Hampton, Virginia, writes, "Never in American history has simple duct tape assumed such prominence." Citizens are lining up at Home Depot to buy the rolls of it. As one customer commented to a reporter, "In case there isn't an event, duct tape is something I can use later." Oliver Stone is probably planning a movie right now exposing the whole scheme.

Talk about déjà vu all over again! Suddenly, it's 1955, or 1961, or perhaps 1982. Our current obsession with bottled water, spare blankets, fresh batteries, duct tape, and plastic sheeting triggers weird memories of "civil defense" hysterias past, when our leaders warned us in apocalyptic tones to prepare for the worst. In the Eisenhower era, they advised us to keep at least a half tank of gas in our car at all times, so we could head off for God knows where when the missiles began to fall. At other times, they advised us to hole up in the basement, reciting nursery rhymes or the multiplication tables to keep calm. Men were told to wear wide-brimmed hats, and women long-sleeved blouses, to protect against the "heat flash" of an atomic blast or ward off radiation. As John F. Kennedy sparred with Nikita Khrushchev over Berlin in 1961, he proved his toughness by terrifying the nation with talk of an imminent atomic attack and urging everyone to build fallout shelters.

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School kids cowered under their desks and watched civil-defense films in which Bert the Turtle taught them to "duck and cover." The narrator in Tim O'Brien's novel The Nuclear Age recalls, as a small boy in the 1950s, building his own card-table shelter and covering it with "lead" pencils, thinking they would absorb the radiation. What will today's kids remember -- their parents frantically taping up plastic sheeting around the house, as in a kind of bizarre improv theater routine?

In the early 1980s, when President Reagan was denouncing Russia as "the focus of evil in the modern world," the civil-defense mantra was "crisis relocation": when atomic war loomed, millions of residents of the big cities were to rush en masse to designated towns and villages in the hinterland. Wait a minute, said California governor Jerry Brown, Los Angelenos can't even get out of town on a normal Friday afternoon without traffic jams tying up the freeways for hours.

As our current crop of protectors--Ridge, Tenet, Mueller, Ashcroft, and the rest--warn of horrors ahead from chemical and biological weapons, the old-fashioned nuclear threat from North Korea can almost induce nostalgia. As citizens go down their checklist provided by the Homeland Security folks, it all seems eerily familiar. How long before we begin to debate the ethics of shooting a neighbor who tries to steal our bottled water or break into our duct-tape-sealed safe room? How long before we realize that going underground is surely safer than simply hiding out in the bedroom? How many basement or backyard fallout shelters, long since forgotten or sheepishly converted into "wine cellars" or "storage areas," are being dusted off and refurbished?

In the 1950s, Life magazine published cheery photographs of well-dressed suburban families sitting in their fallout shelters. In one issue, the magazine gleefully featured a newlywed couple who spent their honeymoon in a fallout shelter. Life is long gone, but it's only a matter of time before some enterprising TV reality-show producer imprisons twelve strangers in a safe room, to see who cracks first and bursts through the sealed door to freedom.

As I look at the photos of those well-equipped fallout shelters from the 1950s, I realize that our advisors have missed some important details in their pell-mell efforts to protect us. Portable toilets, for example, and industrial-strength air freshener. Those tightly sealed rooms are going to become pretty insufferable pretty fast without them. And games. No respectable fallout shelter of the 1950s lacked Scrabble or some other neat game to help people while away the long hours of waiting. And how long till CONELRAD, that fabled government radio system designed to reassure us in times of emergency, is revived? Well-loved radio personalities like Arthur Godfrey and Walter Cronkite pre-recorded messages to calm the public after atomic attack. Who will Tom Ridge recruit for this task today? Oprah? Charlton Heston? (He would surely insist on adding another essential item to the home-security checklist: your faithful .22 or .357 Magnum.)

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower and other top officials periodically disappeared to a mysterious crisis center (later identified as a vast complex under a luxury resort in West Virginia) to practice for the day when the government would carry on as usual while Washington, D.C. lay in smoldering ruins. Today, only Vice President Dick Cheney seems in perpetual hiding in an "undisclosed location," periodically resurfacing to address some business group.

The basic message then, as now, was clear: you're on your own, folks. The government can warn you of dangers ahead-from Yellow to Orange to Red in three quick steps-but offer no information on where or when the enemy may strike. Carry on with your normal life, but "be alert." As for addressing the underlying causes of the danger, forget about it. In the early Cold War, the response consisted of building as many bombs as fast as possible, and making them as powerful as possible. Today, a maddeningly diffuse global threat with complex political and social sources is reduced to shadowy "terrorists" who hate us for no discernible reason, and to a single obsessive goal: blast Saddam Hussein to kingdom come.

In 1950, when President Truman responded to the Russian atomic bomb by announcing a crash program to develop the hydrogen bomb, vastly escalating the nuclear arms race, President James Conant of Harvard, a key figure in the World War II A-bomb project, wrote to his friend Vannevar Bush of MIT that he had the sinking feeling of being forced to watch the same rotten movie a second time. My sentiments exactly.


This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.

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Don Williams - 2/23/2003

The link in the previous msg did not fully copy. (It doesn't work if you click on it --it will work if you cut the full link and past it in your Browser's address box ) Try


Don Williams - 2/23/2003

As a somewhat bemused (and aghast) member of the NRA which helped elect George W, I'm waiting for Ashcroft to throw Heston into a Navy brig for 9 months the next time Heston raises his flintlock over his head at a NRA rally and yells "From My Cold Dead Hands"!

I expect Bush will refuse Heston a chance to challenge
his accuser or to be tried by a jury of Heston's peers.

Much of what you described was forecast by me a few weeks after the Sept 11 attack -- see my article "What the Media are not telling you" at

(The original is at this site but this site is sometimes slow:

Unfortunately, the Republicans have gained such power because Bill Clinton and Chuck Schumer alienated the Democrats' core supporters --blue collar union workers -- by trying to take their guns away. Blue collar workers know the reality of political and economic repression in a way liberal urban professionals do not.

They also know that it's necessary nowdays to bury the ole flintlock in the backyard instead of hanging it over the mantle.

Don Williams - 2/23/2003

Anyone notice how Tom Ridge seems to put out a "high risk" alert whenever political opposition to Bush begins to build?

James L. ebberts - 2/22/2003

Duct tape, Homeland Security and Color Coding are at best to keep the indocrination of the American Society dumbed down to fear what they cannot control and mostly understand.

What bothers me as an American Citizen is this fear by Americans is so much more scary than the terrorists themselves and this is why. Terrorists are concentrating to attack by surprise and most likely all one can do is be aware of their surroundings and educate themselves about terrorism which is difficult to do because of the American Propanga bias to dumb down Americans by disinformation about Terrorism.

The Fear by americans is associated by what they have to do to feel safe. Duct tape, Color Coding, Homeland Security is such a joke it is not funny because Americans strike out at what is closest to them when they cannot battle against what they cannot control.

Think about it. Security at the Airports, etc is not to protect Americans but is to maintain that fear so "the powers to be" can continue the "dumbing down of American society".

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 2/20/2003

Seems to me, the government that's a budding tyranny is the regime of Shrub/Cheny/John. I mean, imagine a government unelected by a popular majority, installed by judicial coup d'etat, that confiscates the assets of its nation's middle class to relieve the civic burdens of its wealthy, imposes debt on future generations and burdens on state governments in a listless economy to build a mercenary military with which it can do whatever it wants while neglecting to finance homeland security,education, health care, infrastructure reconstruction, and more; bombs a backward country in alliance with brutal warlords it's bribed and leaves the mess for its allies--including it's greatest foreign policy critic, Germany--to tidy up the mess, whose members cultivated and aided a brutal Mesopotamian tyrant when it was convenient (and indeed, made money off off him and gave him the goodies to build bad things and use them) and now wants to divert us from its foreign policy and military failure--Osama, where are you?--by overwhelming a degraded desert army, unleashing ethnic and religious factionalism, and committing us to great uncertainty and danger, all the while doing so with such arrogant asurance that its allies are outraged, others have to bribed to go along, and at home--in secret--has drafted plans to make it possible for Big John the Righteous to do such things as revoke the citizenship of Americans on private whim? Or use secret courts? Oh--then there's Latin America neglected, gazillions into right-wing media to repeat those lies if repeated often enough become Truths, and is openly contemptuous of publoic opinion--indeed, Patriot Act Two would make even news about "antiterrorism" government activity criminal. That, sir, is despotism--why aren't you grabbin' yore musket and coonskin cap off the wall to defend yourself agin' it?

Thomas Cripps - 2/20/2003

The duct tape--in TV-land, "gaffer tape"--hysteria is as absurd as the HNN critics make it. But they correctly stop short of including World War II as absurd. Indeed, at the time, in Baltimore at least, fears were real. As kids in the late l930s we were taken to see the German raider, Emden, that called in our port, and then to see the burned out hulk of a tanker, The City of Flint, which had been set afire in the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay by a German uboat. True, there was only a remote possibility that the Germans would fire on an American city at naval gun range. But we, nonetheless, held blackout drills--despite there being an evidentiary gap between the potentential of an ulusive submarine to do damage as against the unlikely event of a Luftwaffe raid. In any case, as we are coming to learn about scrap metal drives, fat-can collecting, and such they helped the citizenry to feel engaged even if their efforts had scant material bearing on the outcome of the war. The absurdity in our present case, of course, lies in the overkill being applied to Saddam Hussein while the true perp of the attack on lower Manhattan remains at large and as flippant as was Zorro in our Saturday morning serials.

Dan - 2/20/2003

The honorable gentleman may just want to look up a few dates before he makes a bigger fool of himself.

Dan - 2/20/2003

No, the "left" does not abhor personal responsibility. In fact, the left, or liberals, or whatever you'd like to label us, takes personal responsibility seriously, which is why we abhor the Republican Party, whose idea of "personal responsibility" is "you are personally responsible to pay for our profits." This idea is called "externalizing costs," and is a consistent piece of the Republican platform for governance. Why pay for something you can get others to pay for, eh?

Describing the Democrats as "tax and spend" is only valid if you accept the Republicans as "spend but don't tax." Those of us who ARE personally responsible would, of course, be put in jail if we followed this practice in our personal lives.

Donald K. Pickens - 2/20/2003

Prof. Boyer is historically correct. While our foreign policy is a disaster wait until the President and his merry band work over the economy. O' we live in interesting times.

Steve Broce - 2/19/2003

What panic? Are people running through the streets in terror? Are there riots at the Home Depot? Are there fist fights in the stores for duct tape?

There is no panic.

Actually, the Israeli's, who live with the threat of chemical and biological attacks on a daily basis, have a "sealed room" kit. The major components include duct tape and plastic sheeting.
Sounds like a good idea to me.

Suetonius - 2/19/2003

Those of us in the midwest have known about needing to be prepared for quite some time. From tornados to snow storms to floods, it's all part of the game. The big news over this duct tape fiasco is that those on the east coast finally realized you ought to have all this stuff on hand all the time. Doesn't anyone actually pay attention to the Red Cross?

If this latest winter storm didn't hammer that home, what will?

Barbara Melosh - 2/19/2003

I appreciated Paul Boyer's gentle and sane critique of the current panic. His historical perspective is just what we need.

Don Williams - 2/19/2003

Mr Boyer's article puzzles me. It is a fact that simple self help measures could save thousands of lives in the event of a WMD strike -- and millions of lives in the event of a nuclear war.

So why criticize people for trying to protect themselves and their children by taking those measures? Most people think that spending $20 dollars for duct tape and plastic sheeting is cheap insurance. People in somewhat higher risk areas may even buy gas masks and rubber rainsuits, stock water and provisions,etc.

Most people try to reasonably balance their expenditures for additional protection against the information they have on the likelihood of an attack. As the perceived likelihood of an attack increases, they take greater measures.

Mr Boyer, by contrast, constructs a few mental strawmen and then heaps scorn/derision on those strawmen so that he has an excuse for sitting on his ass and sucking his thumb. The only positive aspect of a WMD attack is that it would weed pompous blowhards like Mr Boyer out of the population. One feels sorry for his family, however.

If my judgement of Mr Boyer seems harsh, consider that people like Mr Boyer respond to the challenges of life by lying down, drumming their heels on the carpet, and demanding that the government serve as a surrogate mommy. Consider that the worst of the politicians are willing to pander to such childish demands, for a while, in order to gain power. And a government which promises unlimited protection obviously needs unlimited power.

One could survive a nuclear war or biological pandemic if one had a 10-acre developed farm located several hundred miles from major cities (plus certain supplies and a fallout shelter.)
The only disaster we cannot survive or evade is a government which confiscates our assets, seizes our self-defense guns, and inflicts tyrannical laws on our community. Such governments are created by people with Mr Boyer's mentality.

Dave Livingston - 2/18/2003

Of course we are on our own. It is called personal responsibility, a concept the Left abhors. It prefers a nanny government to lead us each by the hand through every step of our lives.

As we all know, government ensures adherence to its rules via compulsion, the use of armed force, as is illustrated by seventy federal agencies being authorized to arm their employees. As was clearly shown under the Bastard from Hope's adminstration with its murders commited at Waco and at Ruby Ridge.

Tire of the foolish mumbo-jumbo of "The Nation" once my subscription to it expires we will part company.

Dave Livingston - 2/18/2003

Of course we are on our own. It is called personal responsibility, a concept the Left abhors. It prefers a nanny government to lead us each by the hand through every step of our lives.

As we all know, government ensures adherence to its rules via compulsion, the use of armed force, as is illustrated by seventy federal agencies being authorized to arm their employees. As was clearly shown under the Bastard from Hope's adminstration with its murders commited at Waco and at Ruby Ridge.

Tire of the foolish mumbo-jumbo of "The Nation" once my subscription to it expires we will part company.