Friday, March 14, 2003
Carlisle Comments: Home safe
As the town website proclaims, with perhaps a touch of smugness, Carlisle has "no industrial parks, no apartment complexes, no condominiums, no traffic lights, and no fast food." Unlike the neighboring towns of Concord, Acton, Westford, Chelmsford, Billerica, and Bedford, Carlisle has no public transportation system, no central water supply or water treatment facility, no power plant, no highway or airport, no hospital, courthouse, or university. Apart from a few public buildings and an elementary school campus, the town has no infrastructure.
Residents depend on neighboring towns for almost all of the services such infrastructure provides: shopping, health care, travel, higher education, employment, entertainment, and so on. For a town that is certainly not in the middle of nowhere, it would be hard to find a place less likely to be the target of a terrorist attack.
Such insulation from the threats of the outside world yields an understandable feeling of safety. Better than the confidence the third little pig felt, Carlisle's sense of security is deepened by the probability that the wolf wouldn't even know how to find his way into town from the highway, never mind pound on the front door. Yet, when the federal government raises the terror alert level to "high" and the media fans the flames of fear with nonstop coverage of events that haven't happened yet and may not happen at all, even the safest of us will start to wonder, "What if?" Added to the general dread of terrorist attacks is an array of unrelated tragedies that, when taken together, begin to imbue even everyday things with potential menace, whether it's a ride on a train or a stop at a nightclub: exploding space shuttles, arson attacks on a subway train and in a nursing home, two nightclubs packed with hundreds of patrons burned to the ground. These stories unfolded in such relentless succession that it's hard to believe there were enough days in February to allow for so many disasters.
In fact, it turns out that Carlisle really is safe. When the homeland security office raised the terrorist threat level to code orange, our fire and police departments immediately received faxes and e-mails from the state's office of public safety outlining protective steps to take. These included checking vehicles and safety equipment for damage or needed repairs, accounting for all radios, putting personnel on a more random schedule, keeping the doors to public buildings locked when not in use, and generally being more suspicious of unknown people or unexpected inquiries. According to Fire Chief David Flannery, those steps are already standard operating procedure, and, he says, not much changed in the department's daily routine.
But, although we might be safe from the large scale terrorist attacks that city residents and others must consider, that doesn't mean nothing bad ever happens here. Every day, the fire and police departments respond to small-scale emergencies and tragedies. And, every day the school department deals with individual students and families in crisis. No headlines are generated and there is no public outpouring of grief or solidarity, but still, serious damage is done. Sometimes the police and fire logs give an inkling of the troubles in town, and we wonder if there is more going on than what makes it into the logs.
Our firefighters assist at life-threatening medical emergencies, and some of those people die. Our police officers respond to domestic violence and threats, and some of those families don't recover. And at least once a day, our school teachers and counselors attempt to keep troubled and unhappy children from failing, not just academically, but emotionally and socially as well. Some of those children will fail. These tragedies seem mundane when compared to catastrophes with death tolls counted in the hundreds or more. But, to the officers and teachers and counselors in town, code orange terrorist threats are minor in comparison. And to the children and families in Carlisle to whom emergency and attack are not just words on CNN, it's the end of the world.
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito