Uncle Sam Wants You! (To Be Vigilant)

The attacks on London this month, even though not involving airports, bring home a sobering reality: Public transportation of any kind is a prime target for two-legged vermin trying to kill as many innocent people as possible. While subways and train stations (principally on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States) are prime possible targets, there is no question that we gather in greater numbers at airports nationwide on a daily basis.

While we've made great strides in raising formidable barriers against any repeat of a 9/11-style invasion of commercial airliners, any part of any airport in which citizens can come and go -- especially those areas "outside security" -- remain vulnerable, and the main defense system is simply your eyes and ears and situational awareness. In other words, it's very much like the World War II posters saying, "Uncle Sam wants You!" This is a draft of necessity, and it involves all of us.

"SA." Situational awareness. It's a very descriptive phrase fighter pilots have long used in referring to the need to be actively aware of everything around them.

In the case of the occupant of a high-speed, single-seat fighter (such as an F-15 or F-16 or Navy Tomcat), maintaining SA in a combat situation can mean the difference between living and dying.

It means the pilot has to be using all available tools -- his or her own senses as well as electronic sensors such as radar -- to simultaneously "see" 360 degrees, know what threats there are, know the status of the aircraft in acute detail, and understand the dynamics of what is happening. That's a tall order for one carbon-based human being, but that's why today's fighter pilots are a rare and capable breed.

Maintaining SA is also a commandment for anyone outside of aviation engaged in a high-risk enterprise. Physicians and nurses, for example, are constantly challenged to understand the need for maintaining a macro as well as micro view of their surroundings, their patients and the dynamic realities of, for instance, an emergency room.

Even a woman walking to her car after work needs to maintain SA, tuning her senses -- not out of fear but out of good habit -- to be very aware of who and what is around her. Ever see a TV hero get in a car without at least glancing in the backseat, only to be attacked from that same backseat? There's a character who wasn't maintaining SA.

SA doesn't just mean the dynamic situation around you. As recent federal prosecutions have thoroughly underscored, the chairman of a public company can be held criminally liable for failing to maintain situational awareness of the financial honestly (or lack thereof) of his company. In other words, most of us have a potential penalty to pay for not maintaining SA in whatever form in whatever environment we inhabit.

Reminder: We're at War

When you head for the airport, whether to travel, get a ticket in advance or pick someone up, you become part of a massive team that includes virtually all of us who do not believe that slaughtering people is an acceptable method of political expression. You have, in other words, a responsibility that goes far beyond just your own immediate personal interests.

That responsibility, in brief, is to maintain an extraordinary level of SA and be ready, willing and able to be your brother's keeper when it comes to immediately spotting and reporting something odd or seriously out of the ordinary.

We're at war, plain and simple.

We don't need to have lost Pearl Harbor again to understand this, although our generational Pearl Harbor was clearly 9/11. We also must not wait for some other hideous attack on U.S. soil to wake us up to the reality that the murderous, insane radicals who arranged the 9/11 attacks are still working night and day to do far worse.

Just like our friends and allies in Britain who have demonstrated such strength and resolve following the wanton attacks of 7/7 and last week, we, too, have done an excellent job of continuing our national life with a business-as-usual attitude in the post-9/11 years. But that attitude works against us when we let the smooth surface of the national waters hide the fact that we're in the middle of no less than a major war on our own homeland turf, and that every airport in America is a potential battleground.

We've all heard the announcements inside our airports about letting authorities know if strange packages or bags are left unattended, or anything else happens that is strange or out of the ordinary. But too many of us have closed our peripheral vision and relaxed in the false sense of security that since all looks calm, all is calm.

Areas outside the security screening lanes such as crowded ticket counter lines and baggage claim halls need continuous SA. We need virtually all of us to be acutely aware of what's happening and to never be shy or slow about grabbing a cop or a security person or an airport employee or a telephone if something doesn't look or seem right. That is especially true for backpacks or packages or bags left unattended.

Those announcements are very serious, and even though they're repetitious, they must be heard and heeded. It's also true for the parking garages, the rental car shuttles, the front driveway and wherever numbers of us gather.

This isn't promoting paranoia. It's promoting SA and teamwork. And why am I so strident about this? Because security personnel across the nation have noticed a disturbing trend in which abandoned packages and bags and boxes and backpacks can sit, sometimes for hours, with no one saying a word. That means we're not pulling together as a national team to protect ourselves, yet we're all equally responsible.

Maintain SA. It's not just for fighter pilots anymore.