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Jewish World Review Jan. 4, 2002 / 20 Teves, 5762

Bob Greene

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Latest fallout from terrorism: Seeking shelter -- WE'VE been here before.

The fear -- or so we keep telling ourselves -- is unprecedented. The very name of the war confirms this: the war against terror.

We've never been through anything like this -- that is the common cry.

But we've been here before.

We once, as a nation, were so frightened that we burrowed into the ground. We hid beneath the dirt.

Not all of us -- but everyone thought about it. It was a consuming national debate.

Fallout shelters -- should your family build one or not?

And if you did -- if your family constructed an underground shelter to wait out the nuclear war -- what should you do if your neighbors asked to join you? You were the ones who had the foresight to prepare -- the people next door, did nothing to protect themselves until the bombs fell. So if they came knocking on your back-yard fallout shelter door, what were you to do?

Kill them -- that was one option.

Not a pleasant one, but one that might be necessary. You could love your neighbor -- but, regrettably, kill him, too.

This is not some science fiction scenario -- not some flashback to a bad drive-in movie. This really went on in the U.S. in the years after World War II, when there as a constant fear the Soviet Union would drop nuclear bombs on American cities. Fallout shelters were thought to be the solution -- and today, when you can't open a newspaper without seeing the word "terror," it makes sense to revisit that time, to see if there is anything we can learn.

"Unfortunately, I think we may be entering the fallout shelter state of mind," said historian Kenneth D. Rose of California State University at Chico. Rose, author of the scholarly treatise "One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture," knows as much about the subject as anyone in this country, and I sought him out to see if he believed we were past that kind of thing today.

"You're already hearing about people constructing `safe rooms' that are sealable, to keep out biological weapons," he said. "It's the old fallout shelter way of thinking all over again."

By the best estimates, some 200,000 families constructed fallout shelters during the years of the greatest fear of nuclear attack -- and that does not include the millions upon millions of families who merely stocked up with water and canned goods in their basements for the eventuality of global warfare. Fear was not only considered acceptable, it was patriotic. Newspapers printed special editions to warn their readers of what would happen to their towns if the bombs were dropped. On July 20, 1956, the Buffalo Evening News published an issue with the banner headline "125,000 KNOWN DEAD, DOWNTOWN IN RUINS," along with what looked to be a photo of downtown buildings blazing and crumbling (the doctored photo eerily resembles real photos from New York on Sept. 11). In smaller type the editors admonished readers: "Warning: This Didn't Happen . . . But It Could!"

Citizens built fallout shelters, Rose said, because "our country was really discussing for the first time under what terms Americans wanted to survive. That's how the questions arose about whether you were justified in killing your neighbor if he tried to get into your shelter. People actually tried to hide the fact they were building shelters, so the neighbors wouldn't know. They disguised the construction of the shelters as patio additions."

The fallout shelter years eventually ended, Rose said, because "people decided there is a price to be paid for everything. Are you willing to live in fear in order to survive? That was the question -- and people seemed to decide it was better to live their lives with some dignity than to create these things under the ground, of dubious value, in the hopes of eking out an existence for an unknowable number of days."

But then came Sept. 11, 2001 -- and all of a sudden the front page of every paper in the country looked like the "warning" edition of the Buffalo Evening News. So are we about to start sealing ourselves off again?

"The psychology behind the fallout shelters was fear -- and the slight hope that you might survive to live another day," Rose said.

We've been here before.

It's the old neighborhood.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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