A few days before Thanksgiving, a videotape appears on a journalist's desk. It claims to be a warning from terrorists, saying a group of the nation's largest malls have been targeted, and those who shop over Thanksgiving weekend will die. The tape is found to be credible. The journalists—and soon afterward the federal government and state and local governments at the sites of the targeted malls—face some very difficult choices. Among them: When should the public be told of this threat?
The journalists and government leaders make their choices. Thanksgiving comes, Thanksgiving goes, and, it appears, no attack takes place. Sadly, those appearances are wrong, as becomes clear when some residents of Springfield, home of the nation's largest mall, come down with an unusual and potentially fatal disease.
As the death toll rises, panic spreads through the city and people begin to flee the region. The governor must decide whether to declare a state of quarantine. Within the hospital, officials prevent those who may have been exposed from leaving the hospital.
Antibiotics begin rolling in from the Strategic National Stockpile coordinated by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Once treatment arrives, however, new pressures emerge. With the public in a state of panic, everyone demands medication, whether or not they need it. Already strained health institutions must decide how to distribute the drugs equitably by determining who is sick, who might be sick, and those whose fear has convinced them they are sick.
Biological terror adds another dimension to the horrors of a "straightforward" physical attack: the possibility that one may be a victim and not know it—until it is too late. As individuals attempt to save themselves from the unleashed pathogen, and the government attempts to contain it, daily life and economic activity in entire regions grind to a halt.
After bombs hidden in empty baby strollers go off in two major amusement parks within days of each other, leaders must deal with fears that the bombs are the beginning of a series of terrorist attacks. They must grapple with how to advise the public: Do they urge them to be more "vigilant"? In this context, what does vigilance mean?
For one citizen, those questions become urgent when he overhears an ambiguous but suspicious-sounding telephone conversation made by someone waiting at the DMV. The caller warns someone not to go to a major public attraction because "people will get hurt there." Should authorities be informed of the call? Or would reporting the call be an overreaction?
While the overheard telephone call and hundreds of other leads are being investigated, intelligence agencies unearth some very credible and very disturbing information about a plot to smuggle one or more dirty bombs in shipping containers going through Port City. Eventually a confidential informant identifies a particular port employee as part of the plot. Without knowing who else is involved in the plot—or where the bombs are—leaders must struggle with how best to prevent it. The president chooses to keep the port employee under intense surveillance. To avoid tipping off the terrorists, he keeps the information from the public, and even from state and local governments. Is that the right choice?
When it appears the port employee is about to leave the country, he is picked up for questioning, and soon he tells his lawyer that he does know where the bombs are—and that they will go off within hours. At that point leaders are faced with the most painful dilemma of all: What would they do to get the information they need from the suspect?
"City Under Siege" forces us to consider how we as a nation should—and should not—change in the face of a terrorist threat, and how our values as well as our safety may be at risk in the War on Terror.