Dealing with Terrorism: A Public Health Agenda

Nancy Milio, Professor of Nursing,
September 20, 2001
For the public health community, the terrorism wreaked on the United States is stunning, but not necessarily surprising. It was a shrieking reminder to us all that desperate and hopeless peoples will follow extremist minorities, that poverty and insecurity, compounded by smoldering pockets of war and the cautious engagement, if any, by the rich world breeds the destruction of September 11. That horror spread its message in nanoseconds across the world, evoking cries of alarm and sorrow, life-sacrificing rescues, and loud calls for vengeance and a "crusade" to counter the "jihad", expending more material and human resources for more death, disability, and damage to the lives and futures of thousands, perhaps millions.

Our commitment to the promotion of health and prevention of human and environmental damage calls us to join those whose voices are muffled in the mass media, those who claim another way, those who call for serious peace work and the conditions that can bring it about.

Clearly, the immediate priority in the terror for the public health community was and is to attend to survivors and their families and the protection of environments to avoid further injury and illness to rescuers, securing the necessary infrastructure-air, water, sewage and sanitation, transportation and communication.

Second, we must now-if we ever had doubts after decades of research and experience-work with renewed energy to prevent the anger and hopelessness that fosters extremism and finds solace in its crimes. But not, as many would lead the world, with terrorists' tactics. Rather let us use our own tested tools: working for policies and with organizations that will bring basic humane and healthful living conditions to communities-secure housing, safe environments, food security, education and health care-to those in our own rich countries who are deprived; let us lead, encourage, and support the same efforts in poor countries.

To reallocate national budgets in both rich and poor states, as we are doing, to wage a vaguely targeted war on terrorism will only confirm the claims of the "Great Satan" myth. A shift toward war in the U.S. will mean further reductions in already meager funds for social concerns (because the new money is not likely to be drawn from a repeal of recent tax cuts), diminishing the already threadbare hopes of 37 million Americans living in poverty, including one in five children, the 1 in 3 families facing housing hardship, the 44 million without health insurance. These are the grounds of anger and hopelessness.

Third on a public health agenda to eradicate the allure of terrorism is to use 21st century information technology to join the globalizing net of organizations which seek to humanize state policies and world markets, to end the rush to commodify everything from genes to environments. Locally and globally, we must raise the message persistently to publics, the media, and policymakers: that there can be no peace without social justice, the fair sharing of the goods and goodness that we have. Let us give leaders in communities and those in intergovernmental forums the political courage to dissent from a war regime and support social justice and criminal justice under law. Every move we can make, everywhere, toward a just society nourishes hope, calms rage, helps ensure a peaceable future for us all.

Nancy Milio
Professor of Nursing
Professor of Health Policy & Administration,
School of Public Health
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
School of Nursing
Carrington Hall 7460
Chapel Hill, NC 27599, USA

Fax: 919 966 7298
Tel: 919 9664249

Conflict of Interest

None declared