Everyone in New York is paralyzed. Never have so many decisive people been so consumed by so much inde-cision. It's true at the major financial houses. It's true at the major media companies. Four years ago, these Masters of the Universe would look out of their windows and see bonus checks the size of New Jersey. Today, they look out of their windows and wonder if that plane approaching LaGuardia Airport is filled with nerve gas.
Around the world, a perfect storm is converging. Skyrocketing energy costs, slumping consumer confidence, geopolitical uncertainty, and global overcapacity are causing anxiety attacks across every market. It doesn't matter which country code you dial. The news is globally grim.
It's unlikely to get better any time soon. According to retired General Wayne Downing, who spent the past two years heading up the U.S. global war on terrorism at the National Security Council, the war will last 25 to 40 years. It's all but certain, he says, that New York and Washington, DC will be hit again. It's certainly possible, if not probable, that other major urban centers and key U.S. ports will also be hit. Al Qaeda's goal is to destroy the U.S. economy by paralyzing its key institutions through terror.
So what do we do? The first thing to do is snap out of our denial. The catastrophe of September 11 was not a one-off event. If we accept as a virtual certainty the idea that New York and Washington, DC will be hit again, we must begin moving key institutions and people out of those cities — now. Arguably, something like two-thirds of the very best people in international finance work in lower Manhattan. That's insane. If lower Manhattan were hit by a radiological bomb (for example) and there were to be a catastrophic loss of life, then international finance would collapse. But change the numbers and you change the result: If only one-fifth of the very best people in international finance work in lower Manhattan when it is hit by a radiological bomb, then international finance carries on.
The second thing that we have to do is change organizational behaviors. This is especially true within the government, where, no matter what you may read in the newspapers, federal departments such as the FBI, CIA, Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security still fight useless, inane bureaucratic turf wars. There are senior people in the U.S. government who will tell you that only another catastrophic event can change this — and even then, old behaviors will probably reassert themselves. Those behaviors are simply unacceptable.
The third thing that we need to do is to start anticipating behavior. When the terror alert went from yellow to orange in mid-February, people flocked to hardware stores to buy duct tape and sheets of clear plastic. The amazing thing is not that people did that. The amazing thing is that no one had produced prepackaged "defense readiness" kits and put them on the shelves.
Executives at Wal-Mart, the Home Depot, or Lowe's must know that some kind of chemical or biological attack is a possibility. But they haven't made the connection to the new reality: On any given day, 80,000 people could show up at your store or at your Web site and demand an all-in-one U.S.-citizen-defense-readiness package.
If the war on terrorism is truly a defining 25-to-40-year endeavor, then business enterprises have to understand that everything they thought they knew about consumer behavior is dated. Anxiety is the new universal psychographic. Helping customers navigate that anxiety, helping them learn to deal with it and cope, especially at the outset, is good for the country and plain good business. If AOL sets up a support group for every single U.S. serviceman and servicewoman in the Middle East by enabling 10 of its customers to connect electronically with that soldier, that exchange will be the most profound online experience that those 10 AOL customers will ever have. And they will remember that for the rest of their lives.
Finally, the leadership of every enterprise must convey to their constituents, employees, and customers that they are engaged in and by this war. Americans from all around the country raised more than $1 billion to help the victims of September 11. But to my knowledge, not one corporation has raised one dime for the education of those children in Afghanistan whose mothers and fathers lost their lives fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda. That's disgraceful. It's not somebody else's war. It's our war. And it's going to last a long, long time.
John Ellis (email@example.com), a writer and consultant, works in media, politics, and technology. Read his weekday musings on the Web (www.johnellis.blogspot.com).
A version of this article appeared in the May 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.