5: A PACK, NOT A HERD
Unfortunately, technology empowers the bad people as well as the good. Take terrorists, for example. Modern explosives, computers, and communications magnify the damage that an individual or a small group can do. On the other hand, technology also makes the rest of us better equipped to face such threats. Dealing with both sides of that equation will be one of the big challenges of the twenty-first century.
Right now, we're not dealing with it especially well. Governments want to keep this sort of power to themselves, and they're not very good at taking small-scale approaches to, well, anything. For governments, bigger is almost always better.
But, in fact, responding to attacks and disasters is something that individuals and small groups may be better situated to deal with than governments. Certainly the amateurs on the scene have one big advantage that the government usually lacks: they're on the scene. In all sorts of circumstances and capacities.PRIVATIZING THE CYBER WAR
It is no secret that Al Qaeda and other Islamic terror groups make extensive use of the Web. Some websites provide coded messages, in the same way radio stations used to broadcast coded messages for spies in enemy territory. Others playa role in recruiting, disseminating propaganda, and soliciting donations. Some may serve all of these functions.
No doubt various official U.S. government agencies are looking at these sites in order to gather intelligence and identify enemies. But they're not alone. In fact, a surprising number of ordinary citizens have gotten involved as well.
Sometimes, the stings are quite elaborate. For example, the pseudonymous hacker "Johnathan Galt" appears to have set up a phony pro-terrorism site that solicited support and donations from those sympathetic to Islamic terror. After operating for several months (with, apparently, the assistance of Islamist bin-Laden sympathizers who thought it was genuine), the site became a new and improved anti-Islamic terror site sporting the legend, "We've changed our mind: Jihad is crap!" No doubt Mr. Galt also harvested a great deal of information useful to the authorities, including IP addresses, cookie-tracking information, and, of course, identity information via the PayPal donations he accepted. 
Similarly, Internet entrepreneur "Jon David," who runs a number of Internet porn sites as his day job, has made a hobby out of hijacking pro-terror websites. Most recently he scored a coup by successfully taking over the AI Qaeda website.  Visitors were redirected to a mirror page operated by David, from which he harvested 27,000 IP addresses per day, along with other information he has shared with the FBI. (No big surprise in one discovery: 90 percent of his visitors came from Saudi Arabia.)
Not as James-Bondian but still pretty important, webloggers like Charles Johnson ask their readers to look for pages containing support for terrorism, publicize the results, and attempt to bring pressure on the ISPs to shut the sites down. And other folks have jumped in with ideas for disinformation and pranks that will spread confusion among jihadists at very low cost.
At the very least, website monitoring helps keep people informed of what's going on, and website hacking means that terrorists and terrorist wannabes have to constantly worry about whether their Web operations have been compromised. Both kinds of actions serve to make life much tougher for terrorists and their supporters.
It's hard to know how these actions compare to whatever is being done by government agencies. Possibly, far more sophisticated operations are underway by skilled and well-equipped government hackers. On the other hand, Jon David's experience suggests otherwise. When David approached the FBI to tell them that he had captured Al Qaeda's website and that he was eager to cooperate, the FBI's response was glacial:
It literally took me five days to reach anyone in the FBI that had an even elementary grasp of the Internet. By that time, the hostiles realized the site I had up was a decoy and then advised everyone away from it. I still gave the FBI all the log information and link information to the hostile boards and whatnot, but it's far from what could have potentially been done if they would have acted more quickly. 
The good news is that the Bush administration seems to be figuring out that creative individuals may be able to complement law enforcement's more traditional approach. Richard Clarke, when he was White House computer security adviser, publicly encouraged white-hat hacking and offered to put the administration's weight behind any legislative changes needed to protect good-guy hackers from prosecution or litigation. That's a good start, especially in light of the software industry's tendency to punish those who point out flaws in fear of bad publicity. But Clarke was mostly concerned with probing friendly systems for weaknesses. Clarke's long gone now, and I'm not sure that his successor is as supportive. What we really need is a counterterrorist program that harnesses the energy and innovation of good-guy hackers. Terrorism is a decentralized, fast-moving threat, which means that a decentralized, fast-moving response makes sense. Bureaucracies aren't good at that, but ordinary Americans are.
Electronic privateering, anyone? It's an idea whose time may have come.LEARNING CURVES
But, of course, the role of involved citizens, empowered by technology, goes well beyond that. In fact, we saw it on 9/11.
Albert Einstein once said that the most powerful force in the universe is compound interest. Arguably so. But I think that the most powerful force in the human universe is the learning curve.
The war on terrorism provides good examples of this phenomenon on both sides. Before September 11, the terrorists were the ones with a learning curve. Although there is plenty of evidence that the Al Qaeda crowd isn't especially bright, over the years they demonstrated the salutary (for them) qualities of persistence and willingness to learn from mistakes. When truck bombing the World Trade Center failed, they started looking at airplanes. When initial efforts to hijack airplanes failed, they changed their approach.
The aviation-security establishment, meanwhile, was much less adaptable. It concentrated on stopping 1970s style skyjackings, where the chief goal was publicity (and perhaps money) rather than murder. Later, efforts began to turn toward blocking Lockerbie-style bomb smuggling. And because the security system was blocking such efforts with a fair degree of efficiency, it didn't change its approach even when confronted with indications that the terrorists were changing theirs. Bureaucracies are supposed to be about sharing information, but information is power in bureaucracies, and people are not all that keen about sharing power.
The result was that, on September 11, the terrorists held all the cards. They carried only items that did not violate carry-on rules. They avoided scrutiny designed to thwart bomb-smugglers -- scrutiny based on the assumption that terrorists wouldn't want to die with their victims. They took advantage of a stay-passive philosophy that urged (indeed, required as a matter of policy) cooperation rather than confrontation with hijackers.
But no sooner did the first plane strike the World Trade Center than the hijackers had to confront someone with a swifter learning curve. As Brad Todd noted in a terrific column written just a few days later, American civilians, using items of civilian technology like cell phones and twenty-four-hour news channels, changed tactics and defeated the hijackers aboard United Airlines' Flight 93. These civilians overcame years of patient planning in less than two hours.
Just 109 minutes after a new form of terrorism -- the most deadly yet invented -- came into use, it was rendered, if not obsolete, at least decidedly less effective.
Deconstructed, unengineered, thwarted, and put into the dust bin of history. By Americans. In 109 minutes.
And in retrospect, they did it in the most American of ways. They used a credit card to rent a fancy cell phone to get information just minutes old, courtesy of the ubiquitous twenty-four-hour news phenomenon. Then they took a vote. When the vote called for sacrifice to protect country and others, there apparently wasn't a shortage of volunteers. Their action was swift. It was decisive. And it was effective. 
No one has successfully hijacked a Western civilian airliner since -- and, as "shoe bomber" Richard Reid learned, those terrorists who threaten civilian airliners now tend to emerge rather the worse for wear. Against bureaucracies, terrorists had the learning-curve advantage. Against civilians, they did not.
No surprise there. American civilians, perhaps even moreso than counterparts in Europe, Japan, and the rest of the industrialized world, are used to making rapid changes based on new information. Accustomed to a steep learning curve in business and in life, we should be able to out-adapt those who, after all, are ultimately committed to returning the world to a simulacrum of the twelfth century.
There's a lesson here. Societies that encourage open communication, quick thinking, decentralization, and broad dispersal of skills -- along with a sense of individual responsibility -- have an enormous structural advantage as opposed to societies that don't, an advantage that increases in a world of high technology and unconventional war. But tyrants and fanatics of whatever stripe cannot afford to encourage those traits in their citizens if they want to remain in power. The message that this should send to our adversaries is one they should find disheartening: The only way you're likely to beat us is by becoming like us -- at which point, more than likely, you won't want to beat us anyway.
The Americans acting aboard Flight 93 were not an aberration. In fact, Americans responded to the 9/11 attacks in similar fashion elsewhere.
One barely reported story from September 11 illustrates this better than any other. The improvised navy evacuated roughly a million people by boat from Lower Manhattan, in an operation that some have called an American Dunkirk. Ferries, commercial boats, and pleasure craft spontaneously assembled to carry people away from the scene of the attack and to return with needed supplies:
People at Ground Zero, the Manhattan Waterfront, nearby New Jersey, Staten Island and Brooklyn waterfronts, and crews on the numerous vessels repeatedly used the phrases "just amazing," "everyone cooperated," and "just doing what it took" to describe maritime community responses. Individuals stepped up and took charge of specific functions, and captains and crews from other companies took their direction .... Private maritime operators kept their vessels onsite and available until Friday, Day Four, when federal authorities took over. 
"Day Four, when federal authorities took over." There's a lesson in that phrase, isn't there? This wasn't just an evacuation: it was a whole alternative logistic system, improvised on the fly by people who didn't work for the government. Fuel, water, and food were brought in; when there were problems moving big pieces of steel at the site, the boats brought structural ironworkers from New Jersey along with boots, oxygen, and acetylene cylinders, and whatever else was needed. This effort got some coverage at the time but has largely been forgotten in the aftermath since ad hoc groups don't have PR agents to keep their deeds in the public eye. Still, it was one of the most amazing feats of human self-organization ever, and it deserves more attention than it got.
Of course, many of the players in the New York evacuation and supply effort already possessed the technical skills that they needed -- it was just a question of applying them to the job at hand. Such might not be the case among a group of ordinary citizens at the scene of another disaster.GETTING READY
But things don't have to be that way. With a modicum of effort, it might well be possible to ensure that people at the scenes of disasters are prepared and possess the necessary skills for quick action on their own. How? By training them now.
Both the prevention of and the response to terrorism might be handled, at least in part, on a dispersed-among-the-citizenry basis. Prevention could be done by training volunteers to watch for suspicious indications that might warn of terrorism, and perhaps even inform certain select (but large) groups of intelligence data. The September 11 hijackers and D.C. shooter John Muhammad displayed lots of warning signs. The problem is that we were not ready to read those signs. 
Citizens could do much more in response to terrorism. Many have suggested encouraging people who are licensed to carry guns (an early technology for empowering individuals) to do so. After all, it was armed individuals working for El Al, rather than a law enforcement agency, who stopped Mohammed Hadayet's Los Angeles International Airport shooting spree almost as soon as it started. Armed citizens, especially if trained in what to look for, could be a very valuable line of defense against terrorism. In almost every instance of terrorism, the true first responders will be the people already on the scene. And, as Flight 93's passengers reminded us, that response can be decisive.
In addition, people trained in first aid (especially the specific skills likely to be useful in the aftermath of a terrorist attack), in recognizing the signs of chemical or biological attack, and in various other disaster-recovery skills could contribute a lot. Even in the case of such relatively "mundane" events as truck bombings and shooting sprees, individuals on the scene will have to wait crucial minutes before aid even begins to arrive.
People should also be encouraged to carry cameras, or video cameras, and use them in the immediate moments after an attack to gather potentially valuable data. Would people remember to use them? Probably. They often take video of disasters anyway (there's something about a viewfinder that tends to steady the nerves); it wouldn't take much to get people to do that.
In the case of the D.C. sniper attacks, even a massive law enforcement presence couldn't prevent terror attacks it knew were about to happen. But an informed and prepared citizenry -- the likes of which stopped "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, helped stop Mohammad Hadayet, kept Flight 93 from smashing into the Capitol, and finally caught D.C. snipers Muhammad and Malvo -- can be everywhere. It already is.
After repeatedly slipping through the fingers of law enforcement, John Muhammad and Lee Malvo were caught because leaked information about the suspects' automobile and license number was picked up by members of the public, one of whom spotted the car within hours and alerted the authorities. He even went so far as to block the exit from the rest area with his own vehicle to make sure they didn't escape. "You can deputize a nation," said one news official after the fact.
With proper information, the public can act against terrorists -- often, as we found on September 11, faster and more effectively than the authorities. The key, as blogger Jim Henley noted, is to "make us a pack, not a herd." 
The problem is that this goes against the very grain of intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies, and the rest of the bureaucratic infrastructure. Within bureaucracies in general -- and doubly within intelligence and law enforcement bureaucracies -- information is power, and power isn't something you want to share. If you deputize a nation, doesn't that make the official deputies feel just a little bit less special?
The problem with this mindset is that it's all about bureaucratic turf, and not about getting the job done. Otherwise we'd have learned the lesson long ago. As Canadian journalist Colby Cosh remarked:
I'd have thought the Unabomber case would have taught police, I don't know, everywhere that it is better to be liberal than stingy in releasing information to the public. Remember the Unabomber -- the serial killer who was caught because his prose style was recognized? Yeah, that guy. If Charles Moose and his merry men had actually succeeded in sitting on the information they wanted sat upon, Muhammad and Malvo might have been popping another D.C.-area shopper's head like a grape while you read this. Keep this in mind as you hear their police work praised in the days to follow. 
That's a bit harsh, but the point is dear. There are good reasons police might want to keep some kinds of information confidential -- they need details that will let them screen out calls from nutballs other than the real killer (though that didn't work very well in the D.C. sniper case), and they don't want to create an unnecessary panic or provoke an orgy of finger-pointing and suspicion. These are actions based on legitimate concerns, but they can actually facilitate crime if overdone. And police are overdoing them.
It seems pretty dear that the authorities, overall, view the citizenry as a herd, not as a pack. They see ordinary people as sheep, with themselves in the role of shepherd. Without dose supervision, they assume, people will erupt into mob violence, or scatter in fear.
The evidence, however, doesn't support this assessment. As sociologist Kathleen Tierney writes, contrary to what pop portrayals of disaster might have predicted, the response of ordinary New Yorkers to the 9/11 attacks was "adaptive and effective":
Beginning when the first plane struck, as the disaster literature would predict, the initial response was dominated by prosocial and adaptive behavior. The rapid, orderly, and effective evacuation of the immediate impact area -- a response that was initiated and managed largely by evacuees themselves, with a virtual absence of panic -- saved numerous lives. Assisted by emergency workers, occupants of the World Trade Center and people in the surrounding area helped one another to safety, even at great risk to themselves. In contrast with popular culture and media images that depict evacuations as involving highly competitive behavior, the evacuation process had much in common with those that occur in most major emergencies. Social bonds remained intact, and evacuees were supportive of one another even under extremely high-threat conditions. 
What's more, such responses are typical, even though they often infuriate outsiders. For the government it's upsetting, because people aren't asking it what to do. For the media it's frustrating, because there's no one in charge to interview. But we shouldn't assume that these frustrations have anything to do with effectiveness. As Tierney notes, people improvising on the scene often look disorganized because there's nobody in a uniform running things. But their on-the-spot improvisations and local knowledge often make them more effective than a more impressive-looking operation made up of people in uniforms. 
So while Chief Moose and the other talking heads were holding press conferences in which they castigated the press for reporting information, they should have been figuring out how to take advantage of the vast resources that a mobilized public can command. But the officials didn't want to, for fear of "vigilantes." Luckily for them, a leak saved the day.
Regardless of whether or not the D.C. snipers count as "terrorists" under your particular definition (they do under mine, but the authorities seem to have been shooting for a much narrower standard), there seems little question that in coming years we're going to be dealing with a lot of fast-moving, dispersed threats of the sort that bureaucracies don't handle very well. (Every dramatic domestic-terrorism victory so far, from Flight 93 to bringing down the LAX shooter to spotting the D.C. killers was accomplished by non-law-enforcement individuals). Rather than creating new bureaucracies, we need to be looking at ways of promoting fast-moving, dispersed responses, responses that will involve members of the public as a pack, not a herd. Even if doing so reduces the career satisfaction of the shepherds.
As David Brin points out, the trend over the past century was to put this sort of thing into the hands of "official" organizations. But with technology empowering people in new ways, that's changing, and it's time we changed our approaches to take account of this difference.  I hope that people in Washington are paying attention to this. But the evidence so far isn't too encouraging. On the other hand, some people are catching on.
Responding to the 9/11 Commission's report released in 2004, J. B. Schramm wrote in the Washington Post. ''A first review of the Sept. 11 commission's report indicates that the system failed, but that is wrong. While the U.S. air defense system did fail to halt the attacks, our improvised, high-tech citizen defense 'system' was extraordinarily successful .... " The important question, according to Schramm, is not "How did the government/CIA/ FAA fail us?" But rather, "How did the networked citizens on the ground and in the sky save US?" 
We shouldn't let this fact make us overconfident, of course. Structural advantages are a wonderful thing, but no one is invincible. However, as we look at how to order our society in the wake of September 11, and with the prospect of other disasters as unanticipated now as the September 11 attacks were on September 10, we should not lose sight of what it is that makes us strong -- the flexibility and decentralization that make American society great, and that drive bureaucrats nuts. Bureaucrats like centralization and control. But even fundamentalist terrorists can outthink bureaucrats. It's up to the rest of us to make sure that neither the terrorists nor the bureaucrats get their way.MAKING READY
When I've written on this subject in the past, readers request that I write on what, specifically, individual citizens can do to prepare for a role in responding to, and preventing, terrorism. Okay.
I will say up front, though, that although I'm totally in favor of individual citizens taking the initiative to prepare themselves, such self-help measures would do more good if the federal and state governments actually took a role in encouraging and facilitating them. But if you want to get a leg up on the process before the much slower bureaucracy gets the ball rolling -- if it ever does -- here are a few things you can do to help. Odds are that you'll never use them or even come close to needing them. Terrorist attacks are pretty rare. But you'll probably never need your smoke detector either. And, anyway, many of these skills and behaviors may turn out to be useful otherwise.
Prevention: Where terrorism is concerned, an ounce of prevention is worth a metric ton of cure. But what can you do to prevent terrorism?
Well, you can't intercept Al Qaeda communications unless you're an unusually skilled cyberwarrior of the sort discussed above. But terrorists tend to give off warning signals before they strike: they profess sympathy to AI Qaeda (a pretty good giveaway), they make threats, they brag to strippers, and they engage in other behaviors that don't add up. In the past, people have failed to report these warning signs for fear of seeming prejudiced. Those days are over, I think, and you should certainly be prepared to report to authorities things that seem odd -- especially as you, unlike the authorities, needn't worry too much about being charged with ethnic profiling. (Whether the authorities will listen or not is another question -- they didn't where John Muhammad was concerned -- but there's only so much you can do about that.)
Aside from reporting any potential terrorists you might run across at strip clubs ("Honey, I was just protecting 'homeland security!'" probably won't work as an excuse), you can maintain situational awareness, especially in public places like airports, shopping malls, and so on. Jeff Cooper's book Principles of Personal Defense  contains a number of games and mental exercises designed to promote that sort of awareness. Short of that, just get into the habit of noticing what's going on around you. Scan for people who look suspicious or are acting oddly, unattended bags or packages, and so on. (For practice, try to notice something distinctive about each person you see -- a tattoo, a crooked nose, whatever. Really look at people instead of just skimming the crowd.)
Also, consider what you'd do if you saw something unusual. Obviously that depends on what you see -- if you see a guy pulling out a gun, you're not going to have time to call security -- but if you see an unattended package you probably will. But you should know whom to call, and what to say, or what to do if there's not time to call anyone. No need to get obsessive, but do playa few of these scenarios out in your mind and you'll be prepared if the situation actually comes up.
Response: How do you prepare to respond once it's too late to prevent something? Carrying a cell phone is something anyone can do, and experiences ranging from Flight 93 to the more recent Moscow theater incident and the London bombings demonstrate that having people on the scene with cell phones is enormously valuable. Be prepared to report what's going on dearly and concisely. Think about what information is valuable to authorities trying to respond -- exactly what you're seeing, how many people are in the area, how many terrorists (if any) are present, how they're armed, and so on. (Example: "There are four guys wearing black, they've shot several people, and they're carrying AK-47s and pistols" is a lot more useful than "There are some guys shooting!" or "Help! It's terrorists!")
If you can legally carry a gun, you may want to consider doing so on a regular basis. But remember that there's nothing magical about a gun. If you're going to carry it, you need to be good at hitting what you shoot at, and -- just as important -- you need to practice in situations that will help you formulate judgment about when and how to shoot. Training courses along these lines are available most places, and if you're planning to carry a gun regularly they're a good idea. (In fact, given the woeful nature of most law enforcement officers' training and practice, if you take one of these courses and practice regularly, you may actually be better prepared than many of the professionals.) Of course, many places forbid guns -- and, not surprisingly, they're often prime terrorist targets. So you may want to brush up on your unarmed-combat skills too. Courses in those are even more common and provide good healthy exercise anyway.
Preparation: Sadly, many terrorist events will involve things that no degree of prior awareness or self-defense skill will do much to prevent. Terrorists, not exactly paragons of bravery or fair play, tend to choose methods that are hard to stop by such means: bombs, for example. Unless you spot the bomb or bomber in time for people to be evacuated, you probably won't be able to do much in response until after it goes off.
So brush up on your first aid skills too. If there's a mass shooting, or if a bomb goes off, help will be on the way within minutes. But "minutes" can be a very long time in the aftermath of a bomb or a shooting. The Red Cross and other organizations offer first aid courses, though most of them focus more on responding to isolated individual accidents than in dealing with the massive trauma that often occurs after a terrorist attack. (Maybe these courses should be updated.) I once took an advanced course that did cover this sort of thing (along with a lot of other stuff I hope I'll never use, like improvised traction and bone setting), however such training is a bit harder to find. But simply applying direct pressure to wounds and keeping airways dear can go a long way toward keeping someone alive until more advanced help comes.
Getting in the habit of having a video camera or small still camera around can be helpful too, as I suggested earlier. If it's a cell-phone camera, you may even be able to send pictures to the authorities right away. Photos during, or in the immediate aftermath of, a terrorist attack may well reveal useful information, as well as making you a temporary celebrity -- and perhaps a few bucks. Just be sure your batteries are charged! (And don't get so interested in taking pictures that you forget to duck.)
And what about your home? The disruptions caused by terrorist attacks tend to be short-lived, but anyone should be ready to live without power, food, or water for at least a few days. The Red Cross website has a list of recommendations for disaster preparedness that is a good starting point. Gas masks and Geiger counters are, it seems to me, overkill unless you live next to a hazardous waste facility or somesuch. If you disagree, lots of places on the Web offer to sell and advise on this kind of merchandise. But being able to take care of yourself, your family, and perhaps a few others for a week or more is a good idea and will do much to ease the burden on disaster services.
These recommendations just scratch the surface, of course, but they should at least point you in the right direction. Many of them will also prove useful even if you never encounter a terrorist: being aware of your surroundings may prevent a rape or mugging (both more likely, statistically, than terrorism anyway); having emergency supplies at home will payoff in the event of a blizzard, hurricane, earthquake, or other natural disaster. Perhaps most importantly, if you formulate the habits of mind that will keep you alert and focused in an emergency (instead of paralyzed or panicky), you improve your odds in all sorts of unfortunate situations, regardless of whether terrorism is involved. Even before 9/11, the "leave it to the professionals" approach to safety and security was obviously a bad idea. And that will remain true even after the last Al Qaeda sympathizer is pushing up daisies. Let's just hope that the government catches on to this, sooner or later, and offers the kind of support that will move these suggestions from the category of "self-help" to the category of "national defense."INSTITUTIONAL LEARNING
There are some promising signs in that direction at the moment. A recent article from the Christian Science Monitor describes a trend toward terrorism vigilance -- mostly by volunteer groups -- in the years since September 11. Pennsylvania has been training citizens, ranging from business owners to members of the Rotary Club, in antiterrorism preparedness and response since 2002. Over sixty thousand have received courses in how to recognize terrorism and how to respond. 
At the federal level, the Coast Guard has set up "America's Waterway Watch,"  encouraging recreational boaters and maritime workers to be alert to any suspicious behavior that might indicate possible terrorism. Volunteers are trained to be wary when people pay cash to rent boats, don't take bait when "fishing," and show inordinate interest in things like naval bases or chemical plants. Sounds suspicious to me, all right. Similarly, the Air Force's "Eagle Eyes Program" trains people who live and work on and around air bases to be aware of suspicious conduct.  And Highway Watch is a program organized by the Department of Homeland Security and the American Trucking Association to get truckers to recognize and report suspicious activity -- especially important given that a truck, particularly one loaded with gasoline or other dangerous cargo, can be a dangerous terrorist weapon all by itself.  Sometimes this kind of thing helps. A few years ago, a truck driver noted that twenty-five boxes set to be shipped to Saudi Arabia contained suspicious information; he tipped off authorities, and it turned out that the shipment did have terrorist connections. 
Meanwhile, guarding against another sort of threat entirely, NASA is enlisting amateur astronomers to help search the skies for killer asteroids so that we'll know they're coming in time to prepare. This recruitment of amateur astronomers is relatively new, though these "non-experts" have been researching asteroids for a while. Much of the collaboration, as one reporter notes, occurs on an Internet message group called the Minor Planet Mailing List. The group boasts over eight hundred members and is run by Richard Kowalski, "a forty-year-old baggage handler at US Airways in Florida by day and an astronomer by night." 
Harnessing the passion and persistence of such amateurs seems a smart way to deal with a diffuse but real threat like killer asteroids. And it's made possible by a world in which technology and economic growth allow a forty-year-old baggage handler to own a telescope setup better than many universities would have possessed a few decades ago. ("Kowalski observes the skies through an eleven-inch, computer-driven telescope. He houses it in a backyard garden shed with a retractable roof. Amateur setups like his can cost as much as $25,000; but, like most amateurs, Kowalski put it together himself, without the benefit of NASA endowments." )
We're still a long way from the sort of broad-based disaster preparedness I propose above, but this is a start. And, in some ways, we may be closer -- even without government programs -- than we realize.KEEPING THE FIRE ALIVE
I've just been reading Steve Stirling's recent novel, Dies the Fire,  in which every piece of technology more sophisticated than a waterwheel or a crossbow quits working. In Stirling's story, lots of people die, of course, but civilization doesn't, quite. And though some might find the extent to which his leading characters are able to draw on expertise gathered via the Society for Creative Anachronism and various back-to-the-land hippie movements a bit convenient, I actually know many people with those sorts of skills. And there seem to be a lot more floating around out there. Oust look at the website for the Roman reenactment group, the XXIVth Legion  -- and be sure to check out the ballista page.) It's almost as if, as we move up the technological curve, interest in old innovations is growing.
Why is that? Cultural explanations no doubt exist for why geeks in particular are fascinated with obsolete technologies, but it's certainly the case that any gathering of geeks or science fiction fans will find a lot of people interested in old technologies: from arms and armor, to brewing and viticulture, to seafaring and agriculture.
It's not just geeks, by any means, who make a hobby of such undertakings. All kinds of people find such archaic arts interesting and apply their surplus time and money to them. As a side effect, though, we have a large bank of people possessing all sorts of skills (and not just the out-of-date kind, but modern skills like astronomy or obscure languages) that aren't especially useful now. But they might be someday.
This is the real lesson. We have such a diversified collection of skills because our society is rich enough and free enough that people have leisure time for such pursuits. No plausible government program could prepare us adequately for the kind of unlikely cataclysm Stirling envisions -- but, in fact, if we should ever find ourselves needing people who can construct a lorica segmentata, we've got them. In fact, thanks to the wonders of the free market, such folks are already supporting themselves, without government money. (See, for example, the website of Albion Arms, which will happily sell you a lorica segmentata or a broadsword, for a substantial sum. )
A society that's rich and free will have citizens who -- entirely on their own -- develop a wide range of skills. Most of these skills will never provide more than hobby-level amusement for their owners, but in the aggregate they provide a resource that could not easily be developed through any sort of government program. And that's a kind of disaster preparedness too. The kind that's not available to a herd.
Of course, sometimes we get a herd, not a pack, and the disgraceful behavior of the looters (and the not-very-admirable behavior of the people who refused either to prepare themselves or to evacuate the city) produced nasty results in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Part of this is, of course, that the citizens with skills, resources, and public spirit did mostly evacuate, leaving the city occupied by those with none of these. Such a situation also underscores the point that some sort of infrastructure -- whether created by the government or someone else -- helps a lot. People often self-organize, but it's easier to do under some circumstances than others.
Such self-organization did happen in New Orleans, in neighborhoods where community ties were stronger. In the French Quarter, for instance, people formed "tribes" and divided up the various chores required to survive the recent hardships. An excerpt from an Associated Press account shows how effective these informal groups were:
As some went down to the river to do the wash, others remained behind to protect property. In a bar, a bartender put near-perfect stitches into the torn ear of a robbery victim.
While mold and contagion grew in the muck that engulfed most of the city, something else sprouted in this most decadent of American neighborhoods -- humanity.
"Some people became animals," Vasilioas Tryphonas said Sunday morning as he sipped a hot beer in Johnny White's Sports Bar on Bourbon Street. "We became more civilized." 
For residents of the French Quarter, loyalty to an established neighborhood -- and familiarity with each other -- made this sort of thing easier. (Likewise, in Houston, armed citizens banded together to prevent looting after Hurricane Rita. ) Rich societies, like richer neighborhoods, will generally have more of this sort of mutual trust and cooperation than poor ones. But it's something we should foster everywhere, not only as a good in itself but because it helps to protect society from all sorts of problems -- including, and perhaps especially, the kinds of problems that nobody even foresees today.