This article examines chemical, biological, nuclear, radiological, and explosives (CBNRE) preparedness exercises in the United States. The paper argues that not only are preparedness exercises designed to test for weaknesses in the internal security and public health apparatus, but are also explicitly designed forms of information warfare and perception management that are targeted at both reassuring the population of the ability of the state to respond to weapons of mass destruction incidents, and to communicate a message of deterrence to potential enemies, be they domestic or transnational terrorist networks, criminal organizations or states. The paper locates the current counterterror and homeland security mobilization in a broader historical context by comparing current preparedness exercises and guidelines to civil defense exercises and guidelines of the Second World War and Cold War. In the paper we utilize the Darkwinter and TOPOFF (Top Officials) 1 and 2 preparedness exercises that have taken place in the last several years as case studies. We examine: 1) the discourse used by the planners and participants in these exercises at both the federal, state and local levels; and 2) media coverage of these exercises. The case studies are designed to answer the question included in the title of the paper; do these exercises demonstrate prudence or panic? Are the exercises necessary tests of the capacity of internal security apparatus and public health system to cope with imagined scenarios that are likely to occur? Or are the exercises staged events and perception management that are largely ineffective at either testing the capacity of the government to respond to such threat, assuring the general public and participants in the exercises, and communicating a message that will deter potential enemies?
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