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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Terrific “Civic Security” Article Offers Very Helpful Historical Perspective For Developing Citizen Preparedness & Engagement In Future

June 4th, 2008 · 2 Comments

I recommend anyone interested in the role of the public in homeland security should read “Civic Security”  an article in the Winter 2008 edition of a terrific new policy magazine, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. Dallek, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, cleverly offers a new take on homeland security by citing an old model –World War II’s Office of Civil Defense. He writes:

“In May 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing a federal agency to do the twin jobs of civilian protection and civilian mobilization. The little-remembered Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) was among the more important, if embattled, agencies of the World War II era. As the first predecessor to DHS, it serves as both a precedent and a parallel to the debates about homeland defense that have dominated the discourse ever since September 11.”

Dallek describes the various responsibilities that civilians took on under the leadership first of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and then ex-Harvard Law School Dean James Landis:

“By January 1942, nearly six million volunteers had joined civil defense, and some 12 million were registered by mid-1943. They planted “victory gardens,” conducted scrap-metal drives, sold war bonds, gave public lectures to inspire other citizens to support the war effort, encouraged rationing of food and other goods, and served in auxiliary police and firefighting forces. In towns and cities from Connecticut to Oregon, civilians participated in air raid drills and civil defense parades. They learned to spot enemy planes that they thought could be coming to attack their cities. They trained in emergency evacuations and transformed nursery schools and other buildings into air raid shelters stocked with supplies.”

As Dallek recounts, there are a number of lessons we can learn from the successes and failures of the OCD, particularly when it comes to the role of the citizen in their own homeland security. In fact, he argues there’s even more of a case now for public involvement:

“…there is an even greater need for a vast citizen mobilization under the nuclear threat; our points of vulnerability are such that current government efforts can’t meet every security requirement. While Cold War civil defense officials absurdly and ineffectually urged Americans to build shelters and practice how to “duck and cover,” progressives today could help prevent a catastrophic attack by urging volunteers to supplement government efforts to guard nuclear and chemical plants, patrol ports, and inspect cargoes.”

To me, the OCD experience is also a good model to use in reselling civilian preparedness to the public, because it does not carry the stigma of the Cold War’s Civil Defense effort.

The current Department of Homeland Security was a hastily organized governmental conglomerate assembled during the frenzied political environment after 9/11. With the nation still reeling from the Alqaeda attacks, there was not much time nor inclination to sketch out DHS’ long-term philosophical underpinning, particularly as it relates to the role of the public. 

However, the coming change of Administrations – no matter what party takes over — offers an opportunity to reintroduce and rebrand the concept, and the department, of homeland security to the public. It is a chance that we should not miss, and Dallek’s article should be part of that discussion. As he argues, the experience of:

“…defending the homeland during World War II teaches that citizen action is essential to any domestic security policy. This legacy should challenge progressives to broaden the definition of homeland security to increase civic participation at the local level, seek opportunities for people to improve their communities while also defending America, and link democratic ideals to the War on Terror in meaningful ways for Americans. By doing so, they will, for the first time, offer a genuine choice on how to address the homeland security issue in this post—9/11 age.”

In fact, though Dallek addresses his article to ”progressives” (which is also the political orientation of Democracy), I believe that elements of his article could be lifted into the stump speeches of both putative nominees Obama and McCain, each of whom have made citizen involvement (with different emphases) a philosophical lynchpin of their candidacies.  

And, when you visit to read Dallek’s article, browse the site. The magazine is filled with thoughtful, well-written pieces full of actionable ideas which, though ‘progressive’ by label, will be of interest to policy aficionados of all political stripes. 



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