Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Up-Gunning DHS – Even the Best Case would be Bad

            Current politics aside (no easy deal, I know), I really want to believe that my government has my best interests at heart – that it is doing its best to protect me and my Constitutional rights against all enemies, foreign and domestic. So when government seems to slip the leash and threaten me, I look for simple reasons. Maybe somebody is making bad decisions within an otherwise good system.

            However, it is increasingly difficult to maintain this positive attitude toward the Department of Homeland Security. I know some good people who work there. But questionable decisions are beginning to sketch a distressing pattern.

·         Why does DHS suddenly need 7,000 M4/AR-15 “assault rifles” for “self-defense?” (Remember the AR-15? That’s the weapon Administration officials have been telling us has no utility for self-defense.)

·         Why purchase 1.6 Billion rounds of hollow point ammunition?  (After weeks of growing citizen consternation, DHS did offer an explanation of sorts.  The numbers did not add up.)

·         Why buy 2,700 armored vehicles designed for street combat in Iraq?

·         Why train the first cohort of 1,600 people in a “FEMA Corps,” and then not use them in Hurricane Sandy?

·         Why buy 30 drones and establish the legal justification for using them in the US?

·         Why encourage training exercises featuring a Zombie invasion of thousands of ravenous, contagious citizens, where containment and control are the objectives instead of assisting the wounded?

Forgive me for seeing a pattern. But something is wrong here.

            Individually, these DHS actions might be explained away.  The “Zombie Invasion,” for example, might be just a clumsy attempt to lighten up a boring and depressing exercise about  recovering from a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD). The problem is that the government has chosen not to explain, when such explanations should be simple and easy. Now we are stuck assembling the pieces of this puzzle by ourselves. And the most logical picture seems to look like a government arming itself for war against its citizens.

            So let me offer an alternative that puts government actions in the most positive possible light.

            Perhaps this is all part of a reasonable, non-political plan to address the biggest challenge in homeland security – response to a catastrophic attack with a WMD.

The good news in the field of emergency response and recovery is that the nation has made great strides in training and equipping responders at every level – from local towns and private industry, to state governors and FEMA. Whatever the challenges of Hurricane Sandy (and there were many, partly because state and local officials did not do their homework before the event), the response was a model of efficiency and effectiveness, compared to Hurricane Andrew and other events suffered  before the Department of Homeland Security came of age.

The not-so-good news is that this progress has been in areas deemed “high probability, low consequence.” That is, the events are very likely to occur (like an earthquake or a hurricane), but the consequences are relatively minor to the national as a while  This phrase takes some explaining, since anyone who lost their home to Sandy thinks that is a pretty high consequence.   And it is – to the individual, family and community – and maybe even the state.  However, from the perspective of national security – that is, concerning the fate of the nation as a whole – the impact of a normal hurricane or even earthquake is “low” compared to the consequences of an unlikely but high end WMD (like a nuclear weapon).

In the last five years, a number of reliable documents from organizations like RAND, The University of Pittsburg Medical Center, and others have described what Americans can expect if a nuclear weapon the size of the Hiroshima bomb were to explode in one of our cities.  The results would be horrendous:  tens of thousands killed outright; more than a hundred thousand seriously injured; broken glass making downtown streets impassable; widespread fires over dozens of square miles; ruptured gas and water lines; loss of communications and electricity across the region; radiation blowing across state borders; and perhaps 6 million people on the move, without food, water or medical assistance.

And that is if one bomb strikes a single city. What if bombs went off in two or three locations at once? What if attackers threatened 20 more bombs in 20 other cities? Who would send rescue teams to help if they thought they might need those teams locally with a matter of hours or days? And more importantly, what would conditions be like for months as the region and the nation tried to recover from such an event?

However horrific those conditions, they would likely be better than the aftermath of a large scale bioattack with an agent that left millions dead, tens of  millions infected, and no way to know who was contagious until after they had spread the disease. With supplies of food, fuel and medicine running low, and tens of millions of citizens pushed to the edge of desperation, large stock piles of ammunition and weapons might seem a good investment to senior officials in DHS. Especially after North Korea, Iran and others continue to work on just such weapons, with the announced intent of using them.

So maybe – in the best possible case I can think of – DHS officials are so concerned about WMD attacks that they are secretly building a force to control the American public in the face of chaos. If that’s right, and officials have the most benign possible intent . . . then I still think their purchase of weapons is dead wrong.

If officials are worried about how to maintain a functioning nation in the face of WMD attack, then they should be building TRUST with the American people, along with visible means of cooperation, coordination and assistance – NOT MIS-TRUST based on secret plans and unexplained weapon purchases that lend themselves to the rumor of “FEMA Camps” for restive citizens.

After all, we have seen cities destroyed and rebuilt in the recent past. London, Dresden, Tokyo, Rotterdam, Stuttgart, Hiroshima, Nagasaki – all were seriously damaged by attack; all found the key to response and recovery was helping citizens and seeking their support, not controlling them with the police and military. Even in New Orleans after Katrina, the reports of panic, rioting and looting turned out to be overblown.

The truth is that except for a few extreme situations (like being trapped in a burning nightclub) people act out of rational self-interest, not irrational fear. If the government really wants to be prepared to respond to a major WMD attack, then they need more open explanations of what they believe will happen and how citizens can help – and less focus on secrecy and plans for dominance and control. So if my “best case” is true, and the purchase of drones and guns and bullets and armored vehicles is really intended to help Americans in an emergency, then the people making those purchases have it exactly wrong. Buy less force; build more trust.

Of course, it could be I am the one who has it exactly wrong, and my “best case” – government officials preparing to protect citizens from a major attack – is not the reason for this up-gunning of DHS at all.  If the “best case” is wrong, it is hard to think of any middle explanation short of the “worst case” – DHS means these weapons for use on law abiding American citizens.

Best Case or Worst Case – both cases looks bad for the American people.

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