Toby Talbot / AP File Photo
An officer inspects the trunk of a vehicle at the Canada border crossing station in Highgate a few weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In case you missed it, it’s National Preparedness Month, one of those earnest government PR campaigns that is half propaganda and half patronage.
For the Department of Homeland Security, which also is celebrating its 10th anniversary, it’s a bittersweet month. The post- 9/11 department, which has established a permanent foothold in Washington, comes in for constant criticism and has little actual authority.
But it has also sold the idea of the need for a whole-of-nation, whole-of-community approach to domestic security, and that idea successfully enlists more and more normal Americans into vastly expanded ranks of national first-responders.
The impact at the state and local level has been profound. From California to Maine, and here in Vermont, terrorism task forces, homeland security departments, and intelligence fusion centers mimic Big Brother.
Even the state National Guard, venerable offspring of citizen militias that predate the United States, is not just a local response force or called out for federal service overseas. The Guard is also increasingly reoriented as a regional and national homeland response force, less and less the governor’s reserve or connected to the local community, more and more an undifferentiated federal government adjunct.
The specter of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction hangs over all of this — it was after all, why the Department of Homeland Security was created in the first place. Yet the real need at the local level remains an Irene and not an Iraq.
That’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in all of the swag emanating from the feds promoting National Preparedness Month, there isn’t a word about terrorism. “We as individuals and communities must do our part to become safer by following some commonsense advice,” FEMA’s Ready Campaign urges.
In other words, it doesn’t matter what the threat is. It just matters that the American public feels threatened enough to either join in the ranks or stay obediently out of the way.
If it were only preparation for hurricanes we were talking about, none of this hyper-preparedness would threaten any of our liberties or challenge our system of federalism. That system, under the Constitution, places police powers in the hands of the local community and gives states the authority to ask for federal assistance rather than have it imposed. Yet for the sake of national security and its baby brother, homeland security, both principles have been subtly reversed in the past decade.
Syria may seem so distant to Vermonters, and a concern only played out in Washington. But since Washington unquestioningly asserts that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction trump every other concern, that’s where the resources go — even almost a decade after the abysmal response to Hurricane Katrina showed the dangers of neglecting day-to-day needs.
In Vermont, with a northern border and a significant federal presence given how small the state is, all of the “security” and response levers of the state are increasingly pushed to be militarized and hierarchical under national security command.
It’s not just federal dollars and the names of organizations. It’s a way of thinking and organizing ourselves that shortchanges civilian society and shifts the emphasis from building a more resilient country to preparing for its inevitable collapse.
If you missed National Preparedness Month, perhaps it is because you are not part of the 60 million Americans, about one-third of the adult population ages 20-64, whom the Department of Homeland Security counts as part of the regimented conglomeration of troops, government workers, first-responders, private-sector enlistees and civilian volunteers — a gigantic all-hazards reserve trained in everything from storm spotting and first aid to animal rescue and crowd control.
Precisely because preparedness for Washington’s priority concerns and fears is more important than the need (or the focus) of the actual readiness for real threats, intelligence collectors (and increasingly state and local police at new spies) need to feed a constant search for signs of disturbance.
Of course, there are real terrorists and criminals already on the radar screen of the authorities, but in this world, everyone who isn’t friendly is a potential enemy, that is, in a post-enemy kind of way.
As these ginormous databases of potential threats become available to state authorities, and as collection devices such as license plate readers and drones begin the proliferate to feed the insatiable appetite for intelligence information, Vermonters should ask if this emergency apparatus, set up with such panic after 9/11, still serves our interests, or even the national interest, any longer.
William M. Arkin, who lives in South Pomfret, is author of “American Coup: How a Terrified Government is Destroying the Constitution” and co-author of the national bestseller “Top Secret America.”MORE IN Perspective
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