How not to squander the volunteer spirit
WASHINGTON — I hope President Bush, in Tuesday's State of the Union address, doesn't repeat his call on Americans to volunteer to help their country. The last thing we need is another moving, compelling call todo good - with so little follow through that it does a disservice to the whole cause of volunteerism.
When Mr. Bush called, a year ago, for Americans to commit at least two years or 4,000 hours of service to neighbor and nation, he was widely applauded. After Sept. 11, Americans had rushed to find ways to help - to the point that the Red Cross had to turn away donors, and Salvation Army warehouses in New York City overflowed into the streets.
This public desire to address our national vulnerabilities was just waiting to be tapped.
But in the weeks and months that followed, the administration faced a problem known to every itinerant preacher: All the charisma in the world will do little good if you get people all riled up and then have no church for them to join.
To be fair, Bush hired some very good people to head his new drive. The USA Freedom Corps set up a tiny headquarters, published a brochure, and created a neat website. Many observers claim that the main difficulty was that Congress appropriated only about $25 million for the new drive instead of the $230 million the White House requested.
Local organizers complain that they could get little seed money and what they could get was slow in coming.
All this is true. But as I see it, the problem is elsewhere.
The program created to recruit volunteers in the area of homeland security - the Citizen Corps, a sort of national version of the neighborhood watch program - was buried.
The Corps would provide training for many thousands in advanced first aid, assisting fire fighters, organizing evacuations, and patrolling important public assets, armed only with communication devices. They would be the voluntary troops of homeland protection. (My support does not extend to the controversial - now discarded - component of the program called Terrorism Information and Prevention System, or TIPS. Spying on friends and neighbors should definitely not be encouraged. We should serve as arms and legs of homeland protection, not "eyes and ears." Because the latter is so against the American grain, it would undermine the whole drive.)
I still don't understand why the administration hid the new program under the Freedom Corps umbrella, which includes the Peace Corps, Vista, AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and other worthy corps that have nothing to do with homeland protection.
Recruitment of volunteers, then, becomes a blanket approach as if - in the anticipation of new terrorist attacks - it makes no difference if you're asked to serve as a teacher's aide or a firefighter, patrol a classroom or patrol the town's water resources.
Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives explicitly argue that it makes no difference if people are asked to stand by to help whether it's for a flood, an earthquake, or a bunch of terrorists.
Americans volunteer much more than the citizens of any nation in the world. To get them to volunteer still more - on the homeland security front - requires channeling whatever is left of that special motivation generated by the spotlight Sept. 11 put on our vulnerabilities. Citizen Corps was created to do that - a worthy idea that ought to be pursued more seriously.
Americans need to be trained as volunteer firefighters and medics, and asked to give an evening each week and one weekend day a month to patrolling the main resources of their city, from electricity plants to harbors. Homeland protection needs millions of people to protect vital assets; we simply cannot afford to pay to protect all areas of our nation the way we do for our airlines.
Bush would do well not to call again on Americans to rise, but rather order the new homeland protection department to tell us where to line up, what to do, and how to follow through.
• Amitai Etzioni is the author of 'The Spirit of Community' and is University Professor at George Washington University.