Mobilize America's foot soldiers
WASHINGTON — Congress is busy creating a Department of Homeland Security. But another new federal entity that could be making a vital contribution is barely mentioned: the Citizen Corps. It aims to enlist millions of Americans as "first responders" once a major attack occurs, and as the "eyes and ears" of public authorities trying to prevent attacks.
Polls show that Americans are eager to give of their time (say, an evening a week and a weekend day each month) to serve as volunteers patrolling the surroundings of major public assets, from water resources to national monuments. Some people are quite ready to sign up and be trained as backups for firefighters, medical teams, police, and border patrols.
For some roles little preparation is required. Volunteers are expected to take over desk jobs, such as answering phones at fire stations when firefighters rush out following a major attack. Before 9/11, thousands upon thousands of people had already volunteered to take extensive first aid training to serve as emergency medical technicians. They are on call in the event of a major car pileup or other disaster. Training many more people would help in coping with a major attack.
There are also hundreds of thousands of volunteer firefighters whose number could be expanded. The same is true for auxiliary police, the voluntary police squads that assist mostly with traffic and crowd control, as well as patrolling parks and other public gathering places. Most of these roles require only limited training.
But very little of this has happened. The drive to mobilize Americans to shoulder a significant part of homeland protection has not taken off. The reason is not merely that 9/11 is beginning to recede from memory and that Americans are becoming inured to frequent but vague warnings about attacks. The drive to mobilize volunteers has been muddled because it has been folded into familiar sorts of do-good activities, which are fine, but do not serve homeland protection.
Bush has called for Americans to donate 4,000 hours of service during their lifetimes. And he followed his call by forming the USA Freedom Corps, which has incorporated a slew of voluntary bodies, including the Senior Corps, the Teacher Corps, VISTA, the Peace Corps, the Citizen Corps, and a half-dozen others.
Bush's civic initiatives have been called "communitarianism." Why? Because many of his proposals embrace an alternative to the liberal-conservative debate by supporting the idea that "the rights of the individual must be balanced against the interests of the society as a whole" and that "values and morality ... can best be fostered by community organizations," as Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank wrote.
All this is music to my ears, as someone who has been working in the communitarian vineyards since 1990. But I must note that lost among all these fair-weather programs is the one that directly speaks to America's urgent need for much more homeland protection the Citizen Corps.
The Citizen Corps has only two problems: its name and its size.
The name means nothing. It could be about getting people to vote, serve on juries, or remember to renew their passports. For some reason, the obvious title the Homeland Protection Corps has been avoided.
More disconcerting, the Citizen Corps has been slow to get rolling. It has a tiny staff in Washington, even if one grants that homeland protection is largely a local matter. People who write seeking to volunteer get a form letter six months later thanking them for their availability. Overall, the Citizen Corps has not caught the eye or imagination of the public and is largely unknown.
One suggestion got much attention, most of it unfavorable: Americans with special access to people's homes and lives meter readers, mail deliverers, truck drivers are to report suspicious activity to the government. This has been correctly seen as a threat to make Americans snoop on each other and grossly violate their privacy.
At the same time, it is hard to imagine that if a bunch of foreigners comes to a private flight school and seeks again to learn to fly planes but not land them, or rent a fuel truck and ask where the biggest synagogue is in town (as happened in Tunisia), such conduct will not be reported.
The new program, called Terrorism Information and Prevention System, or TIPS, must be accompanied by extensive public education warning against misuse. It should include penalties for abuse, and call attention to the danger of cluttering the system. But carefully selected reporting of hard facts should not be discouraged.
Fighting terrorism is a long-term drive. Look at countries that have faced terrorism in the past; it took decades or longer for them to come to terms with it. Americans will find it difficult to persevere unless we are called upon to modify our lifestyle some. The average American will have to give up some hours of TV-watching and dedicate those to homeland protection.
Volunteers will discover that this form of service makes them feel better about their country and themselves, as well as more secure. But for all this to happen, the homeland protection corps must be run up the flagpole rather than hidden.
Its unique importance has to be signaled by national leaders, even if this means thinning out the ranks of other worthy forms of volunteerism.
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor at George Washington University and author of 'The Spirit of Community.'