Civil Defense, Then and Now
by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken
The Department of Homeland security has launched a new web site aimed at preparing children for terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Ready.gov’s new "Ready Kids" program features the Mountain Lion Family of Rex, Purrcilla, and Rory who will undoubtedly guide your child to maximum preparedness.
In case your child wonders what exactly we are all supposed to be preparing for, the web site offers a convenient list of emergencies including tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and — look carefully — terrorism. Briefly mentioned at the bottom of the page, terrorism is explained for the young folks in the broadest possible terms as "the use of threat or violence to scare governments into changing their policies." (Fortunately, they don’t bother teaching much about the American Revolution in the public schools anymore, so children won’t be confused by the colonists’ use of threat and violence to scare a government into changing its policies.) Interestingly, the list of threats on the "grown-up" section of Ready.gov is reversed with the terrorist threats at the top, and the natural disasters down at the bottom.
Rex and Purrcilla and the Mountian Lion Family are cute and all, but they don’t really have much on their predecessor, Bert the Turtle. Bert, of course, is the friendly animated Turtle that teaches us all what we "must learn to do" in case of nuclear war: duck and cover. Duck and Cover, the "educational" video produced by the Civil Defense Administration has achieved a certain degree of renown in recent years for its campy qualities, but when one considers that Duck and Cover was actually presented to the public as a practical defense against nuclear war, the film quickly becomes a horrible farce.
The worst part of it is not that the United States government insists in the film that global nuclear war is "survivable" in any meaningful sense. No, the most appalling part of the whole thing is that the American people were so willing to go along with it. Just thinking through a basic scenario should be enough to make one disgusted with the whole affair. For example, even if little Tommy does get lucky and survives with only a few third degree burns, what happens when he gets home and finds out that the rest of his family has been incinerated? Bert the Turtle isn’t looking quite so helpful anymore. The duck and cover strategy would no doubt work against injury for some people far enough away from an actual nuclear detonation to avoid being vaporized, but Duck and Cover forgets to mention the very real likelihood that the rest of one’s family would be obliterated, and that starvation, sterility, and radiation poisoning are what await the survivors.
Duck and Cover offers some other helpful tips as well. For example, we learn that "We must always obey the civil defense workers" and that "The civil defense workers and our men in uniform will do everything they can before enemy planes can reach us." That’s good news. And, if you’re caught in the open when the nukes hit, the film informs us that "Sometimes — and this is very, very important — the bomb might explode without any warning. That means duck and cover fast wherever you are. There’s no time to look around or wait!" And, just for some added protection, "Make sure and cover your head with newspaper or perhaps a picnic blanket." The images of small children jumping into rain gutters hoping that the coming nuclear blast won’t turn them into hideous burn victims really has to be seen to be believed. Had the feds really wanted to give the population a feel for what to expect from nuclear war, they would have included a few photos of charred corpses from Hiroshima.
If there is any proof that we Americans abandoned our alleged independence and aversion to government control long ago, Duck and Cover is it. The willingness to embrace the annihilation of America’s cities and a substantial portion of the population therein seems rather short sighted at best. The end of Western civilization doesn’t appear to be much of a victory, either, but clearly, 1950’s America disagreed.
While the feds insisted on poking the Soviets with a stick and speaking publicly and glibly about "winning" a nuclear war, they naturally had to rely on a hapless public that would believe that such a war could actually be won, and to convince them that after retiring to the bomb shelter, it was only a matter of waiting a few months and then everything would be okay.
Fortunately, the risks today from terrorist attack nowhere near rival the sort of global devastation we were facing during the Cold War. Yet, given the Federal response to Katrina, do informed people seriously think that the Department of Homeland security will do anything other than make things worse? If New Orleans had been the victim of terrorism instead of a hurricane, it’s really quite ridiculous to think that the Feds would not have reacted in the exact same way, turning away truckloads of water and food, and sowing discord among local law enforcement.
As with Duck and Cover, Ready.gov and all the other "preparedness" training is just a governmental public relations ploy through which the government tries to convince us that it can protect us form the very threats it has created. The color-coded "Security Advisory System" is quite useless since ever allowing it to go below "elevated" will make the feds look asleep at the switch if anything does happen. Homeland security’s most emphatically delivered preparedness plan to date, the Duct Tape Plan For Total Safety hit the skids when it became clear that sealing up one’s house with tape makes it a death trap.
If the history of emergencies has shown us anything, it is that it is generally good advice to do exactly the opposite of what "the authorities" recommend. Last April’s report from the National Institute on Standards and Technology reported that those who survived the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were those who disobeyed official orders to stay put and wait for help. The fact that the hijackers had such a fine time of taking control of the jets on that day is no doubt due to the fact that the FAA’s policy on hijacking was to not resist the hijackers in any way. The passengers on flight 93 obviously disregarded FAA regulations and saved a lot of lives on the ground. Advice from the Department of Homeland Security will no doubt continue to be just about as useful. Just as the Pentagon is always fighting the last war, the "civil defense" agencies are always preparing for the last disaster, or, as in the case of Duck and Cover, just making it up as they go along.
Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.