Thursday, August 30, 2007

Homeland Security and FEMA meeting


As the debate about the Virginia Tech incompetence rages over today's anticipated press report, my university held a small seminar for rapid response forces in higher education. My involvement was purely technical, since I offer support through our media technology office. But by chance I happened to sit down next to a bureaucrat from the regional FEMA education branch in Western Washington, which puts money into higher education using "Homeland Security dollars," she explained. I asked her questions about her position and what it means for higher education. She replied vaguely that it's a way for our institutions of higher education to remain safe. I asked about her own education and found out she graduated from the School of Homeland Security in Maryland.

[Silence.]

It was a moment of austere political dichotomy. Readiness, our homeland, and students. Readiness and our homeland, our homeland and students. Students and readiness.

Just a few concepts. Readiness and concepts.

"September is national Readiness month."

The seminar itself was alarmist in tone. Aside from simply preparing our university for Virginia Tech-style incidents, which is -- admittedly -- a real possibility, Homeland Security's presence outlined a culture of fear that is being developed in our midst. Since the seminar was initiated by the Tacoma Police Department, a department that has had several recent run-ins with liberal university students, myself included (watch the "Film is Not a Crime" video), I was suspicious that part of the motivation for the initiation has to do with a creating animosity between students and staff, maybe subconsciously, to break a close bond that exists at our university. Prosecuting students for civilly disobedient activity, which failed in the months after the Port of Tacoma protests and arrests, would be easier if the university distrusted its students and did not support them in their actions. If there is no community, there is no trust, and therefore brave political dissidents are isolated criminals without a proper context.

Perhaps this is an unintended consequence of having a Homeland Security presence on campus. Perhaps the seminar is completely well-intentioned. But I reserve my doubts. The multimedia of the seminar included instructional video clips from the FEMA website regarding subjects along the lines of 'preparing your university for an attack'. The difference between FEMA and Homeland Security seems a bit blurred these days. If FEMA is covering terrorism and school shooters, what is Homeland Security doing? The same things, of course, even hurricanes and tornados. At a Homeland Security satellite website launched just before the Iraq War, ready.gov, which strives to inculcate a culture of "preparedness", one of the first announcements that garnered widespread public attention was one by Tom Ridge in which he stated that in the case of a chemical attack, citizens should use duct tape and plastic sheeting to build a homemade bunker, or "sheltering in place" to protect themselves. As a result, the sales of duct tape skyrocketed. That same culture of fear and "preparedness" for the unexpected still exists today. If you're interested, the various preparedness websites and their satellites offer training in readying your kids, readying your businesses, and readying "America".

As I struggle to understand what "Homeland Security dollars in higher education" means for the student-in-the-street, I can't help but think of the Saudi Arabian students who were supposed to attend our university this year. Thirty Saudi students were scheduled to attend classes this Fall, and unfortunately, a nebulous higher education force prevented this from happening. Even important university staff members, like the University Chaplain, are not supposed to know why.

What is proper prevention?

This seminar impressed upon me that it is largely a matter of surveillance, suspicion, and a common "readiness" language between bureaucracies. For example, if the police were to arrive at our university and give us the code, "Infinite Justice", we are supposed to know that this means they are in charge for the day. Or maybe for the rest of the week. Yet upon reflection, doesn't 'proper prevention' have much more to do with community-building than it does with surveillance and suspicion? I think this is true of all criminal problems, and this underlying reason is why it seems that a "readiness" or "preparedness" consciousness on my campus would have a counter-productive impact on our community and education experience. But security bureaucrats seem to be getting their way in many other areas of influence. Imagine if we all soon understood the readiness-speak of their institutions by second-nature.

2 comments:

lrosen said...

Very interesting about the Saudi students. I had vaguely remembered that they were coming, but I didn't know what was up.

acumensch said...

I blog too long. And I should have said more about the Saudi students. But, nobody knows anything about it. So I can't.