Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Disaster Drill Disaster

One of the more intriguing stories of recent days is from the Des Moines Register, the much-respected flagship newspaper of my former state of Iowa. It seems that an anti-terror drill in the metropolis of Treynor (population 950… or 919) had to be called off because of threats to school buildings and employees. As the article explains,
Members of so-called patriot groups opposed to illegal immigration had strongly objected to the plans for the exercise, which would have been held at the Treynor High School. Their complaints focused on a fictional scenario for the drill based on young white supremacists shooting dozens of people amid rising tensions involving racial minorities and illegal immigrants who moved into the area.

Patriot group leaders complained the exercise was intended to portray people who legally possess guns and who fight illegal immigration as extremists.
Pottawattamie County officials explained that the terror scenario was necessary to comply with Homeland Security requirements to qualify for federal funding.

Wow. Talk about a story with no good guys! First off, in a time when there really is a budget crisis, we’re spending federal money to run disaster drills in some little burg with fewer than 1000 people in it, a town where the local superintendent of schools “isn’t aware of any racial tensions or white supremacists in the community.” Forgive me, good people of southwestern Iowa, but I don’t think you’re the likely targets of a terrorist attack, and spending any federal money on your local preparedness drills is, by definition, a waste. If you want to use local money for that purpose, that is entirely your decision. Preparedness is a good thing. But this exercise exists purely because the federal funding exists. I’ve been ranting about this for some time (here’s an example from my old blog, nearly six years ago), but, alas, little has changed.

But the people who arranged to strut around looking important on somebody else’s dime are merely opportunistic. The folks squawking about the scenario are downright imbecilic. If we accept that, finances excluded, such training sessions are a valuable tool both to assess and indeed to create disaster readiness—and what rational person doesn’t?—then what matters is the response of all those 42 agencies mentioned in the article: how quickly and accurately do they assess the situation, how well do they talk to each other, how well does the chain of command work?

As it happens, a fair number of my students and at least one of my colleagues participated in a disaster drill only yesterday. They were actors and makeup artists for an exercise run by our university’s School of Nursing. In other words, some of them played victims of a disaster and the rest made them look like it. I don’t know the details of the scenario—a bus accident, or whatever—but here’s the point: it’s fine with me if the entire day’s events were built around what to do when the local theatre historian goes berserk in Wal-Mart because they no longer carry his favorite brand of deodorant and he shoots up the joint. Because… wait for it… it’s not about the scenario. It’s about the response. The scenario exists, as the Pottawattamie County officials stated, merely for added realism.

It is indeed unlikely that white supremacists would engage in a mass killing spree in southwestern Iowa, but it’s a helluva lot more likely than that Islamic radicals would detonate a bomb in beautiful downtown Treynor. How do I know? Well, for one thing, those very white supremacists—or someone impersonating them, at the very least—threatened to do precisely that. OK, can we take as given that there is no proof—and probably there will never be—of who called in the threats, but that the likelihood in this case is that the callers were more probably idiots on the right proving their stupidity than idiots on the left trying to make the idiots on the right look bad?

In other words, someone affiliated with one of those “patriot groups” that protested against being viewed as criminals responded by doing something criminal. (I confess I can put little credence in the conspiracy theory that there really weren’t threats at all. The walk-back is too embarrassing to the event organizers to think they’d go through this for some petty political cause.)

I will grant the sincerity of the likes of Craig Halverson of the Minutemen Patriots that he doesn’t want threat-makers in his organization. But I confess myself amused that Iowa Minutemen director Robert Ussery argues that “It would be very, very stupid to make threats like that.” Yes, Mr. Ussery, it would. But the fact is that a goodly percentage of your membership is, well, stupid. If national surveys are to be believed, folks like the membership of the Minutemen blame the bank bailout on Barack Obama, think “death panels” were averted only by the heroic actions of Sarah Palin, and cannot bring themselves to accept the incontrovertible evidence that President Obama was born in Hawaii. As the great modern philosopher Forrest Gump reminds us, stupid is as stupid does. The idea that not a single member of an organization built on idiocy would in fact be an idiot is a lot more unlikely than that a member of an anti-immigration group (even one purporting to care only about illegal immigrants, border security, etc.) might be a white supremacist, or that such a person might go on a violent rampage.

The irony, of course, is that it is the protest, not the scenario itself, that casts the Minutemen and their ilk in a negative light. It’s the denial—too paranoid and too emphatic—that raises eyebrows. If the gunmen in the scenario were left-handed, or Catholic, or fans of the Chicago Bears, would other people who share those attributes go into immediate denial that anyone like them in any way could be such a monster? Would anyone but a moron think that all Bears fans, or even all left-handed Catholic Bears fans, are mass murderers because a fictional one turns out to be?

The inability to accept fiction as only fiction, the over-sensitive defensiveness, the insistence on prioritizing the irrelevant at the expense of the significant (thereby to catalyze one’s paranoia): all these suggest that the shoe pretty much fits. The criminal action in the real world (phoning in threats) as a means of protesting a non-existent charge of criminality in a fictive world just adds the ironic fancy bow to some pretty snug-fitting footwear.

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