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Our Worst Enemies Aren't Terrorists: Rethinking National Security on a Sinking Planet

The chances of being affected by a terrorist attack are slim, but disruptions to our far-flung supply lines for food, water and energy are a reality.
 
 
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Now that we've decided to "green" the economy, why not green homeland security, too? I'm not talking about interrogators questioning suspects under the glow of compact fluorescent light bulbs, or cops wearing recycled Kevlar recharging their Tasers via solar panels. What I mean is: Shouldn't we finally start rethinking the very notion of homeland security on a sinking planet?

Now that Dennis Blair, the new Director of National Intelligence, claims that global insecurity is more of a danger to us than terrorism, isn't it time to release the idea of "security" from its top-down, business-as-usual, terrorism-oriented shackles? Isn't it, in fact, time for the Obama administration to begin building security we can believe in; that is, a bottom-up movement that will start us down the road to the kind of resilient American communities that could effectively recover from the disasters -- manmade or natural (if there's still a difference) -- that will surely characterize this emerging age of financial and climate chaos? In the long run, if we don't start pursuing security that actually focuses on the foremost challenges of our moment, that emphasizes recovery rather than what passes for "defense," that builds communities rather than just more SWAT teams, we're in trouble.

Today, "homeland security" and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), that unwieldy amalgam of 13 agencies created by the Bush administration in 2002, continue to express the potent, all-encompassing fears and assumptions of our last president's Global War on Terror. Foreign enemies may indeed be plotting to attack us, but, believe it or not (and increasing numbers of people, watching their homes, money, and jobs melt away are coming to believe it), that's probably neither the worst, nor the most dangerous thing in store for us.

Outsized fear of terrorism and what it can accomplish, stoked by the apocalyptic look of the attacks of 9/11, masked the agenda of officials who were all too ready to suppress challenges by shredding our civil liberties. That agenda has been driven by a legion of privateers, selling everything from gas masks to biometric ID systems, who would loot the public treasury in the name of patriotism. Like so many bad trips of the Bush years, homeland security was run down the wrong tracks from the beginning -- as the arrival of that distinctly un-American word "homeland" so clearly signaled -- and it has, not surprisingly, carried us in the wrong direction ever since.

In that context, it's worth remembering that after 9/11 came Hurricane Katrina, epic droughts and wildfires, Biblical-level floods, and then, of course, economic meltdown. Despite widespread fears here, the likelihood that most of us will experience a terrorist attack is slim indeed; on the other hand, it's a sure bet that disruptions to our far-flung supply lines for food, water, and energy will affect us all in the decades ahead. Nature, after all, is loaded with disturbances like droughts (growing ever more intense thanks to global climate change) that resonate through the human realm as famines, migrations, civil wars, failed states, and eventually warlords and pirates.

Even if these seem to you like nature's version of terrorism, you can't prevent a monster storm or a killer drought by arresting it at the border or caging it before it strikes. That's why a new green version of security should concentrate our energies and resources on recovery from disasters at least as much as defense against them -- and not recovery as delivered by distant, fumbling Federal Emergency Management Agency officials either. The fact is that pre-organized, homegrown (rather than homeland) networks of citizens who have planned and prepared together to meet basic needs and to aid one another in times of trouble will be better able to bounce back from the sorts of disasters that might actually hit us than a nation of helpless individuals waiting to be rescued or protected.