Sunday, September 14, 2003

Civil defence should be citizens' defence

Preparation for massive terrorist attack has been a major theme of life since September, 2001, and one that governments have been tackling in various ways. The US, of course, has already built a gigantic new bureaucracy for this task (the department of homeland security, and its military twin the US Northern Command). In the UK, things have been rather less visible or expensive - some would say rather less significant. But who would really ask for the dramatic and politically tainted scares that the DHS has repeatedly unleashed? Are the Americans getting value for money? And are we doing the right things?

Some forms of preparation are already noticeable - the recent disaster-response exercise at Bank station, with its uncannily fearsome turquoise chemical suits, the presence of those red Diplomatic Protection Squad cars on the streets in London, procurement of decontamination gear - but much else is invisible by nature. We have no way of knowing how well training, planning, and organising are coming on. And these things will be even more important than chemical suits (turquoise or otherwise) if "Der Tag" comes. One feature which does not augur well is the apparent lack of involvement by anyone outside officialdom. The efforts of volunteers will in all probability be crucial, as will the degree of trust displayed in official instructions, information and action and the degree to which the people resist panic. But the look of current policy is of Government Spokesmen announcing bible truth over multiple radio broadcasts and policemen herding crowds of taxpayers around. Is this going to foster the recovery of social cohesion that we will need to survive? When nobody at all believes a word the government say - will people even comply?
Will official agencies alone be able to provide the skills and manpower needed on the day?

The history of this issue, through the menacing years of the 20th century, shows that we have relied extensively in the past on citizens' organisations to cope with war against civilians. Perhaps the classic example was the Royal Observer Corps, raised in the 1930s as an organisation of citizen volunteers who prepared to provide an aircraft reporting service in the event of war. At the time there was no radar coverage overland, and enemy aircraft could only be tracked beyond the coast visually. The ROC posts set up all over the country were able by the Battle of Britain to give rapid and accurate reports of the type, number, course, speed, position and estimated altitude of suspect aircraft to the air-defence command. It took Germany until 1944 to get anything like it. By the 50s, this role was becoming obsolete, and a new problem had emerged - coping with nuclear attack. The observers re-trained to monitor nuclear events, reporting strikes and fallout to the UK Warning and Monitoring Organisation from small bunkers set up on the old aircraft post sites. It was probably the best system devised for this task anywhere, and it lasted until 1992, when the government decided that with the end of the cold war the ROC was no longer needed and ordered the volunteers to "Stand Down". Doubtless the network of volunteer teams, with their excellent communications system and local knowledge, would have been very useful after a nuclear attack as well. There was also, up to the late 60s, a volunteer civil defence corps, although hardly as well-developed. Could something similar be created now? It is also necessary to think more about the role of the volunteer reserve forces - specifically, but not exclusively the Territorial Army. Plans have already been made to organise part of it in several civil contingencies reaction forces (CCRFs), but could more be done? I've also heard nothing of the arrangements for public information - but you can guess that, the way things are going, it'll be bureaucratic, slightly oppressive, and unhelpful. The nature of a mass terrorist attack is that it will not be amenable to prior planning in the sense of exactly pre-scripted instructions. In fact, too much planning in that sense could be the way to failure. What will make the difference will be decision making, and this is why we need preparation and not planning: selecting the right people, practising the skills and habits of thought, studying the problem, organising for success with decisions devolved to the key people at the scene of the crime. And that is also why the involvement of ordinary people is needed.

At the moment, we are in the position of being talked at by government, being treated as subjects not citizens.

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