Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 31, 2009

I hear America singing

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 31, 2009


There is a treacherous connection between the health care debate and domestic counterterrorism.

The figurative — not yet literal — smoking gun, is the use of licensed firearms as symbols of protest.  (See Guardian news report and another from Fox News.)

In the August 23 New York Times, Frank Rich commented on the gun-toters and dismissed one apparent neo-Jeffersonian thusly, “The protester was a nut.  America has never had a shortage of them.”  He then proceeds to offer explanations for extremism not all that different from those offered here a couple of weeks ago.

But while Rich may be naming names, it is television that has defined what a “nut” looks like. The many angry, teary, tremulous,  little less than paranoid encounters looping over and again on cable news or YouTube are as informative as the cartoon above, which as cartoons go is an Hegelian  analysis. 

A cartoon must  be reductionist.  But reducing the concerns of these individuals to nothing but paranoia or another deficiency is dismissive and delusional.

A second amendment stalwart, John Longenecker, tries to explain, “The armed citizen is a symbol of Independence, reasonableness, respect for law and the reasonable expectation of it in others, and that includes the critical analysis of how much the government is needed or not needed for so many things. Armed citizens are not anti-government, they are simply for putting government in its proper perspective and function, and utilizing, invoking and abiding by governance we determine, not servants. We get the first and last say so, not the government, and that is what this is really all about.”

The gun-toting protesters are, it would seem, crudely communicating they perceive a government “take-over” of health care as just about the last straw.   Last week Michael Franc filed a piece with the National Review headlined, “The Slippery Slope of Health-Care Reform.”  For many conservatives it is a slippery slope to government control of entirely too much.

Carried on for awhile the discussion of guns as tools of protest leads to the question: What is the distinction between a terrorist and a freedom-fighter?  This is one place the health care debate intersects with homeland security.

This is not an easy discussion.  There are echoes from Francis Marion to Zulfiqar Mehsud.  The distinction often depends on the perspective of whose freedom and whose terror is involved.

Guns joining statistics and personal anecdotes as tools of argument lends the discussion a certain frisson.  If confronted by a fellow citizen deploying his or her licensed firearm as a semiotic tactic (that’s semiotic, not semi-automatic), I might explain the symbol is distracting to me. I would be a much better listener, I offer politely, without benefit of the, admittedly, powerful symbol. And I certainly want to listen.

I really do want to listen.  I don’t want to join in deriding and dismissing  those who have something desperately important to tell me.  And I understand the more important the issue — the more emotional one’s  involvement with the issue — the more difficult it can be to find the words (or symbols) to communicate full meaning.

As I approach this careful listening I am informed by the words Thomas Paine wrote early in Common Sense,

Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamities is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer! Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.

In most regards I agree with this common sense, and I notice the words are not so very different from those above of John Longenecker.  I wonder why I prefer Tom’s tone?

I am a conservative who is a loyal subscriber of the New York Review of Books (which is why I can use frisson and semiotic in the same paragraph).  I am a life-long Republican who served on candidate Barack Obama’s homeland security advisory panel. I am a confessing Christian who brightens with enthusiasm discussing how the Qu’ran and koans enrich my faith.  I can seem schizophrenic; yes, I am a libertarian (small L).

I am a libertarian because I think most of us, most of the time, are doing the very best we can and despite this we choose poorly.  But for better or worse it ought to be our choice and our consequence. 

I do not want to complicate your choice or your consequence.  But I do want to talk together, learn together, and — when necessary, as with health care or homeland security — make choices together.  In such choosing it is seldom the case to be wholly right or wrong.  In any case, such judgment regarding the future is beyond certainty. 

There are many times when the best we can do is listen, especially when what we first hear is strange or frightening.  We can listen enough — and care enough — to ask questions, before we offer judgment.

Listening is key to surveillance.  Listening and really hearing can contribute substantively to prevention.  I wonder if being truly heard — other than with a wiretap —  has ever deterred a terrorist attack?  Response goes considerably beyond listening.  But listening can enhance effectiveness in both response and recovery.   It is an essential skill.


I Hear America Singing is one of Walt Whitman’s best known poems.  In the “death bed” edition of Leaves of Grass, it is followed by What Place is Besieged, which is followed by the very short Still Though the One I Sing, which seems appropriate to today’s topic:

Still though the one I sing
(One, yet of contradictions made,) I dedicate to Nationality,
I leave in him revolt, (O latent right of insurrection! O
     quenchless, indispensable fire!)

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 31, 2009 @ 10:11 am

Great post! Love the Paine quote and Whitman poem! Disclosure! Am fuzzy headed liberal who usually never votes for but for person I think will not be an ideologue and will do the least harm.

Another disclosure!
Shot Sharpshooter in Basic Training in pouring down rain and with glasses fogged. Still regret one shot off from Expert! hey I was wearing glasses both wet and fogged. Also had numerous NRA badges as a teenager. Don’t own a guy but respect those who do even my friends with hundreds.

And by the way don’t really know if any of these comments relevant to post but IMO they are at least distantly.

Had a long personal discussion with the REAGAN Administration 2nd WHITE HOUSE Director of Personnel[later Ambassador Helene Van Damm was the first]! The converations oddly occurred while seated together a Bhuddist ceremony commemorating a friend’s deceased parents and family–he was friends with ANG LEE and a Cambodian Holocaust Survivior who had thrown his spectacles away because the Khmer Rouge were killing as “intellectuals” all who wore glasses)! Also on the White House staff. The conversation has remained in confidence until now. Not sure where that person is now but hoping life after Reagan was sweet and happy for him. Anyhow to get to the point!

We discussed the staffing and appointees in FEMA! He stated flatly that the WHITE HOUSE personnel office strived mightly to keep out of FEMA “the Gun Nuts and Survivalists.” I stated that I hoped he was successful.

Note for the record the second legal opinion request by the first Reagan Director was “Can I as Director of FEMA carry a gun?” When told orally by the General Counsel that there was no FEMA authority to do so he went over to the US Marshall’s Service that immediately deputized him and authorized his packing so to speak. He also had a bullet proof door installed to the Director’s office. Ah such is history. He was the longest serving FEMA Director until Clinton’ appointee James Lee Witt left office in January 2001 after a fierce fight to retain the job under Bush. Sic Transit Gloria!

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