Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 4, 2009

Aunt Mae or George Orwell? We can choose

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Risk Assessment,State and Local HLS — by Philip J. Palin on September 4, 2009

A few days ago a reader passed along information on the DHS “First Observer” program.  Enclosed with the Email was a brief blurb promoting a training event, “By participating in this 9-11 web cast, you will be a certified First Observer. You and thousands like you will help us put together pieces of complex security puzzles and allow us to solve those puzzles and prevent Attacks in a way we were unable to do prior to September 11, 2001.”

The reader had entitled the Email, “Calling George Orwell,” but otherwise reserved comment.

On the street where I grew up our first observers were Alice Bobo, wife of the firefighter next door, and across the street my Aunt Mae, wife of my grandmother’s half-brother Bob.  They were our intelligence service, border security team, and public health unit all wrapped into a wonderfully collaborative and unified operation.  I have never since encountered a surveillance and response capacity quite as effective.

And Alice Bobo’s “mint tea” (two red-and-white peppermint candies boiled into a cup of spring water) could mitigate a range of childhood disasters.

Together Mrs. Bobo and Aunt Mae  handled the whole block and most of the alley north of Fulton street.  If some eight-year-old tried a cigarette, one of them (both prodigious smokers) would let his or her mother know.  When the Morgan’s mother was gone and there was no food, Aunt Mae would show up with some of her Hungarian Goulash, which I have since learned was much more Midwestern than Magyar, but boy was it good.  Someone else would bring food the next day, and the next, until Mrs. Morgan returned.

One Sunday morning while we were at breakfast, Mrs. Bobo called my Dad about a little girl being beat up at a house two blocks away.  He ran out faster than I had ever (have ever) seen him move.  Dad returned shortly after with the girl.  She stayed with us a few days.

Okay, not exactly international terrorism.  Not exactly a 5.0 hurricane or a 7.5 earthquake.  But not entirely irrelevant either.

What Aunt Mae and Mrs. Bobo did was combine ongoing close-in  surveillance with trusted communication.  They took  coordinated action to prevent, mitigate and respond.  They were there, and organized others, to assist in recovery. 

Bad stuff — evil stuff — happened in my home town.  We were more Peyton Place or Harper Valley than Mayberry.  Maybe everyplace is a kind of Bedford Falls, it just depends on how many George Baileys you’ve got. We were more resilient because of Aunt Mae, Mrs. Bobo, and men and women like them. 

I’ve been thinking about how small-town neighbors communicate and cooperate while visiting the QHSR National Dialogue and listening in on the last few health care town halls. 

Small towns have their own deep dysfunctions.  But there is a discipline — and grace? — that comes from knowing you have to live with the guy who just offered his (idiotic) opinion.  “Now Jimmy, I know where you’re comin’ from…” (and you really do) and he knows where you’re comin’ from too.  You’ve  come together from those two different places for the last forty years and here you are again.

This may be some of what we saw in the friendship of Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy.  They had, after all, been in ongoing communication for over thirty years.  Capitol Hill can be like a small town.

I was reminded of these realities on Wednesday while seated in a board room with a major city’s business leadership working on private sector risk-readiness.  “What we have to do first,” one of the leaders said quietly, “is start talking to each other more and build trusted relationships. Once we have that foundation in place, we can achieve a great deal.  Without that, nothing much worthwhile will happen.”

The vocabulary is different, the setting is dramatically changed, but the human realities are the same.  Aunt Mae and Alice Bobo knew their community, cared about their community, and the community trusted, supported, and worked with them.

Whether certified or not, these are the observers we need.  This may be close to what Secretary Napolitano had in mind when she told the Council of Foreign Relations,

Has the United States government done everything it can to educate and engage the American people? The answer there is no. For too long we’ve treated the public as a liability to be protected rather than an asset in our nation’s collective security…  So here’s how we’re looking at this. First, with respect to individuals and the private sector, we’re taking a much closer look at how we can support and inform our greatest asset, individual citizens, and with them the private sector. You are the ones who know if something is not right in your communities, such as a suspicious package or unusual activity. (See complete remarks)

I probably don’t want a latter-day Alice Bobo “deputized” to enter information in compliance with 28 CFR, Part 23. But I expect George Orwell’s Big Brother is only possible where there are too few George Baileys actively engaged in their communities and neighborhoods.  With Aunt Mae and Alice Bobo working with the rest of us, Big Brother ain’t got a chance… and neither do others who wish us harm.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

September 4, 2009 @ 5:10 am

Okay Phil nice post. Many escape from small towns to avoid any observation of their personal life. Sense of anomie is pervasive in much of the community due to lack of connections. But in many ways corporate roll-ups such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowes, and the Drug Chains have contributed among others. We now choose were to live much more by compatability with political or social culture as opposed to welcoming diversity. Hey it is that way during my life even though I have fought it. Living now in a rural area where although they meet and race relations I would argue are above average, still lingering shadows between black and white. Still hoping for that to keep improving and trying to help. McCain won 2/3rds of the vote in my County.
The problem I see with the DHS effort which is useful in many ways to help involve individuals and the community more is that almost no academic effort goes into analyzing why sure connections and collaboration has dissolve so fast and far at the local level. Is is because of the peripatetic nature of American life? Is it because of other things, including one I mentioned above. We do need to work more on building community and of course we have a President expert in that skill so hoping for the best. What I found interesting about living on the economy in Germany for several years while on active duty and largely with German military is how if a problem arose it was never handled unofficially by neighbors or community but always reverted to official channels including the Bundespolezi (sic)! If we really want smaller and cheaper government in some areas then we need to do more for ourselves and our self-sufficiency. What is scary is the speed in which culture norms seem, however, to get violated by groups that live in isolation so that important that connections remain other than the MSM. Perhaps even the internet is a force for good not evil as I hope, and blogs also.
What I worry about with the various initiatives of the Secretary DHS and her minions is that so much reform effort is already on the table and some of this involve the public seems an effort to distract from other known problems.
Does the Secretary know for example that she has one employee, Dr. Ralph Swisher, PhD, located in FEMA that should receive the Department’s highest accolade for having spent the last quarter century developing materials to help the family prepare for disasters and emergencies. All of very high quality and its mass distribution has for me been an example of how a single civil servant, despite the oppostion many times of his management, make a big difference. This program has operated under Ralph’s tuteledge largely underfunded and understaffed (often Ralph alone) and helped to make a big difference to those who are helped by it. His research and efforts were larege why AMANDA DORY on detail to CSIS in 2002 was able to produce a wonderful report entitle “American Civil Security” which used for the first time the term “resilience” in an attempt to overcome the prejudices of the American people resulting from the somewhat ludicrous effort to prepare them for nuclear attack while MAD was and is the offical strategic doctrine. Yes, those reading this for the first time may not believe it but the SIOP is still MAD based. Retired 4-start General Butler who designed most of the current SIOP should be interviewed by the MSM over and over for his thoughts. Now persons such as George Schulz and Henry Kissinger have adopted many of the views of General Butler.
Again Phil, nice post and if you can play the piano perhaps Garrison Keilor (sic) may have competition, because it sounds like you were raised in Lake WOE-BE-GONE!

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 4, 2009 @ 5:12 am

I should have mentioned in my comment above that Dr. Ralph Swisher, Phd, is now 80 years old!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 4, 2009 @ 6:13 am


I share many of your concerns. I would prefer a First Observer program, and others like it, that is less government-inspired and grant-driven. A little more “George Bailey” and a lot less “Mr. Potter.”

The official channels of which you write,even when obscured by private sector consultants and contractors (like me),can be stultifying. Most of us who operate in this gray area have good intentions and want to contribute. But gray areas are especially conducive to banality. And banality is the precursor of evil, small and large.

As you also note, social isolation is epidemic… even in our small towns and rural areas. I now live in the mountains near a small town, but I have nothing like the network of connections that characterized my hometown. The weakening of these connections is anti-resilient. Where social connections are weakest we are more vulnerable to a whole range of risks. (Please see prior post on domestic non-integrating gap, link below.)

To be brief, extreme and evidence-free (there’s a dangerous trio), I perceive Depression-World War-and a half-century of amazing wealth-and-power had a tsunami-like effect on American culture. We are in the midst of long-term recovery, but so dazed we don’t even realize it. Which is the kind of catastrophic event where even a Jeffersonian like me sees a role for government.

Certainly relevant, today’s New York Times headlines: Firefighters become medics for the poor (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/04/us/04firehouse.html?partner=rss&emc=rss).

Despite Mom’s best efforts, my piano playing is minimal. I am flattered by the comparison to Prarie Home Companion. The key to Garrison Keillor’s stories is how he shows us the humor in our struggles. Woe and laughter are both close at hand in Lake Woe-Be-Gone.


Comment by Sarah Chapman

September 4, 2009 @ 11:06 am

Thank you for your thoughtful post. As much as we all hope that an observant citizen will be the difference of a catastrophic attack occurring or diverted, I can only be reminded of the story in the news about Jaycee Dugard, the young girl kidnapped 18 years ago. Here, an observant neighbor called into authorities and reported her suspicions about children being held in the backyard. The response was dismal. Was it because they were children? Had she called about her neighbor concocting illegal substances, having ‘suspicious’ people over in the backyard, would the authorities responded the same way? However you answer this, it points to a troubling issue in the citizen watch process.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 4, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

Ms. Chapman:

Another story, I am told it is true:

1. Elderly citizen notices “strange” transport and storage behavior in an industrial zone of the city. Reports to the police.

2. Nothing happens.

3. Same citizen notices “strange” transport and storage behavior in an industrial zone of the city. Reports to the police.

4. Nothing happens.

5. Same citizen notices “strange” transport and storage behavior in an industrial zone of the city. Reports to the police.

6. Nothing happens. The citizen is now clearly identified as an “unreliable source.”

7. Same citizen notices “strange” transport and storage behavior in an industrial zone of the city. Reports to the police.

8. Report happens to be received by college criminology intern on a summer assignment who has been assigned to answer non-emergency calls and who “doesn’t know better” than to ask the sergeant to have a patrol car make a ride-by.

Much longer story shortened, a major, news-making drug bust is made.

In the Dugard case which you referenced I understand the key to identifying and freeing the victim was the attention and follow-through of two UC-Berkeley security officers (see: http://www.contracostatimes.com/ci_13224536?source=most_emailed)

In each case we can certainly be troubled by the multiple failures. I am left a bit amazed at each eventual success.

Which, at least for me, reinforces the need for the “defense in depth” of neighbors behaving like neighbors, citizens behaving like citizens, and each of us doing what we can when we recognize another’s need. We will not always succeed. But to the extent more of us are making every effort to be reasonable and responsible, the more often we will succeed.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 5, 2009 @ 10:28 am

I should also have mentioned that Dr. Swisher’s Program has been variously called something like the “Family Protection Program” or the “Family Preparedness Program.”

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