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.