Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 18, 2009

Big Lessons from a Little Country: The Entrance Exam

Filed under: Privacy and Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Mark Chubb on November 18, 2009

This is the first in a short but indefinite series of posts in which I intend to explore, among other things, the lessons I learned while living in New Zealand. Living in a foreign land – even a friendly one – as the events of 9/11 unfolded and the nation went to war (twice), gave me an opportunity to gauge how others see our country and its leaders. It also forced me to consider my relationship to American values I once took entirely for granted. As I was asked to defend my nation’s policies to overseas friends and colleagues, I gained a greater appreciation of our aspirations and their expectations of American leadership. The insights I gained during this period are as much about the place I was living and my experience of it as they are about the country of my birth. I think we can learn a lot from the experiences of others, and, after reading the posts in this series, I hope you will agree.

The invitation to contribute to this blog on a regular basis and the information emerging in the aftermath of the shooting at Fort Hood got me thinking about what it takes to fit in. How do we discern our role in a community and how does that process affect our relationships with others, particularly when we find those others or ourselves in new circumstances?

As I pondered this question, I recalled what happened when I moved to Alabama from the DC metropolitan area in the early 1990s. Within 15 minutes of meeting almost anyone for the first-time I was asked the same three questions, in essentially the same order:

  1. “You’re not from around here are you, boy?”
  2. “What church do y’all go to?” and
  3. “Who y’all gonna root for boy, Auburn or Alabama?”

At first, these questions caught me by surprise, and left me feeling uncomfortable. In time, I came to refer to this inquisition as the Alabama entrance exam.

As a Yankee, I stood out like a sore thumb, so the first question was more or less redundant. The second question struck me as very personal, but after awhile I realized it wasn’t aimed so much at discerning my faith (or potential lack thereof) as seeking to understand where I fit socially, since a good part of Southern life is organized around faith-based communities. The real religion question, as it turned out, was the last one. As the only college graduate in my family who did not attend The Ohio State University, I thought I knew a little bit about football addiction. I was wrong. Utterly and completely wrong.

Alabama was not a closed society, but people were a bit skeptical when it came to outsiders. If you withstood the inquisition without getting upset or defensive about the entrance exam questions, you were off to a good start. In exceptional cases, you might even get to the bonus round where you faced questions like, “Y’all like grits?” and “You got a pocket knife on you boy?” If you got these answers right, you might never be a Southerner, but you would get on just fine with folks.

After about six years in Alabama, I accepted a new job in New Zealand. By then, people had got used to me and I to them, and they responded with surprise when they learned I was leaving Alabama and wondered why I was heading overseas without joining the military and receiving orders to go abroad. New Zealand struck them as obscure and even a bit mysterious, especially when they learned I could not take guns with me (not that I owned any). “Haven’t they heard of the Second Amendment?!” people asked. I responded patiently, “Why, yes, they have. That’s why I can’t take guns with me.”

When people asked about my reasons for leaving for New Zealand, I responded with the same good nature with which I had greeted the entrance exam, “Well, I found I liked it in the south so much that I decided to just keep heading farther south. You know, you can’t get much farther south than New Zealand unless you’re on an icebreaker.” Folks did not appreciate the irony or enjoy the humor in this observation, so they decided that it was probably a good thing after all that I was leaving.

When I got to New Zealand, I discovered that they too had an entrance exam. Now, as you know, it is not unusual for border officials to ask people a few questions when someone seeks entry to a country. These questions seek to establish the purpose of travel, the means of support, and one’s intentions with respect to eventual departure.

That other citizens, in general, might have questions about us (as opposed to for us), may strike us as a bit odd. Since Alabama had been my first experience of this, I took it as a bit strange when New Zealanders too led with questions after an initial introduction.

What really struck me as odd though was that their questions seemed to have more to do with them than with me. Alabamians wanted to know where I fit. New Zealanders wanted to know where they fit. “Why did you decide to move here? How do you like it here?” and “Do you think you might decide to stay?” were usually among the most prominent questions I heard.

Americans have no firm historical ties with New Zealand, at least not in the same way the British, Dutch, Australians, and many Pacific Islanders do. In discussions with my New Zealand acquaintances, it became clear that many considered it odd to many that someone from a distant and prosperous free state would seek to live in such a geographically isolated nation.

Of all the places I have lived, Alabama and New Zealand are the only two where I can recall having been subject to the entrance exam ritual. Over the years, this has caused me to wonder what gave rise to this custom in these places, and why it took such a different form in each instance.

In Washington, DC and Portland, Oregon, where I live now, a sizable proportion of the population comes from someplace else, although these “imports” find themselves attracted to each place for entirely different reasons. Communities with a large number of highly mobile, well-educated residents seem to have a more atomistic culture. Individuals in such places belong simultaneously to many smaller communities, many of which do not identify themselves or their members based on place of residence. As such, many residents of these places often identify with the larger community in name only or possess only a vague or temporary sense of affiliation with the civic life of the wider community.

The complexity and interdependence of the social and economic orders in such places often imbues them with a self-confident character that often seems dismissive of the views of newcomers even when their inhabitants do not disdain such feedback entirely. People in such places have no questions for newcomers because they are either pretty sure they already have all the answers or see no need to pause and ask the questions that might yield them. If and when it turns out they do not know all the answers, these communities often delay their recovery by seeking to establish responsibility even before they have repaired the damage. Smaller, poorer, or more isolated communities do not often have this luxury.

In Alabama and New Zealand, people knew who they were, but wondered anxiously whether they could sustain their identities in the face of globalization. Buffeted by the winds of social and technological change, their questions revealed a latent and barely acknowledged sense of wonder as to whether their cultural and political ties were strong enough to hold their economies and societies together. Despite their past tragedies and their triumphs over them, people in these places confronted their uncertainty about their ability to shape the future and their roles in it in the ways they greeted newcomers.

The uncertainties underlying these questions have profound implications for any culture or society. The fact that such questions have not come to the fore in our homeland security discussions may suggest misplaced confidence in our ability to stand up against the threats we face, which is reflected in our haste to lay blame rather than repair the damage.

In the face of the tragic killings of 13 people at Fort Hood on November 5, I have wondered anew whether we are, in fact, asking the right questions of one another and ourselves. As communities, the military and the medical profession have cultures that are as strong and distinctive as any we could observe, imagine, or define. Both communities embrace and indeed embody the cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity that makes the United States unique among nations. Yet, despite ample evidence that someone in their midst was not fitting in, the members of these communities did not seem to ask themselves the most important questions of all: “Why doesn’t Major Hasan seem to be fitting into our community, and what can we do to help him feel more at home (or at ease) among us.”

These questions and Major Hasan’s answers to them would have given us a clear opportunity to mitigate the threat he allegedly posed without ever requiring us to stretch our imaginations to consider his potential ties to terrorist organizations or to wonder openly about his soundness of mind. Taking care of our community would not have required anything like the investments in surveillance technology and effort underlying his alleged communications with suspected terrorists.

Instead of asking these questions, efforts to address the seemingly abundant evidence of his problems fitting in with military and medical colleagues seem to have taken two decidedly unproductive turns: 1) On one hand, it seems as if his supervisors and peers sought to address issues with his performance as if they were purely technical rather than adaptive problems, and 2) They seem to have decided that his eventual transfer to Fort Hood and deployment to a war zone might make him someone else’s problem, focus him on the mission, or give him a chance to start over. These approaches seem almost as cynical as they are shortsighted and misguided.

Evidence of Major Hasan’s apparent detachment and unsociability should trouble us not because we know the toll his alleged actions took on his comrades at Fort Hood, but because an all-volunteer force relies upon a strong sense of community that reflects a shared sense of sacrifice and commitment to certain values. If anyone is responsible for the failure to prevent Major Hasan’s alleged attack, we all are. As a community, we have an obligation not only to ourselves, but also to one another to help each other figure out how to fit in.

Asking questions of newcomers may make some sense. But we better be sure too that we understand what our questions say about us. The questions being asked about this incident suggest we have a lot to learn about what it takes to make our communities and our society safer and more inclusive places to live. How we answer them will tell us a lot about how well we are adapting to the realities we first acknowledged following the attacks on 9/11.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

November 18, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

Well Mark a great opening post and can’t imagine the vast differences between Alabama and New Zealand despite their respective “Entrance Exams.” Clearly I am not an anthorpologist, double major after two years as a Pre-med with 65 hours of hard science and good grades ended up with a double major in History and International Relations. Then Law School and turn down of two distinguished PhD programs in HISTORY. Underlying the Post is the notion that “Community” is extremely important both because social isolates often having many reasons for being such. Both the medical world and military IMO are unique cultures. Not completely dissimilar but technical competence ususally admired, rewarded and respected. Other factors ususally control in civilian culture, for example personal wealth or family history. What I worry most about is that our (US) society and governmental and private organizations are designing almost delibertately but probably not to measure success of their efforts on their ability to classify, and fracture community. Technology also does this. If you don’t believe the US has a class ridden society then just inspect everyones teeth. I still shudder at the “pull-em” grunted by Army dentists at the first medical of fellow draftees in my basic training company at Ft. Leonard Wood in fall 1967. And their thrill at seeing that I had not only had great dental care growing up but superb dental care. By the way the reason the military drafted dentists is because of the disabling effects of guess what? Wisdom Teeth. So glad you bring the perspective of Alabama and N.Z. to this blog. Could it be that both those cultures have decided to survive by not being in the mainstream?

Comment by Mark Chubb

November 18, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

Cass Sunstein, a law professor at Harvard and formerly at Chicago where he taught with President Obama before joining the administration, makes some fascinating points in his recent book Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide that seem to be an appropriate answer to your closing question, Bill. He argues that polarization is more likely when a group is both isolated and has free range to express itself. Such conditions favor cascade effects that can lead to rather extreme expressions of an ideological perspective.

Evidence of such behavior was evident in both Alabama and New Zealand, but took very different forms. This is consistent with another of Sunstein’s observations: The direction and magnitude of extreme cultural expressions, especially of the sort that propagate by way of informational cascades, tend to depend upon the circumstances in which they emerge.

Much of what we distinguish even today as Southern cultural traces its origins to the Civil War and the antecedents of this conflict. These do not persist as sources of conflict, but they do serve as convenient metaphors or touchstones for contemporary antagonisms. This connection with “the late unpleasantness” was less evident in Birmingham than elsewhere in the South, largely due to the fact the city was not established until the beginning of the 20th century. As such, the Civil Rights Movement has a much more profound effect on the local culture in the same way.

In New Zealand, the ongoing efforts to reconcile the competing claims of indigenous and non-indigenous cultures with respect to the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in the country’s Constitution (NZ remains one of just two countries in the world without a written constitution) remains a defining characteristic of the national culture that vies with contemporary issues such as public choice economics and sustainability (to name just two among many) for a place on the public agenda. Each of these issues has held sway for a period, whipsawing public attention from one extreme view of the situation to another.

With respect to your observation about the choice of consciously isolating oneself or one’s culture from competing ideologies as a survival strategy, I don’t think that’s really what’s in play. As Jared Diamond points out in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, isolation leads only one way: to social collapse.

I think instead that Alabama and New Zealand have developed the entrance exam as a way of remaining open to the outside without exposing themselves unwittingly to extreme views that they consider inconsistent with their own. Whether these new voices end up influencing the cultural debate for better or worse again depends upon circumstances, not the least of which are the ideological tendencies of the host cultures.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 19, 2009 @ 2:16 am

Cass Sunstein is brilliant and well placed to help the US in his new job. The benefits and costs of regulation are worthy of the best minds. Mine mind is not one of those but Cass’ certainly is but do worry about any of the “best and the brightest” and their take on things sometimes. Perhaps that is also a worry of the Alabamians and New Zealanders. Actually neolithic cultures in New Zealand and even Alambama, the Creek and Cherokee seem to have done quite well before the arrival of you know who and these cultures were apparently sustainable over extended periods of time. That is part of my concern, homeland security policy and choices also, are our (US) choices of public policy likely to result in sustainable cultures? After all from all appearances we (the US) even without security threats internal and external will have to sustain (feed, house, and medical care)for over 400 million people by the end of the century or before. I argued in another blog that mitigation and flood plain management, and resilience were all subsets of sustainable development. Perhaps I am wrong but would love to know of what CASS finds out in his new job, his take on those findings, and the end result of his policy decisions or advocacy! The economics profession can not decide if disaster relief is neutral as a stimulus to the disaster impacted community or a stimulus after almost 5 decades of trying to decide that issue. See writings of Howard Kunreuther of Wharton’s risk institute. Integration of risk into benefits and costs will be a key public policy issue forever IMO. Well we now have some idea after the destruction largely of their cultures how the CREEKS, CHEROKEE’s, CHOCTAW and MAORI’s assessed risk except of course their inability to assess changes brought by outsiders. What were their entrance exam questions when they met the first outsiders?

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 19, 2009 @ 2:30 am

Wondering outloud if there are good recent anthropological studies of the military and medical worlds. Certainly both were misoyginist cultures until very recently. First service academy female grads 1976 I believe. Also females now over 50% of medical (and Law Schools also) I believe. Wonder what the entrance exam questions were for those first female initiates to those cultures? I like that “entrance exam” analogy, however, and really insightfull. Not always phrased as a question however. When interviewing in 1959 to attend Brown University (where I was admitted but did not choose to attend) it was pointed out by the interviewer that I was the first non-legacy to interview in several weeks. Also added that Brown U. was the only IVY LEAGUE U. moving forwards (whatever that meant) at that time. What I did notice is that most of the American Elms on Campus had been cut down to to Dutch Elm disease and singularly ugly with no new plantings the week I interviewed. Easter Island? Anyhow do wonder how women have impacted military and medical cultures and wonder if any good studies or books out there? And as to the legal world with which I am vaguely associated interested that the “entrance exam” for the newest member of SCOTUS did not contain one question on National Security, Homeland Security, or Federalism! IMO these issues will dominante the SCOTUS agenda the next two decades as far as significance. And interestingly no of no single SCOTUS opinion actually dealing with economics of benefits versus costs of federal activities. As always could be wrong.

Comment by Mark Chubb

November 20, 2009 @ 9:57 am

Well, I tried to post a reply yesterday, Bill, but something seems to have gone wrong. This site looked like it was down for most of the afternoon.

Anyway, as usual, quite a bit to think about and chew on it your comments. I will respond only briefly here. Some of your comments deserve more thorough treatment in future posts to the front page.

Sadly, I can say little about the Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw inhabitants of Alabama. But I am familiar with a number of Maori practices that exacted terrible tolls on their environment, which may very well have proven unsustainable even in the absence of European settlement. We’ll never know for sure, but the extensive burning of podocarp forests that left us with the sweeping Canterbury plains is a striking example. This was once densely forested land. Maori burned the trees to facilitate moa hunting. (Moa were large flightless birds, similar to emu.) Maori hunted the birds to extinction in a shockingly short period of time. If anything, Jared Diamond’s research cautions us not to adopt the Noble Savages perspective when examining the history of native poeples. Europeans are no more responsible for bringing civilization to the world than they are for destroying sustainable indigenous cultures. They did do a bit of both though.

Your observation about the tendency for not all entrance exams to take the form of questions is quite salient. Many cultures prefer not to ask questions. But in our culture the sorts of statements you observed are (as you state) more likely to seek affirmation or confirmation of one’s biases than to encourage anything resembling discourse much less debate. This is a good example of the dynamics Sunstein discusses in Going to Extremes at work.

I am intrigued by the notion that anthropologists might have some good insights into the military and medical cultures that could inform our understanding of what went wrong in the Hasan case. You are quite right to question the effect of increasing numbers of women enrolling in colleges and universities and entering professional schools on these cultures. It also stands to reason that these changes will have significant impacts on the country as well. (New Zealand fared well as women assumed more authority and responsibility for its governance. At one and the same time while I lived there, the prime minister, attorney general, chief justice, and governor general were all women. A woman also served as CEO of the country’s largest company.)

Your summary list of issues that should occupy the SCOTUS strikes me as the sort of territory in which judicial opinions are needed. But I don’t hold out much hope that the current court or any likely to emerge with new appointments over the next few years will be all that well equipped to deal with such issues. As Chief Justice Roberts himself has acknowledged, the court’s tendency to decide important cases by close margins divided along ideological lines has severely limited its influence. Individual justices have done great harm to the institution as a whole by devoting so much intellectual energy and rhetorical effort not only to writing dissenting opinions but also the production of concurring opinions that disagree in part with key rulings. This ensures that the court’s agenda will be occupied for years to come by many of the same divisive and unproductive issues that have come to characterize current jurisprudence. This strikes me as a decidedly unsatisfactory situation both for the law and the country. Continuing disputes about the appointment of lower court judges means the backlog of important decisions will only grow.

We cannot even seem to agree how that the courts are the best place to try terrorists. The questioning of the attorney general this week by the Congress suggests that our legislative branch has not only lost confidence in the judiciary and the executive branches, but has lost its own way when it comes to mediating members’ feelings when it comes to managing the advice and consent process for federal judgeships.

As always, I appreciate your comments. I look forward to taking up some of these points in future posts.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 20, 2009 @ 10:46 am

Thanks for comment and helpful as always. Probably should have added the Chickasaws also in Alabama area. Slash and burn was also used by the native Americans so not sure quite what to state as to long term survivability although recent site in VA kept secret indicates culture pre-existing to consensus 11,000 to 14,000 year old occupation by humans of Western Hemisphere probably across ice-bridge Bering Sea.
That stated! Increasingly the hopes for Chief Justice Roberts to forge fewer five to four opinions is as you state eroding admiration and ability of SCOTUS to facilitate its main role of uniformity in US. A recent ruling in a Louisiana Federal District Court seems to me well designed (it involves the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal–MRGO and impact on Hurricane Katrina flooding) to eventually result in SCOTUS review regardless of how the 5th Circuit decides it. Why? Because the SCOTS often tries to involve itself in its discretionary review process when a split in the Circuits on issues. This case clearly covers a lot of ground (floodplain & wetlands) and is almost impossible to decide on a correct rationale whatever the merits of the result. GO SCOTUS GO!

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 20, 2009 @ 10:48 am

I also meant to mention that Retired Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, Keane, testified that no guidance existed for force protection with respect to on base or in uniform Jihadists. There apparently is such for white supremacy groups.

Comment by Greg Maloney

November 29, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

Mark Chubb tells us that we “All” are responsible for Hasan’s murder spree at Fort Hood. HORSEFEATHERS! (the polite term for” @*&#!%”).I was at home writing,almost all other Americans were also at home or at work, occupied with other matters than the mass killing that was taking place. So who most bears the responsibility for this tragedy?
1.The base commander for falling down on the job of securing the base. Relieving the base commander is definitely indicated, a courtmartial is certainly a possibility.
2. The Commander in Chief for continuing the policy of disarming troops on military bases.
3.The Officer reponsible for basic training programs who apparently did not include training and drills for indoors/office ambushes in a nation that has been, and still is, targeted by barbaric enemies who do such things.
4.Maj.Hasan and his Jihad buddies,who were presented with an open door and a ticket to ride.
5.The “intelligence” agencies who waffled and fumbled the ball out of inattention and political correctness.
Deflecting attention from those who are guilty of almost treasonable negligence is disingenius and false.

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