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Front-porch security
Citizen by citizen, we must shoulder the task of defending ourselves

LEGISLATION signed into law last Monday by President Bush ushers in a Department of Homeland Security, a much needed federal agency. But the attention being paid to it -- we keep hearing how this is the largest government reorganization in 50 years -- is distorting how much the federal government can achieve against terrorism and provides false assurance that we are taking the most appropriate steps to secure our country.

Homeland security starts not with the federal government but at the local level, where citizens, police and emergency services and government are woefully unprepared for a terrorist attack. This problem stems as much from the dismissal of Sept. 11 as a one-time aberration as it does from a lack of time and resources. The urgency of the situation was described in the title of a recent report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations: "America Still Unprepared -- America Still in Danger."

Localizing homeland security needs to become the nation's No. 1 objective. In doing so, we follow the reasoning of James Madison in Federalist Paper No. 41: "The means of security can only be regulated by the means and danger of attack."

In the case of terrorism on U.S. soil, the attack is carried out by dispersed individuals, some of whom use our civil liberties to hide among us and blend in as citizens. They employ their own resources in combination with ours -- hijacked airliners for example -- to create weapons. The danger is to individual citizens and groups of citizens in specific locations -- most likely in large population centers, or near famous monuments or other symbols of American power.

With the means of attack and the danger both locally based, security is best regulated through a focus on the citizen and the community. Instead of becoming a stealthy enemy's passive target, the citizen and the community must become the primary participants in creating security. As in Israel, which has suffered terrorist attacks for years, permanent citizen mobilization must become a way of life.

Local government is the only institution capable of providing a framework for millions of citizens to gather and report information, receive emergency supplies, engage in pre-crisis planning and practice mobilization, evacuation, response and recovery operations. Against a threat from a conventional military nation-state, where the danger came from overseas, federal institutions were necessarily predominant.

But at home against terrorists, these institutions are best used as a support system. We need to fight terrorism much the way we fight wildfires. A cooperative of seven federal agencies and 50 state organizations together decides national wildfire policy and sets common standards and training, assuring interchangeable assets and equipment. But fires are fought by local firefighters who call in federal or out-of-state help only if they become overwhelmed and depleted.

Another model is the nation's emergency-management system. The state of Delaware, for example, maintains county emergency-management offices, a state-level emergency-management agency that arranges state support for counties that request it and 19 interstate compacts for state support. Federal support is available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's office in Philadelphia.

If reliance on citizens under voluntary and local authority seems the polar opposite of this past century's national-security dependency on professionals under federal authority, it is. While citizens have generously served this nation's national security interests abroad in direct federal service as GIs or intelligence professionals or at home in war production, we have not regularly and systematically engaged the enemy from our front porch, community center or marketplace, as we must now.

There is a precedent for such involvement. During the American Revolution, this land was similarly the battleground for a protracted engagement, our domestic way of life swung in the balance, an enemy of both foreign and domestic composition -- Tory colonists, the British army and foreign mercenaries -- fought against us and the danger of attack was focused specifically on citizens and their property.

Homeland security is as much a litmus test of the citizen's role in a 21st-century democracy as the Battle of Lexington and Concord was for the 18th-century colonists who took the fight from their homes to Boston's surrounding hills and put the British on notice. Our Lexington and Concord starts by renewing our pledge to our communities, meeting our neighbors and working together to make America a place where terrorists cannot hide.

In neighborhoods of strangers, anyone can function as a threat without being noticed. We must assume the responsibility of watching for and reporting information, preparing our homes, attending planning sessions and taking a periodic day off work to practice a homeland-security simulation.

President Bush's Terrorist Information and Prevention System proposal, whereby small groups of transportation, maritime and other industry personnel would report unusual activity, was a step in this direction. Civil-liberties concerns about spying on one's neighbor killed the initiative but we need to address those concerns and create a citizens' reporting system. Nonsecurity institutions must also be empowered as information sources. For example, the U.S. Postal Service visits every house and business almost daily. If trained in basic information-gathering and hand-held computer data-entry, letter carriers could make a big contribution to security.

At the same time, local government must evolve its agencies and infrastructure. Specialists could facilitate the coordination of public functions, such as police, fire, emergency medical service and public health, and help citizens develop plans for community intelligence-gathering response and recovery.

The co-chairmen of the U.S. Commission on National Security, Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, report that local "public health departments are barely funded. ... medical professionals often lack the training to diagnose and treat diseases ... reporting systems are antiquated, slow and outmoded." No function needs more improvement in our national-security strategy.

State and federal institutions also need to evolve. The National Guard, for example, is a logical state-level force-in-readiness. Right now, it is still primarily focused for roles overseas in support of U.S. forces.

Federal reorganization is just one step to homeland security. Even as he has lobbied hard for the new agency, Bush has acknowledged the roles of both citizen and local government. He knows we need to "rally our entire society," while "individual volunteers ... channel their energy and commitment." He wonders, "What should nonfederal governments, the private sector and citizens do to help secure the homeland?"

Certainly we must rally at the local level. But as the Homeland Security agency gets under way, we also must ask what the federal government can do to help us. The entire nation must see homeland security for the house-to-house, neighbor-to-neighbor, community-to-community issue it is; otherwise, we are in for a very long century.

Hillyard is an author and a former national-security analyst for the U.S. Marine Corps.
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