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Inside the Emergency-Management-Industrial Complex | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Inside the Emergency-Management-Industrial Complex


Mall of America security department office. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)

I recently picked up a lost piece of luggage at a TSA office near Midway Airport in Chicago. While waiting there, amid giant American and Illinois flags, pictures of graduating security officers in freshly pressed uniforms, the obligatory portrait of the president and the—also apparently obligatory—motivational posters depicting Mount Rushmore (“Gold is tried by fire, brave men by adversity”) and a team of skydivers (“When a team makes a commitment to act as one, the sky’s the limit”), I had the occasion to, um, obtain a copy of the trade magazine Emergency Management.

(Don’t tell anyone. I don’t want to end up on anyone’s no-fly list. It’s the January/February issue; I don’t think they’ll miss it.)

I love trade magazines, any trade’s magazine: by entering into what is taken for granted in a world not your own, you better recognize the vastness of the social universe—for there are so, so many worlds that are not your own. In this case, though, the journey is not just exotic. For this world—the world of “interoperable” communications systems, best practices in “behavioral profiling,” “Amazon web-mapping tools,” and patrol boats “equipped to serve as the ultimate platform for port and border security with hundreds of options ranging from gun mounts, to laptop docking stations, light bars and even CBRNE—detection apparatus (CBRNE, Wikipedia informs me, stands for Chemical, Biological Radiological, Nuclear and high-yield Explosives)—is our world too, as citizens, whether we like it or not.

So what does this world look like, from the perspective of the trade magazine that advertises itself by the slogan “Strategy and leadership in critical times”? Come with me, dear reader, to Bloomington, Minnesota, home of the world’s largest shopping center, the Mall of America, where we meet, in a feature by associate editor Elaine Pittman, “The New Mall Cop.”

“After 9/11, the Mall of America enlisted behavior profiling to increase security at one of the Midwest’s most popular tourist attractions.” That’s the subhead of the piece. The text begins, “After 9/11, the owners of the Mall of America handed the facility’s security director a blank check.”

It is, of course, the document’s controlling trope. September 11, 2001, invented a world. A magazine like this is one of that world’s myriad droppings. I decided to try an exercise: randomly, I affixed the phrase “After 9/11” to the beginning of sentences to try to find one whose meaning was thereby changed. It was very hard to find one—certainly not these:

“After 9/11, if I wanted to harm your society, I would take your electricity and water away for a while.”

“After 9/11, having a national network would allow a police officer in Atlanta, for example, to contact an officer in Florida, confirm the officer’s identity and get help with whatever was needed.”

After 9/11, transportable interoperable communications devices are essential during emergencies, and C4i’s two new technologies, the Communications On-the-Move (C-OTM) flyaway kit and LTE Picocell Cellular Interface Unit, provide field-ready communication systems that fit inside an aircraft overhead bin.”

They should just call the thing After 9/11 magazine.

Anyway, back to Minnesota. It turns out that a 4 million square-foot shopping mall complete with indoor amusement park, cameras and metal detectors just won’t cut it for your security needs. “Looking to Israeli security methods,” security director Doug Reynolds “learned about how behavioral profiling is used in the country, especially at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.”

He attended a training there. “Most people think that behavioral profiling started in Israel,” he says, “but it did not; it actually started in the U.S. through the FBI to do different types of profiling for crimes, such as serial killers, sexual predators, that kind of thing. The Israelis—when they were looking for best practices—found the FBI doing it, and they took it on and honed the skills and perfected the science.”

He hired former Israeli Airports Authority security agents for his 150-person staff. “What creates a true deterrence is an unpredictable system—a security system that is there and looking for intent constantly,” he says. So now what the FBI wrought to find serial killers, and the Israel uses to catch suicide bombers—a “Risk Assessment and Mitigation program,” or RAM (they love acronyms in this world), training “officers to look for behavior that isn’t considered normal in the mall setting”—is coming soon to a mall near you. Or a school. Or office park. “ ‘We want people to know about this program,’ Reynolds said. ‘We want this to be the new industry standard.’ ” The Greenway Plaza business complex in Houston adopted “RAM” a year and a half ago. “American Security and Investigations is in the early stages of rolling out the program in a Minnesota school district.” (Google it: “Formerly American Security Corporation. Services include armored cars, security professionals, cash management, and investigations.” Nice!)

So how does “RAM” work? Only one example is offered. An officer saw a man in a Marine Corps uniform waiting for an elevator. He had a “weird feeling.” They talked to him, and discovered he didn’t know much about rifles. The article then goes on to make no sense: “It turned out he was a runaway [from where? That’s never explained] and his guardians [who? That’s never explained] were retired members of the military…. The man had created a false identity by going onto bases and listening to the conversations of military members.” There the story ends, supposedly a happy ending—but what the threat was, precisely, and why this “runaway” was the business of mall cops is never explained.

Come with me to page 37, and Helsinki, Finland, an interview with someone named Jarno Limnell, cybersecurity director for something called the Stonesoft Corporation, “Europe’s number one network security vendor.” Headlined, “Why So Quiet on the Cybersecurity Threat”—another of the magazine’s tropes: Why are people not freaked out enough? In the interview, the smiling Scandinavian says, “If I would like to harm your nation, I would not use physical power. I would use cyberweapons against your critical infrastructure, affecting your power grids, for example, and transportation systems,” and explains how difficult it would be to defend America’s millions of miles of power distribution lines against such a cyberattack (“At this moment I would say the threat comes from Iran and possible terrorist groups,” Limnell explains with, um, admirable precision). Perhaps that’s why Limnell prefers offense. “You must have offensive capabilities…. You must give others the feeling that you have the offensive cybercapabilities [NB: it is apparently against the canons of emergency management best practices to put a space between “cyber-” and any other word], and if you are attacked, when you locate your enemy, you are ready to use your offensive capabilities.”

That’s it. No followup, no discussion of ethical considerations, blowback potentialities, the harrowing thoughts that must haunt anyone with half a brain thinking about this stuff who does not make the siege mentality their everyday habit and professional metier. Of which, plainly, there are millions. Call it the Emergency-Management-Industrial Complex.

In this magazine, they speak to one another, and advertise to one another. Free training from FEMA’s Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium (“Prepare For The Worst, Train To Be The Best”). “Incident Management Software Solution” from a company called Knowledge Center (“Your team deserves a Best-of-Class solution, battle tested for managing indents and events”; the images include fires, car crashes, a nuclear meltdown). AT&T sells “solutions to protect constituent data”: “Cyber attacks can originate from anywhere in the world and are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Typically targeted are municipalities due to budget deficiencies, resources and lack of protection.” (You only think your little town isn’t hurtling toward cyberperdition—but the very modesty of your circumstances are precisely why you need to send more money to us.) Degree programs, lots and lots of degree programs: Eastern Kentucky University’s “100% online Homeland Security program with Emergency Management focus”; the Center for Rural Development’s Institute for Preventive Strategies’ Homeland Security Certificate Program; Georgetown’s masters in Emergency and Disaster Management in School of Continuing Studies.

And a lot of it is, admittedly, uncontroversial: for instance, the special section on what emergency managers learned from Superstorm Sandy. We read about the work of dedicated, selfless, smart public servants, surely working too hard for too little reward: for instance the New York City Fire Department social media manager who “spent a day and a half straight comforting frantic citizens and giving out critical information over Twitter.” But even the benign stuff reveals malignancies to be concerned about: the seamlessness between public and private spheres—the “Eric’s Corner” column by Eric Holderman, former director of the King County, Washington Office of Emergency Management, writes how federal homeland security funding in 2013 “will be less than half of what it was even just a few years ago” (What?), demanding his fellows “dump government-central thinking and actions,” recommending “working together with anyone and everyone who is willing to partner with our agencies”—which raises questions about the millions to be made, or perhaps profiteered, from the manipulation and exacerbation of fears.

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And exacerbation really does seem to come naturally to these folks. “Sandy knocked out power for weeks, but what if the weeks had turned into months…. Supermarkets will be cleaned out in a couple of days. Fresh water will become scarce. Generators will run out of gas, and gas stations will run dry, too…. As law enforcement knows, dark neighborhoods are more vulnerable to crime, especially when a whole city is hungry and scared. As one source suggested, ‘people tend to move down Maslow’s pyramid pretty fast.’…. The social systems begin breaking down within 72 hours,’ Briese said. ‘People’s innate restraint breaks down.’”

It’s like an episode of that zombie TV show. And these are dead on predictions. All the more reason, then, to begin thinking hard about how to make sure emergency response strictly serves public, and never private, interests; that the craft of imagining disaster remain the province of responsible professionals and not money-grubbing corporate fools; and that the people who tell these stories to one another for a living fold fundamental concerns about civil liberties, jurisdictional discretion, abuse of power, profiteering, and privateering, into their professional discourse.

About which, by the way, I could not find a single word in Emergency Management magazine. Not a single mumbling word. And this is an emergency, too. After 9/11, I guess it’s up to the rest of us to manage that.

Stever Fraser writes about those who profited from Superstorm Sandy.

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