Social Problems Perspectives, Disaster Research and Emergency Management: Intellectual Contexts, Theoretical Extensions, and Policy Implications Thomas E

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8. Recently adopted policies, like the USA Patriot Act and others pertaining to electronic eavesdropping, “data mining,” warrantless physical searches, and the like, permit unacceptable assaults on fundamental civil liberties and for the most part must be rejected.

Since the 9/11 attacks, risk perceptions of Americans have been changed. Substantial numbers, as noted above, now fear death or injury from future terrorist attacks. So it is more important than ever that we keep the most fundamental question of a social problems perspective clearly in front of us. This is, “what qualities identify a good society?”

In my own social problems courses years ago, and in my disaster classes especially since the 9/11 attacks, I emphasize this question and the value issues, choices and trade-offs that each of us as individuals must decide. “It is not the objective of this course to select a set of values for you. Rather the objective is to get you to think about the values you believe in today, examine them critically and understand better how they are linked to the private troubles being experienced by members of our society and a range of interdependent public issues. And as you ponder these, look for linkages to the Constitution of the United States and the civil liberties protected through the Bill of Rights.”

In such discussions, we should seek wisdom from a wide variety of thinkers of various political persuasions. I will cite only two examples here to make the point. First, listen to Dostoevsky (1960) as his “Grand Inquisitor” explains why “. . . man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil.” (p. 129).

“I tell you that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone to whom he can hand over quickly that gift of freedom with which the unhappy creature is born.” (pp. 128-129).
“. . . they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they now endure supplying a free, individual answer. And everyone will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred thousand who rule them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, will be unhappy.” (p. 135).
Our nation’s founders, of course, had very different visions of both human nature and the role of government in an ideal society. We should think hard on the policy implications and wisdom reflected in their writings, especially those who thought hard about the basic principles of democracy. Consider these words that Thomas Paine sent to George Washington in 1791.

“When I contemplate the natural dignity of man, when I feel (for Nature has not been kind enough to me to blunt my feelings) for the honour and happiness of its character, I become irritated at the attempt to govern mankind by force and fraud, as if they were Knaves and fools, and can scarcely avoid disgust at those who are thus imposed upon.” (“Rights of Man”, p. 172).

“That there are men in all countries who get their living by war, and by keeping up the quarrels of nations, is shocking as it is true; but when those who are concerned in the government of a country make it their study to sow discord and cultivate prejudices between nations, it becomes more unpardonable.” (“Preface to the English Edition,” p. 134).
Of course, Paine was defending the French Revolution and rejecting Burke’s interpretation of it, the French Constitution, and their potential impact on future relationships between England and France. So after seeing “. . . old prejudices wearing away” Paine proposed that Burke “. . . immediately began sowing the seeds of a new inveteracy, as if he were afraid that England and France would cease to be enemies.” (“Preface to the English Edition,” p. 134). I suspect I know what Paine’s view of the USA Patriot Act would be!

It is somewhat ironic that the chapter in the second edition of the Merton-Nisbet social problems text (1966) that replaced Fritz’s (1961) disaster summary was authored by one of our former (1995) ASA presidents, Amitai Etzioni. As I noted above it was titled: “War and Disarmament” (Etzioni 1996). After exploring many other topics over the years, including complex organizations (e.g., Etzioni 1964) and community integration processes (e.g., Etzioni 1996, 1999, 2003), Etzioni (2004) focused his analytic powers on the USA Patriot Act. He highlighted the tensions between government actions designed to increase citizen protection and the cost of a decrease in civil liberties (Etzioni 2004). As he assessed these issues and tried to walk the “tightrope of balance,” you can trace his movement toward acceptance and trust of “the authorities”. Far better to have a few e-mails or phone calls reviewed that are not supposed to be available, than allow a group of terrorists to be successful in their evil deeds. Schehr’s (2005) review of his work is very critical and points out Etzioni’s failure to highlight the influential roles played by a variety of politically conservative organizations and individuals in the creation of this legislation, e.g., Family Research Council, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz. Even more disparaging are Etzioni’s statements reflecting a view that the best federal oversight should reside with “the public”.

“This must be consistent with his previously articulated belief that democracies are constituted by a ‘free press’, otherwise, how can ‘the public’ truly know what is happening? Unfortunately, here too Etzioni is stronger on rhetoric than truth. With six corporations owning and controlling virtually all major media, the embedded nature of media journalists with government officials, and the near blackout of all media critical of state activities, it is hard to see how ‘the public’ will be able to deduce precisely the machinations of state actors.” (Schehr 2005, pp. 614-615).
In their Introduction to Homeland Security, Bullock and her colleagues (2005, pp. 403-412) provided a helpful summary of this complex and lengthy piece of legislation. Commonly referred to as “The Patriot Act” it contains numerous sections and sub-sections like these six: 1) “Title II: Enhanced Surveillance Procedures”; 2) “Subtitle B: Enhanced Immigration Provisions” (includes “Section 41” which provides a detailed legal definition of “terrorist activity” that includes planning or discussions about possible planning of such future actions); 3) “Title VIII: Strengthening the Criminal Laws Against Terrorism” (includes “Section 803” which “. . . prohibits harboring any person knowing or having reasonable grounds to believe that such person has committed or to be about to commit a terrorist offense” and “Section 804” which “established Federal jurisdiction over crimes committed at U.S. facilities abroad”; 4) “Section 1011” which amends the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Protection Act”; “Section 1012” which amends the Federal Transportation Code: and 6) “Section 1014” which directs the Office for State and Local Domestic Preparedness Support of the Office of Justice Programs to “. . . make grants to enhance state and local capability to prepare for and to respond to terrorist acts” (p. 412) and authorizes appropriations for FY 2002 through FY 2007. These few items illustrate the scope and complexity of this legislation.

While favoring the last item, i.e., enhancement of state and local capability, it is my opinion, like that of many others, that sections of this legislation go much too far in extending the authority of federal agencies in their efforts to prevent future attacks by terrorists. As with other forms of violence, the boundary between protecting citizens from harm and protecting their basic civil liberties is a matter about which reasonable people can disagree. My point is that such issues should be more of a focus within the emergency management and disaster research communities.

Obviously, these matters are very complex legally and far beyond the scope of this paper. So I’ll simply note two current examples of this controversial social problem area. As context, by the way, I found it helpful to return to the textbook used in the social problems course in which I enrolled as an undergraduate (1959), i.e., Horton and Leslie (1955). The chapter entitled “Civil Liberties” has much relevance to today even if we never have a “modern day Joe McCarthy” appear on scene.

But we do have “warrantless physical searches” taking place despite the concerns expressed by high level officials like FBI Director Robert Mueller (e.g., see Ragavan 2006). And President Bush did sign the “John W. Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2006” (October 17, 2006; PL 109-364) which, according to one analyst “takes the cuffs off.” (Stein 2006, p. 2). “Specifically, the new language adds ‘natural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or incident’ to the list of conditions permitting the President to take over local authority . . .” (Stein 2006, p. 2). Apparently in response to the flawed Katrina response, some policy makers slipped this language into the defense bill as a rider. “One of the few to complain, Sen,. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., warned that the measure virtually invites the White House to declare federal martial law.” (Stein 2006, p. 2). According to Stein, Leahy included the following remarks in the Congressional Record on Sept. 29, 2006.

This rider “subverts solid, longstanding posse comitatus statutes that limit the military’s involvement in law enforcement, thereby making it easier for the President to declare martial law . . .” furthermore “The changes to the Insurrection Act will allow the President to use the military, including the National Guard, to carry out law enforcement activities without the consent of a governor. . .” (Stein 2006, pp. 2-3).

A variety of other actions have taken place since the 9/11 attacks that cumulatively have helped to alter risk perceptions producing heightened levels of fear (e.g., see Altheide 2006 and Furedi 2006). The social construction of such perceptions, like any other aspects of risk perception change, should also be studied by disaster researchers so that emergency managers and others can better understand what is happening in their communities and thereby make more informed judgments about their own actions. Let me illustrate this “fear generation” process by noting only four topics that merit much further attention.

First, there are the issues related to the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS) with its color coded scale. Among the issues are the vagueness of warnings, lack of specificity regarding protective actions, problems of dissemination across the intergovernmental system, etc. (see Reese 2005). Indeed, as Aguirre (2004) has argued, the HSAS is more of a public relations device than a true warning system. But, television viewers are reminded daily, and on some networks like “Fox noise” even more frequently, that future terrorist attacks may be coming. And they probably are. The real question, however, is the generation of higher fear levels the best strategy to produce support for a balanced, threat based, emergency management program? As noted in the excellent summary report from the Committee on Disaster Research in the Social Sciences (2006), the HSAS initiative is not reflective of years of solid studies by disaster researchers.

“While most disaster researchers would agree that the scale is not a warning system, much of what has been learned by disaster researchers on effective risk communication practices is largely ignored in the development of the system . . .” (Committee on Disaster Research in the Social Sciences 2006, p. 310).

Second, what are the impacts on risk perceptions of the continued violence in Iraq, the Israel-Palestine areas, and elsewhere? The daily reporting of these activities may be key in the construction of inappropriate fear levels. While these may engender support for certain political agenda, the overall impacts need better study and understanding. This process may have important parallels to shifts in risk perception documented for other social problems, e.g., predatory public school teachers and disturbed kids shooting up schools. A rash of highly publicized incidents can alter fear levels which in turn can be used to promote a variety of agenda, e.g., more funds for school security devices like metal detectors and witch hunts triggered by unfounded allegations of “inappropriate behavior.” Obviously, incidents like the Virginia Tech (2007) and Columbine school massacres do happen and may trigger copy-cats just as some teachers—both male and female—cross the line of trust expected of them. But failure to keep such incidents in perspective, as with terrorism, can produce very poor public policy decisions.

Third, is the very complex matter of multi-national firms and corporate concentrations within the U.S.A. For example, increased corporate concentration of media ownership and control, as noted during the congressional hearings in which the Dixie Chicks were invited to testify after their music was targeted because of a critical comment about Iraq war policy, the impacts of content and viewer habits should lead to more informed policy making. With limited air space, the public agenda is manipulated both by intent and default. Over reporting of terrorist activities and increased numbers of popular dramatic television series focused on terrorist plots, may reflect intent. And excessive coverage of the latest starlet who happens not to be wearing underwear, or who is now in rehab, illustrate the “narcotic potential” of the mass media. As Merton (1957) put it years ago: “Propaganda is no substitute for social policy and social action, but it can serve to root policy and action in the understanding of the people.” (p. 528).

Fourth, and finally, we must explicitly recognize how a broad range of interest groups have bought into the terrorism bandwagon as a way to promote their own agenda and resource bases. As Lustick (2007) has pointed out so clearly, anti-gun groups press for legislation using potential terror attacks in their presentations as does the National Rifle Association and others who propose increased citizen arms purchases. Far more important, however, has been the rush to the money pots by those who have recast their mission and agenda. This includes most sectors of the society ranging from universities, to pediatricians, pharmacists, and others, who have alter their agenda to participate in the so-called “War on Terror”. By so doing, they further legitimate and enhance the public perception of a heightened threat. The overall consequence is that the entire nation has played directly into the aims of small groups of Muslim fanatics. “. . . they hijack Madisonian democracy itself, to create a vortex of aggrandizing exploitation of the War on Terror for self-interested agendas that spin our country out of control.” (Lustick 2007, p. 9). Thus, the consequences of these altered risk perceptions are most profound. As Al Gore (2007) put it: “ . . . when fear and anxiety play a larger role in our society, logic and reason play a diminished role in our collective decision making.” (p. 48). In short, the key processes that define our form of government are put at risk.

Enhanced understanding of such policy controversies, and related sectors of institutional change, including the propaganda potentials of the media, can assist emergency managers to think more strategically about risk communication, both dangers and possibilities for the public good. It is within this type of larger social context that most of the sections of the U.S. Patriot Act, and other policies that may infringe on our civil liberties, should be examined. This position is consistent with that of Gary Marx (2007) who is one among dozens creating a new sociological subfield of surveillance studies. As he put it recently:

“Using criteria such as the nature of the goals, the procedure for creating a surveillance practice, minimization, consideration of alternatives, reciprocity, data protection, and security and implications for democratic values, I suggest twenty questions to be asked about any surveillance activity (Marx 2005). The more these can be answered in a way affirming the underlying values, the more legitimate the surveillance is likely to be.” (Marx 2007, p. 129).

9. Emergency managers should increase their priority on matters related to global warning, both mitigation efforts and strategic adaptations, and place all future hazards policy reviews for natural, technological, and conflict based threats, including terrorism, into a social problems perspective.

Let me be clear here. I am not recommending that efforts to mitigate (i.e., counter intelligence, law enforcement, special forces attacks, etc.) and better prepare for response and recovery from future terrorist attacks simply be put aside. The threat is real and as a nation we must do much better in a wide variety of ways, especially by recognizing the types of alternative strategies that flow from the questioning by analysts like Hart (2006). Rather what I am proposing for consideration and debate is greater emphasis on policies that are proactive regarding future climate changes. These policies should be mitigative both in programs aimed at reducing global warning, reduction of carbon emissions, and in adaptations to it. Extreme worst case scenarios in future sea level rises, for example, need not be used rigidly in planning and development decisions. But local and state level approaches to such mitigative actions should be encouraged through new initiatives. As with other matters of public policy, these future initiatives must be put into the context of all other social problems confronting communities including matters of racism, sexism, and ageism.

I am in full agreement with Lustick’s (2007) conclusion regarding the War on Terror. That is, “We have been, and are being, suckered, suckered big-time.” (p. 9). So a shift in priorities is in order. Furthermore, my position parallels that outlined by Pastor et al. (2006) in their discussion of “environmental justice.” As they documented, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPS), had begun to incorporate the concept of “environmental equity” into its structure in 1992. And under the Clinton administration the momentum resulted in the Executive Order No. 12898 which mandated “. . . environmental justice as part of the federal government’s mission.” (p. 11). While they use somewhat different terms, the logic of their analysis parallels my social problems perspective. Indeed, it is no accident that some of the same critics, e.g., Peter Rossi, who attacked the White-Haas assessment project (1975) and other disaster research that caused me to initially propose this view, also were instrumental in attacking the research studies that had been used to justify this policy shift. Hence, their criticisms, e.g., Anderton et al. 1994, fueled the supporters of the Bush administration who quickly pushed for new directions (Pastor et al. 2006, pp. 10-11). “In a society seemingly hooked on putting hazards in the backyards of those already burdened by poverty and racial discrimination, owning up to the reality would make a good starting place for policy making.” (Pastor et al. 2006, p. 15).

Pastor et al. (2006) correctly identify the gaps between most disaster researchers and those studying other aspects of environmental issues. As I noted above, most current social problems texts make this link except they have yet to integrate disaster studies and instead focus solely on terrorism. As Pastor et al. (2006) noted: “Environmental sociology books, for example, rarely discuss disaster research, and disaster studies rarely draw on environmental justice literature.” (p. 27). I believe that my social problems perspective provides an additional and complementary bridge toward these frameworks, especially many key principles and concepts. For example, “community empowerment is central to the precepts of environment justice.” (p. 35). Similarly, “. . . an overemphasis on technocratic and scientific expertise for decision making can lead to a process that inappropriately frames fundamentally political and moral questions (that is, ‘transcientific’ issues) in scientific terms . . .” (p. 35).

My call for a priority shift, one wherein the terrorism preparedness challenge is retained within the overall emergency management portfolio, is consistent with the recommendations of many others. For example, the staff within the Office of Inspections and Special Reviews (2006) within the Office of Inspector General of the DHS documented the changes in FEMA’s budget and personnel that occurred following its move into DHS (see pp. 110-122). Among these included “. . . a number of changes to the administration of grants for natural hazards preparedness [that] diminished FEMA’s involvement in how states conduct emergency training, planning, exercises, and other functions.” (p. 112). Furthermore, other changes “. . . diverted attention from natural hazard preparedness to terrorism preparedness. In 2005, FEMA no longer administered natural hazards preparedness grants . . .” (p. 113). Shifting this function to the Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP) meant that “FEMA lost its direct preparedness relationship with the state emergency management agencies.” (p. 116). Additionally,“. . . FEMA’s understaffing include decreased morale and inadequate succession planning.” (p. 119). Thus, in contrast to the imagery of professionalism and excellence during the Witt era, by 2003, “. . . FEMA was ranked the worst place to work in Federal government by its own employees in the Office of Personnel Management surveys analyzed by the Partnership for Public Service.” (p. 119).

These matters are relevant side issues that are contextual to the key point, i.e., the current over emphasis on terrorism preparedness at the expense of everything else. The IG staff honed in on this point toward the end of their assessment.

“The response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that DHS’ efforts to protect and prepare the nation for terrorist events and natural disasters have not yet translated into preparedness for all hazards. State emergency management staff we interviewed said the majority of DHS preparedness grants are spent on terrorism preparedness, which has not afforded sufficient support or funding for natural hazard preparedness.” (Office of Inspections and Special Reviews 2006, p. 135).
And despite policy documents that could be interpreted as recognition of a natural hazard preparedness priority, the IG staff concluded otherwise. “Through the documents in the National Preparedness System address all hazards, the prevalence of terrorism-related items in these fosters a perception that the preparedness for and response to a terrorist event is different from that of a naturally occurring event.” (p. 136). Hence, the DHS must explicitly embark upon a cultural change so as to carry out its emergency management within an all-hazard perspective (see pp. 135-143). As part of this shift in priorities, I recommend new preparedness and mitigation initiatives focused on global warming and its potential socioeconomic impacts. Such initiatives will be most effective if they are developed and implemented primarily within state and local levels although both national and international projects are urgently required as well.

These nine complexes of policy areas, while only briefly reviewed here, illustrate some of the ways that emergency managers can be encouraged to think more strategically about their profession. We best accomplish this by introducing them to the notion that for some research purposes, certainly not all, it is helpful to conceptualize disasters as non-routine social problems. Failure to adopt a more strategic view of their profession, one enriched by the future studies completed by disaster and hazard researchers from a wide variety of social science disciplines, will constrain the growth of this profession. Such constraint will weaken a critical capacity necessary for the continued resiliency of the U.S.A.


I have: 1) proposed a linkage to social problems perspectives; 2) summarized the intellectual context for and rationale for further exploration of the key epistemological issue that constrains the generalization of our research findings; and 3) illustrated the significant policy implications of these two matters. I will now offer five conclusions. Hopefully, these will stimulate others, because of either agreement or disagreement, to push this analysis much further. Such is the nature of academic work.

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