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Civil Defense

July 8, 2009

keepcalmandcarryonA recently uncovered propaganda poster prepared by the British government during World War II in anticipation of an imminent German invasion (which obviously never eventuated) has suddenly assumed iconic status.  The stark poster features the monarch’s crown in white on a blood red background above the simple slogan: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

The slogan clearly resonates with people in these uncertain times, and carries with it a certain stiff-upper-lip cache.  Those Brits, always so civilized, even in the face of fascism!

The popularity of this poster and the many items now bearing its image (which are now in wide circulation on both sides of the Atlantic for a price) set me to thinking about the former term we used to describe homeland security and emergency management in the United States during the Cold War.  The moniker “civil defense” has fallen out of favor even as the demands of defending civil society against attack from forces foreign and domestic has become all the more salient.

Not too long ago, advocates of increased federal funding of local emergency responders referred to cops, firefighters, and EMTs as America’s domestic defenders.  The popularity of this term waned even before fanatics hijacked and crashed airplanes into things on Septemer 11, 2001.  The term never regained the currency it once enjoyed thereafter.  In its place, we were encouraged to invest our trust in homeland security.

In the aftermath of the attacks, it was hard to imagine anyone anywhere having the capacity to protect us against such random, senseless violence.  We had very real and altogether understandable difficulty comprehending the mindset and depth of antipathy required to perpetrate such atrocities.

On the fourth anniversary of the London transit attacks, the term civil defense and the British war-time poster deserve renewed consideration.   It may very well be unrealistic to expect anyone to provide absolute assurance that such attacks will never again be allowed to occur.  But that does not mean we cannot prepare ourselves well for the eventuality of future attacks.

As the British government looked ahead to the prospect of German troops invading and occupying their island nation, the best advice they could imagine offering was simple and straightforward.  They planned to ask the British people to do what they do best; they appealed to the British sense of decorum and aplomb.

In other words, the British reckoned the best defense in the face imminent occupation was to double down on their innate sense of civility.  We cannot be defeated, they reasoned, if we do not allow ourselves to descend to the level of our enemy.  Displaying dignity in the face of disaster will amaze our friends and annoy our enemies they reasoned.  That sounds like jolly good advice indeed.

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