Danger vs. Dignity - Danger Week

By Tanya Silverman

A bomb drill at a school in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of James Vaughn.

Threats posed against the national security of the United States of America have caused state and societal paranoia for many decades. To confront the reality of American vulnerability throughout the Cold War, government representatives formed civil defense and security organizations to develop prevalent schemes and strategies. Different measures and procedures have continued to transform in order to face new challenges, up to today and the international war on terror.

Many, if not most, citizens of the United States are in favor of their personal and national security being free from any potential threat of atomic warfare or terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, a good deal of these civil defense and security implementations on the American public can be ineffective, if even absurd and invasive to its citizens.

Early Cold War

The Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949, consequently instigating a general sense of panic throughout the United States. In response, the American federal government set up the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), an organization that would educate the public on measures to take in case of nuclear fallout.

The FCDA released a children’s educational video in 1952 entitled Duck and Cover to inform the nation’s youth on how to act after they identify the omnipresent bright lights of an exploding atomic bomb. Watching this video, it is hard to take the threat seriously. Bert, the cartoon turtle, strolls along to a jolly jingle that sings about how he was “very alert, so certainly never got hurt.” When a cartoon monkey explodes a firecracker in a tree, Bert is able to hide in his shell, since he knows to “Duck and Cover.”

Hard shells not being a viable hiding option for the vulnerable human race and our flimsy internal skeletons, the video transitions to live-action scenes of schoolchildren hiding under desks or curling up into fetal position in hallways with their arms folded securely against on the back of their heads.

To contextualize the threat of a nuclear explosion, it also shows footage of a mother rubbing lotion on her son, so the narrator can warn kids that exposure to an atomic bomb hurts even “worse than a terrible sunburn, especially where you’re not covered!” Though desks and limbs would barely be a shield to such an atomic explosion, these duck-and-cover methods became a standard safety measure in public schools.

Adult civil-defense videos were also distributed by the FCDA to teach informed citizens how to duck and cover under their basement worktables, or also to curl up against the curb of a sidewalk after a bomb explodes.  Tidiness was also a key factor for survival, which entailed cleaning up newspapers around the house and garbage scattered throughout the yard. Advising citizens to keep the garbage lid securely fastened meant that Americans could rest assured that their trash would not set ablaze under the A-bomb.

The demeanor of this 1950s video was not only condescending to domestic citizens, but even dared to argue that if the victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been in tune with such knowledge, thousands of Japanese lives would have been saved.

Civil defense propaganda, duck-and-cover school drills and other measures were often treated apathetically, even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and by the early 1970s, Civil Defense was barely present in the American national consciousness.

Reagan Era to fall of USSR

The Ronald Reagan administration brought up a civil defense revival during the early 1980s, considering some large-scale measures. In 1982, they proposed an expansive program composed of immense urban evacuation plans and other measures. This $4 billion plan was geared to protect 80 percent of Americans in case of nuclear warfare. Society would be able to rebuild itself after, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) head of civil defense: “As I say, the ants eventually build another anthill.”

Over 20 states and 120 cities adamantly refused to administer this potential plan; thousands of citizens expressed their disapproval through protest. Instead of implementing this unpopular evacuation and civil defense plan, Reagan began looking into outer-space satellite defense systems as a counter-Soviet defense option.  Star Wars, an incredibly expensive defense system set in outer space, was an alternative armament method.

In the midst of the overreaching civil-defense envisioning, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Strategic Nuclear Forces, T.K. Jones, ruined the Reagan administration’s reputation a great deal when he was quoted in his less-than-wise words: “Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top. It’s the dirt that does it.”

If there were enough shovels to go around, according to this representative, everyone could survive nuclear warfare. After a week down in the hole, life could then resume above ground as usual.

In December 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. Although threats had been omnipresent throughout its course, the Cold War had never heated up to the point of nuclear warfare. Consequently, the paranoia toned down, no one had to duck-and-cover or take refuge in holes they dug. Star Wars never came into effect, and civil defense largely ceased in the United States.

9/11 to Present

September 11, 2001 was an infamous and unfortunate day in recent American history. Following the initial widespread shock over this terrorist attack, anxiety spread about another potential strike.

While there was no duck-and-cover revival movement or call to dig holes in the backyard after this tragedy, FEMA did inform citizens that they were to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting to guard windows, in event of attack.

With households equipped for survival, there would have to be some forewarning of when to tape and shield up. In 2002, the Department of Homeland Security released their initial alert system that would warn the public about the threat of another potential terrorist attack. They did so by using the colors of the rainbow. Many Americans remember this system, which was adjusted 16 times, being displayed on the news: red for severe terrorist threat, orange for high, yellow for elevated, and so on.

This system was done away with in 2011. The Task Force noted that the color-coded system lacked clarity and credibility, causing people to lose confidence in it.

Apart from procedures that seem simply ineffective or ridiculous, many of the recent security measures administered by the federal government have been considered invasive and disrespectful. One example is the highly-controversial Patriot Act; another was the use of the Transportation Security Administration scanners, which aimed to counter terror by scanning flyers in the nude.

Public upset eventually resulted in the decision that TSA scanners, and consequently, naked photos of us at the airport, are to be done away with by June 2013. With a fraction of our dignity returned to us when we fly, hopefully we can remain just as secure.

Civil Defense and Security Schemes: The Government and Public Relationship

Past and present worry regarding an attack or any potential security threat in the United States of America is a legitimate concern, given several terrorist plots have been identified before they were carried out by due vigilance. Incredibly destructive weapons exist, and enemies could cause wide-scale damage if they are not prevented.

Despite paranoia, the relationship between the federal government and the American public regarding this vulnerability has not always been legitimate in and of itself.

Cute cartoon turtles and instructional depictions of curling up by sidewalk curbs have not saved lives, nor have suggestions of arming your family with shovels and digging into your backyard to live like moles. Furthermore, newfound means of associating America’s current enemies with the color red on the news and mandated naked photos of U.S. citizens at airports have all continued to make it difficult to take certain security measures wholly seriously.