The other day I talked to a friend in Hyde Park who, along with her neighbors, is challenging a wireless communications tower slated for construction in her backyard. So what else is new?
This: Hyde Park’s isn’t just any tower. It would be one of dozens across the state, said my friend, funded by Homeland Security grants to the Vermont Communications Board (VCOMM) to aid first responders in a terrorist attack. She lamented that a state that had the wisdom to ban billboards was about to prickle its ridges willy-nilly with industrial structures, wrecking what it had worked so hard to preserve.
I called the Public Service Board and the VCOMM board chair, Newport police Chief Paul Duquette, to check it out. Indeed, such a network is under way: 26 towers (PSB says 36), some already existing, plus eight “public safety answering points,” or 911 centers — at a cost of $13.8 million, courtesy of the feds. Through 2010, Vermont had received more than $89 million from Homeland Security; the state has a request in for $5.1 million for 2011, which it expects to get.
Washington mandated the system — separate frequencies available only to fire, police and other first responders — in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But, Duquette said, its potential usefulness for other emergencies has been brought home numerous times. He named the Essex school shooting — “within a minute, the airwaves were so flooded nobody could speak to anybody” — the Hartford fire in 2008, the recent floods and the “Drega incident” in 1997. Carl Drega, you may remember, was the New Hampshire resident who set his house on fire, killed two state troopers, a newspaper editor and a local judge, and wounded a Fish & Wildlife agent before fleeing to Vermont, where police on the ground and in helicopters pursued him through the woods until they shot him dead.
What set Drega off, by the way, was not some jihadist fervor. It was rage over his property-tax bill. Live free or die.
“The lifeline we’re building,” said Duquette, gives emergency responders “a better chance of hitting a public safety entrance point.”
At first, this all sounded reasonable — more reasonable than a multimillion-dollar, landscape-despoiling antiterrorism system in a state of 625,000 people and one target that might interest a terrorist, Vermont Yankee. And that risk is another reason to shut down the poison factor, not to fortify all 9615 square miles of the state.
Then the reasonableness lifted like a scrim, and revealed beneath it was the longing for perfect safety, an emotion that has so suffused both our psyches and our public policy that it is now all but invisible.
I’d witnessed this feeling during the years Hardwick debated a cell and beeper tower proposed to rise 200 feet above the farms and fields of Bridgman Hill (opponents, including me, just lost our final appeal, asking for a shorter, less obtrusive tower). Proponents proclaimed that without cell service, children would leave town forever, disabled people would be homebound and patients on the 15-minute drive to Copley Hospital would perish.
Sure, cell service is nice (and, according to one engineer’s study, it would be 90 percent as nice with 100 feet of tower as with 200). But, listening to the testimony, you’d wonder how Hardwick survived all those years before it. Listening to Duquette, you’d ask how Vermont made it through fires and floods for 400 years, not to mention the millennia before Vermont was Vermont.
Part of this felt need is the consumerism effect: If they build it, we will want it.
But our passion not just for cellphones and iPads but for protection is another phenomenon, one whose origins date back before the World Trade Center attacks. According to a terrific new book called Sex Panic and the Punitive State, America’s fears and the consequent demand for security were seeded in the law-and-order mania of the late 1960s, then grew all out of proportion during the sex panics that began in the 1980s. The author, George Mason University anthropologist Roger Lancaster, argues that our fantasies — stoked by media, law enforcement and politicians — of armies of sex monsters stalking our children have turned the U.S. into “something resembling a police state.”
This fear has transformed America’s criminal justice ethos from one of the “presumption of innocence” to one of the “protection of innocence,” Lancaster says, where the victim’s needs for comfort and “closure” trump the rights of the accused or convicted, and a lust for punishment supplants a faith in rehabilitation. Our civil institutions have become arms of the police: public schools that have students arrested for what used to be considered childish pranks; public-housing authorities that conduct unwarranted searches and evict entire families for the misdeeds of one member. Our communities, which once tolerated a measure of deviance in the spirit of democracy and individual freedom, now bond in the solidarity of paranoia and vengeance.
And over all this, superimposed on the Stars and Stripes since 9/11, floats the image of America — not just its children — as vulnerable, victimized and innocent.
It is this image that allows tough, resourceful Vermont to welcome the wiring of its mountains into a giant police radio — which, as Lancaster suggests, will keep track not only of foreign malefactors but of the rest of us, too.
In a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, University of North Carolina sociologist and Islamic terrorism expert Charles Kurzman avers that we are too worried. “My research finds that Islamic terrorism has not posed as large a threat as reporters and the public think,” he writes. In fact, Al Qaeda and its affiliates “routinely complain” that they aren’t attracting enough recruits.
Of the 56 million people who die each year around the world, HIV/AIDS and malaria take three million, and violence fells nearly three quarters of a million. At its peak in 2007, terrorism claimed 23,000 lives, half of them in Iraq — “a terrible toll,” says Kurzman, “but not a leading cause of death.” In the U.S., Islamic terrorism has accounted for fewer than three dozen deaths since 9/11 — an average of three or four among 15,000 murders annually.
Maybe the massive apparatus of domestic defense has something to do with the smallness of this number. But is that small number worth this huge one: $71.6 billion? That’s how much the president’s budget requests for homeland security in fiscal 2012, even while he’d cut Pell Grants and jobs programs. Is it worth even $13.8 million?
The money, and even the environmental and aesthetic damage, is not the whole story. Do we Vermonters want to gaze forever at these totems of ourselves as helpless and traumatized infants, reaching into the sky for Big Brother’s hand?