defense to civil protection--and back again
by David Alexander
The phrase 'civil protection' has gradually come into use around the
world as a term that describes activities which protect civil populations against
incidents and disasters. The USA stands out more or less alone for having adopted the
alternative term 'emergency preparedness'. However, 'civil protection' has the advantage
of translating more easily and literally into romance languages.
Civil protection has gradually and rather haltingly emerged from the
preceding philosophy of civil defense. Here, 'defense' implies the management of civilian
populations in the face of actual or potential aggression. As with all means of directing
operations under the duress of warfare and conflict, it gives considerable emphasis to
authoritarian management techniques and the restriction of individual freedoms. In
contrast, civil protection has gradually moved away from command-and-control methods to
rely upon forms of collaboration and information sharing. This is one of the principal
ways in which it has distinguished itself from civil defense.
Civil defense was born out of wartime efforts to organize air-raid
precautions, sheltering arrangements and alarms for non-combatants. It took a more
debatable, and perhaps sinister, form during the Cold War (1948-89) with the development
of plans to relocate large civilian populations in the event of a threatened nuclear
attack. Many aspects of nuclear strategy were at best theoretical and at worst ludicrous,
flying in the face of common sense or deliberately distorted in order to maintain a very
profitable arms race. In the reality of a thermo-nuclear exchange, the plans to protect
civilians would be the first to fail.
One element of civil defense in the nuclear era has been a strategy to
preserve a functional corpus of government by protecting key political and military
leaders. Underground bunkers were set up with powerful dedicated communications systems,
radiation shields and stockpiles of rations. This rather mechanistic approach could not,
of course, determine what the situation would be like once the heavily protected leaders
emerged from their bunkers, what there would be to govern and how easy it would be to
Civil defense is administered by a combination of military and
paramilitary forces acting under military regulations. As its plans and strategies are
supposed to be kept secret from a putative enemy power, it is not usually subject to rules
of accountability and freedom of information. Considerable risks therefore exist that
civil defense become an instrument of repression, subtle or otherwise in character. Plans
to manage civilian populations can turn into strategies for ensuring that protests are
repressed and revolts subdued, even when these are stimulated by a desire to defend or
restore democratic rights. In short, civil defense can be subverted to protect the state
against its people: it is a potential instrument of coup d'êtat.
The Cold War reached its zenith with the Cuban missile crisis of
October 1962. It did not end abruptly with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989
but declined gradually during the 1980s with successive changes in the relations between
the superpowers. Contemporaneously, civil protection emerged as a counterweight to civil
defense: as demand for the latter slowly lessened, so demand for the former increased
under the duress of more, and more serious, civilian disasters such as earthquakes,
hurricanes, floods, and transportation crashes.
Theoretical research also made a contribution to the increasingly
civilian character of emergency preparedness. In the 1950s much social research on
disasters was designed to test hypotheses relating to the possible effects of major armed
aggression. Thus a tornado was viewed as a partial, small-scale analog for the sorts of
destruction and disruption that modern war might bring--at least, that was the rationale
of much of the funding and official support for disaster research. In contrast, by the
late 1960s social research had matured and broadened such that it had begun to cast doubt
on the efficacy of the usual military system of emergency management. Finally, from the
1970s onwards, disaster research has proposed alternative, non-military models of civil
protection. One of these is the incident command system (ICS), which is distinctly
different from the traditional command-and-control model derived from the direction of
troops during combat, as it relies on information sharing and collaboration between task
As civil protection has come to the fore, it has become apparent that
similar approaches to the management of natural and technological disasters can prevail in
very different societies. Hence, both structurally and functionally, the Russian system of
emergency preparedness now has much more in common with, for instance, its North American
and Australasian counterparts than the corresponding differences in history and culture
might suggest. This process of convergence was facilitated by the United Nations'
International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR 1990-2000), which functioned as
a means of sharing organizational expertise. At the moment, variations among national
emergency management structures are based more on degree of evolution than fundamental
differences in process: lack of political will, stability, or funds, have caused some
countries to make little progress in demilitarizing their emergency preparedness forces.
Civil protection has developed through the gradual realization that it
is not efficient or effective to manage civil emergencies such as floods and
transportation crashes by military means. Military forces have the advantages of great
autonomy in the field, dedicated equipment (all-terrain vehicles, for example),
unambiguous command structures, robust field communications, and a variety of useful
skills (in civil engineering, for instance), but they tend to be rigid and authoritarian.
Modern disasters are complex enough to require the utmost flexibility in their management.
Indeed, adaptive management must be practiced if good results are to be achieved. The
rights of victims and survivors are paramount and must be respected in all forms of
decision making. The military record in this is at best ambiguous and at worst
The drift of this discussion appears to be that modern civil protection
should exclude military forces from disaster management. In reality this is not quite the
objective, but rather there needs to be a redefinition of the role of the military in such
events. In countries riven by a combination of warfare (usually low-intensity conflict)
and natural disaster, peace-keeping missions may be essential prerequisites of the relief
and mitigation of civilian disasters. Elsewhere, military forces can fulfill a very useful
support role if their command structures can successfully be integrated with those of
civil protection administrations. Moreover, civil protection forces usually contain a
substantial component of pseudo-military or para-military organization. Most fire brigades
are organized partly along military lines, though they are usually amenable to civilian
command techniques. The Salvation Army is an example of a non-governmental organization
that had adopted a pseudo-military image. Moreover, one of the lead organizations in any
disaster relief operation is usually a police force, with its inherent objective of
maintaining public order. Nevertheless, modern civil protection is not inherently
authoritarian. For example, even when a city mayor signs an order that makes evacuation
compulsory for citizens whose homes are in the path of an advancing floodwave, powers of
arrest and forcible removal are seldom evoked if people refuse to comply with the order.
And so to the events of September 11, 2001. On that day, a gigantic
failure of strategic intelligence was revealed. Using the most rudimentary weapons--knives
and razors--groups of terrorists transformed very ordinary equipment--civilian
airliners--into devastating weapons capable, not merely of causing mass casualties on the
largest scale so far encountered in any terrorist incident, but also of causing the
massive disruption and losses that have continued in abated form ever since. As Ignacio
Ramonet, Editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, has pointed out, no weapon so far invented has
ever been used only once, and thus the potential for some form of repeat of the events of
that tragic day remains high.
The loss of the lives of 343 firemen and 78 policemen in the collapse
of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 reveals a vast and
tragic failure of civil protection planning. During the previous year, some commentators
had suggested that too much emphasis was being given to 'routine' emergencies--the usual
flood, the common air crash--at the expense of developing believable scenarios for events
with very profound consequences but very low probability of occurrence. In the aftermath
of the terrorist attacks it is suddenly fashionable to contemplate the worst-case
scenarios, though no one can yet say whether this is being done systematically and
rationally enough to produce usable scenarios.
Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall it has been apparent that there
are many strategists and militarists who regard the Cold War as a Halcyon Age. Appalling
though the idea is, they are not entirely unjustified in this, as it was at least a time
in which mutual rivalry had some restraining effect on the superpowers' ambitions and the
framework of mutually assured destruction imparted a sense of order to world affairs,
however deplorable the consequences. Although it is neither possible nor in fact desirable
to turn the clock back, the cold warriors have bided their time and have now returned to
the limelight, reinvented as anti-terror strategists.
It is a curious paradox that terrorism now dominates world thinking
despite the fact that natural and technological disasters of the more usual kind have not
become less serious and remain vastly dominant in terms of the size and frequency of their
collective impact. Although terrorism has the potential to cause tens of thousands, or
even millions, of casualties, that potential thankfully remains unproven. In contrast, the
power of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions to cause death and destruction not only is
fully proven, but it is demonstrated again and again in each new event. Moreover, the
legacy of the Cold War is a series of pitiful 'complex emergencies' in which natural
disasters act upon already disastrous situations. Thus the Congolese city of Goma was
already in a parlous state before in January 2002 it began to face total ruin in the
rifting eruption of Mount Nyiragongo volcano.
September 11 may have had little impact on the situation in Goma, but
it has galvanized emergency preparedness in the rich countries: the scenarios are
changing; the equipment requests now include antidotes for anthrax, bomb detection
devices, protective suits capable of resisting Sarin gas attacks, and other expensive
hardware; the objectives and methods of medical and logistical training are under review;
evacuation is topical once again; tall buildings have ceased to appear as safe, benign
environments; and command structures are changing to reflect the need to manage huge
numbers of people. It is no longer 'business as usual' in the world's emergency planning
Many of these changes could in the end be cosmetic or transient, a
matter of form rather than substance. Only time will tell. However, a profound change is
taking place in the role and status of civil protection itself. President Bush, acting
unilaterally on behalf of the rest of the world, declared war on terrorism. It is, of
course, a phoney war, as there is no one to deliver the declaration to, no one to
negotiate surrender with. The very real war in Afghanistan has acted as a surrogate for
the 'war on terrorism', but with a noticeable difference regarding other recent wars: the
United States has demonstrated that it does not feel bound by the international rules of
warfare, especially regarding civilian casualties (General Powell's 'collateral damage'),
anti-personnel bombs, and the treatment of prisoners. This is a bad sign for international
relations, and indirectly it is also a bad sign for civil protection.
In terrorist incidents the lead agency is usually a police force or a
military unit. Military specialists such as bomb-disposal squads may also be called out.
This is logical and efficient in that, first, civilians must be protected, and secondly
military skills may be needed in order to neutralize the terrorists or their weapons.
However, such was the magnitude of the September 11 outrages, and of the revulsion
expressed by the U.S. public, that new powers are being sought all over the world. These
powers refer to search, arrest, detainment, treatment in custody, trial and sentencing and
can easily enter into conflict with basic freedoms and human rights.
The terrorist incidents of September 2001 came at a time when civil
protection had begun to face up seriously to problems of equity. For example, it had taken
note of the risk of institutional racism in disasters (a form of discrimination in which
an organization, but not its individual workers, is to blame). Efforts were being made to
use emergency preparedness as a means of safeguarding democratic rights, not circumventing
them. However, it was also a time in which non-governmental organizations working in
humanitarian relief had begun seriously to re-evaluate the cherished principle of
neutrality established with their prototype, the International Movement of the Red Cross,
at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Increasing attacks on and subversions of humanitarian
aid, and patent injustice in the areas that needed it, had put pressure cumulatively on
the NGOs to adopt a more flexible attitude to the question of impartiality in the
distribution of aid.
Both the U.S. intelligence services and the various Federal emergency
organizations had absorbed prodigious amounts of money over the years in their efforts to
predict and prepare for national emergencies. Despite this, neither group was prepared for
the events of September 11, 2001. New thinking was obviously needed, but what should it
involve and who should be doing it? The answers to these questions are still not clear.
The new emphasis on security may be swinging the balance in favor of a resurgence of civil
defense and against the open, unauthoritarian methods that characterize civil protection.
Whether it be a terrorist outrage or a natural catastrophe, the next
large disaster to strike a Western democratic country will reveal the extent of changes in
civil protection strategies wrought by anti-terrorism initiatives. All that is certain is
that any resort to authoritarian methods of controlling members of the public will damage
the truly civilian disaster response network that has been constructed so painstakingly
over the last two decades. It would be a great pity to have to relearn the lesson that
disasters can only be mitigated successfully if ordinary people are empowered to take
responsibility for their own safety. Disasters, therefore, are as much about democracy as
they are about security.
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