Monday, April 8, 2013

A message from the Department of Hobbesian Security

Sunday's New York Times shared the news that police have changed their recommendations on how citizens should respond when faced with an "active shooter" invading our place of institutional confinement (office or school) with a video game arsenal's worth of automatic weapons. Apparently acknowledging the likelihood that the shooter will have completed his mass murder by the time the police arrive, the advice is no longer to stay passive and call 911, but to take action.

[Video" "Run. Hide. Fight. Surviving an active shooter event," Ready Houston (2012)]

The article links to "Run. Hide. Fight."—a simultaneously horrific and self-parodic video from READY Houston, the regional interagency group using Department of Homeland Security funds to figure out new ways to train you to survive the many threats they from which they are largely incapable of protecting you.

"It may feel like another day at the office," opens the grim narrator, as a big dude with shaved head, wraparound shades, black T-shirt, tactical pants, overstuffed black backpack, and an expressionless face shambles down the sidewalk in front of the glass and steel high rises. "But occasionally, life feels more like an action movie than reality."

Cut to a shot of rows of cubicle dividers, one of which is decorated with a crossed pair of American flags.

"The authorities are working hard to protect you and your family," the narrator assures you unconvincingly, as the ominous music builds up over a long pause showing people going about their productive, collegial and menial office tasks. "But sometimes, bad people do bad things."

The camera follows the shooter as he steps through the glass door marked with the no firearms sign (a very Texan touch), steps into the office lobby, and begins his attack. It's some pretty intense stuff, especially for a government education film.

The video proceeds with its hierarchy of responses designed to help you survive threats that the authorities implicitly admitted they won't be able to protect you from, because by the time the SWAT team arrives it will be all, or mostly, over.

First, try to get the hell out of there, with an emphasis on self-reliance: "Encourage others to leave with you. But don't let others slow you down with indecision." And (even though you are at the office where they have you working late to try to make your mortgage and credit card payments) they remind you to "remember what's important: you, not your stuff."

If you can't run, then try to hide. Copy the woman who pushes the photocopier to block the door, turns out the lights in the room, and silences her cell phone (just like you would do at the beginning of an action movie).

Finally, when your fortification fails, like the group who used the spindly table instead of the vending machines to block the lunchroom door, your government encourages you to do things it never otherwise asks you to do (unless it is sending you off to kill people in other countries):

"As a last resort, if your life is at risk, whether you are acting alone, or working together as a group: fight. Act with aggression. Improvise weapons. Disarm him, and commit to taking the shooter down. No matter what."

What does it tell you about the health of society that the State is now training you to take violent action on your own initiative, as the only way to protect yourself when you are trapped inside the institutional structure of your office or school (structures designed to control our primitive instincts for violence)? What a dismal Hobbesian juncture. We have an epidemic of alienated individuals showing up at office, school or mall with over-the-counter arsenals unleashed on peers objectified through the dehumanized point of view of a first-person shooter. Our institutional authorities express complete bafflement at the causes of this epidemic, unable to confront the dark truths it surely reveals about the existential condition of the American self. They can't identify and address the causes, they can't cut off the means of destruction, and they can't stop the horrific incidents until they are over. So they tell us our only way to survive will be to disable the governors they have programmed into us with years of civil socialization inside schools and offices, and rely on our primate instincts of fight or flight.

We've come a long way from "Duck and Cover," the 1951 Federal Civil Defense Administration film that taught us how to use our school desks as shields from nuclear weapons.

[Video: "Duck and Cover," Federal Civil Defense Administration (1951)]

The change is evidenced in the etymological evolution from "Civil Defense" to "Homeland Security" over the course of fifty years of government-sanctioned fears. The Civil Defense authorities optimistically told you even a piece of newspaper could shield you somewhat from the effects of an atomic blast. The Homeland Security authorities tell you you are on your own against a threat they can't explain, and you better get ready to act in your own defense, turning whatever office supplies you can find nearby into primitive weapons. Fifty years ago, our "authorities" warned us about the risk of doomsday bombs being launched at us from the other side of the planet, but assured us with fantasies of cozy catastrophe survival. Today, they tell us the risk is our own dark natures, which even the highly evolved institutional control systems of our bureaucratic offices and prison architecture schools can no longer keep out.

Today, we make smart-ass bro jokes about the threat of nuclear attack by that weird kid on the other side of the planet, evading our real fear: the weird kid down the street.

Is it too heretical to examine these themes through the laboratory prism of speculative counterfactuals? It's a treacherous path for the Authorities to train us to defend ourselves from our cubicles. What if we start using those techniques to defend ourselves against the Authorities? What if the previously docile employees in the corporate headquarters of a generic Houston petrochemical conglomerate featured in "Run-Hide-Fight," trained to snap out of their programming and act instinctively in their own primitive interests to defeat the active shooter, awaken to the realization that they have the means of their own liberation? No wonder the last few minutes of the video are focused on cooperating with the paramilitary law enforcement squads when they finally show up.

"Improvise weapons." That sounds more like advice for Syrian rebels than Houston office clerks. What if the real threat to the security of the "Homeland" were the people losing patience with the Authorities, and seeking a more participatory and authentically democratic society that doesn't rely on social pyramids, institutional Panopticons, and systems of white collar serfdom? It's not hard to imagine a sequel to Run-Hide-Fight, in which some of the employees take over the office, one floor at a time.

[Pics: Images from the 2006 series "Business Reply Envelope" by Packard Jennings, conceived as an instruction manual for office workers to overthrow their office hierarchy and replace it with a tribal culture in which the work space is used for homesteading, hunting and growing crops.]

More plausibly, what if we acted on our own initiative to try to honestly examine the deep social sickness behind the active shooter epidemic, and address the causes at their roots, instead of with an Aeron chair over the head?

And how worried should we be about the revelation that the Department of Homeland Security is now focused on protecting us from us?

[Video: Actual Emergency Broadcast Systems activation during the 1992 L.A. riots.]

Extra credit: Texas State University's ALERRT (Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training), home of the "Forging Warriors" law enforcement training program for active shooter first responders, and a pretty scary research report on active shooter events from 2000 to 2010.