Here's the intro to a press release from the sheriff of Bossier Parish, Louisiana:
Bossier Sheriff Larry Deen has unveiled a new emergency operations plan that will be a continuation of public safety in Bossier Parish should disaster ever strike here at home.
The plan, known as Operation Exodus, will provide for self-sufficiency in the event of a manmade or natural disaster or a terrorist attack. Exodus will take local volunteers, train them and use them in response to a catastrophic disaster in the area. These volunteers will work in conjunction with the Bossier Sheriff’s Office to secure and protect viable resources in such an event.
Exodus makes provisions for disasters so that Bossier Parish can be self-sufficient if necessary. "If an event were to happen nationally or locally, we want to make sure that we could take care of the people of Bossier, no matter what," said Bossier Sheriff Larry Deen. "Being prepared is the key." Within Exodus, local resources such as food, water, oil, gas, and medical facilities will be protected by teams consisting of highly-trained volunteers and BSO deputies. The plan also has use for church facilities and people with all sorts of backgrounds and talents.
I'm all for smart, volunteer-driven emergency preparedness, but there's a number of potential problems here. The focus on physically securing necessities suggests that the sheriff is expecting riots, of the kind being reported in post-quake Chile, even though such events are the exception rather than the rule during a disaster. A later passage in the press release proclaims the need to contain "fear and panic," even though, again, panic in a crisis is very rare. This exaggerated fear of rioting and public panic has often prompted officials to adopt a centralized, militarized, and paranoid approach to disaster response. And sure enough, Talking Points Memo has posted a video of the volunteers in Bossier training for combat, with a deputy discussing the need to present "an overwhelming show of force prior to any incident taking place."
Add in the weaponry at the Bossier unit's disposal -- the Shreveport Times reports that the arsenal includes "a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on something the sheriff's office calls 'the war wagon'" -- and this looks like the intersection of two ugly trends: the militarization of disaster response and the militarization of police work. Worse yet, the news release is filled with overwrought language about "homegrown terrorists...in our midst" (aided by -- horrors! -- "the easy accessibility of the internet"). According to a follow-up report in Talking Points Memo, the sheriff's department claims that "there have been cells and people operating even within our parish that have been trained as terrorists or went overseas to be trained as terrorists." I associate this sort of countersubversive rhetoric with a red squad, not the Red Cross.
Operation Exodus has come in for some criticism since the story hit the national press this week. But rather than taking a civil libertarian angle, many of the critics have engaged in countersubversive rhetoric of their own. From last night's Rachel Maddow show, for example, here's Crazy for God author Frank Schaeffer:
MADDOW: Operation Exodus draws its name from the Book of Exodus in the Bible. The sheriff explains that in his press release. What do you make of linking an effort like this to the Old Testament?
SCHAEFFER: Well, it's kind of symbolic, because the story of Exodus is the Jews, the people of God, fleeing an unjust ruler. So obviously it's a backhanded comment about the United States government, Barack Obama, what have you.
You have to love that obviously. For the record, the sheriff's press release had this to say about the Biblical allusion: "In the book of Exodus, the Israelites were totally on their own, learning to be self-sufficient and handle everything alone, just as the plan provides."
More from Schaeffer:
In my mind it links up with these sheriffs who at the CPAC meeting a couple of weeks ago took an oath to break the law and not follow orders if they don't like being told. Really what this is is just another evidence of the fact that there's a right-wing fringe in this country, sometimes tied to militia movements, sometimes tied to the religious right that I write about in my book Crazy for God, sometimes just loonies, who essentially have just given up on the United States government.
I gather that the sheriffs that Schaeffer is alluding to are the Oath Keepers, a group of current and former military, law enforcement, and other government personnel who have pledged to disobey unconstitutional orders. Not any old policies that "they don't like being told," but 10 specific commands. Sixth on the list is "any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps." Since the Oath Keepers' founder has written angrily about violations of civil liberties in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I suspect that this was inspired by the infamous incident in which people fleeing New Orleans were blocked by armed agents of the Gretna police department. The police chief there defended his decision with language that echoes the fears in fellow Bayou State cop Larry Deen's press release: "There was no food, water or shelter in Gretna City. We did not have the wherewithal to deal with these people. If we had opened the bridge our city would have looked like New Orleans does now -- looted, burned and pillaged."
In other words, the Oath Keepers are promising to do the exact opposite of what Deen seems to be doing. The concern in Bossier Parish is that the sheriff could use his civilian auxiliary (largely consisting of former policemen, according to the Shreveport Times) in ways that violate the Bill of Rights. The cops and ex-cops in the Oath Keepers have sworn to refuse orders that violate the Bill of Rights. It makes no sense to conflate the two. When Schaeffer tries to tie them together, he is engaged not in analysis but in a foggy sort of fearmongering.
Throughout the Maddow clip, the words "Homegrown Terrorists Are In Our Midst" appear in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. It's a quote from Deen's press release, and I assume it was selected to mock the sheriff as a hysteric. If you tuned in midway through the interview, though, you'd probably think it was a straightforward summary of the segment's message.