Thursday, May 23, 2013

Follow-Up on Keystone XL "Terrorist" Drill

Yesterday the Rapid City Journal (SD) reported that at least 5 school districts in western South Dakota held drills last week to test their crisis plans in the face of, for example, a terrorist action. The script for this "inject" or threat? Terrorism by someone opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline, or huge uranium mining projects, which are being resisted mightily by some citizens in the state.

Here's an update on the story from Fast organizer Phyllis Cole-Dai.

Having spent some time yesterday and today on the phone with a variety of people related to this drill, let me share the following:

The script presenting a threat ("inject") posed by a terrorist in opposition to the KXL or uranium mining was co-authored by two men at the county level of planning. The first is Ken Hawki, chair of the Lawrence County Local Emergency Planning Committee and Assistant Emergency Manager for Lawrence County. The second is Fred Wells, a 25-year veteran of the military (specializing in anti-terrorism planning) who now volunteers his expertise to "two different fire departments and his county" (Butte, I think). (A sidenote: While I don't mean to cast aspersions on Mr. Wells's military service, his involvement in this seems noteworthy when there are increasing reports of Big Oil utilizing counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency tactics against groups that oppose its projects.)

After these two men wrote the script, it was presented for consideration to a 15-20 member group that was planning a crisis management drill in three schools (not five, as the journalist reported). Members of the group were representatives of local emergency responders, local emergency management, and the three school districts involved (Deadwood, Custer and Hot Springs). The group gave its consent for the script to be used and it was then prepped to meet federal guidelines for such drills and submitted.

To sum up these men's position, which was fairly unified:
  1. It was never their intent to offend anyone with this script, and they are very sorry that it has given offense.
  2. The script was never meant to be made public--beyond the planning group, it was intended only for the eyes of school principals who would carry out the drills.
  3. The "environmental issue" (Keystone XL and uranium mining) was chosen by the planners because it's a "hot-button" and "relevant" in the area and would "add realism to the scenario."
  4. Despite there never having been a known threat of violence made in South Dakota by people opposed to KXL or uranium mining (which these men admitted), there is always a "fringe element on any side of an issue willing to do violence," so their choice of inject was justified.
  5. Their primary objective was not to either push or attack a particular environmental or political position but simply to run a drill to help evaluate the crisis plans meant to protect schoolchildren against terrorist threats.

I appreciated these men's willingness to speak with me. However, I pressed each of them on a number of points, including:

  1. What is not good in public is not good in private. Besides, the "private" ripples out into the public, in a variety of ways, as is now obvious. The public reaction to this drill is not the "fault" of a journalist "getting hold of information he was never meant to have." It's the fault of planners who were doing something they should not have been doing in the first place.
  2. Regardless of their intentions, the planners' identifying this drill with a particular group of people holding a particular point of view is not legitimate. It stigmatizes their position and their right to dissent, and also "criminalizes" it, at least in hypothetical terms. I urged them in future to hold drills in which no particular group, or representative thereof, is identified as a threat. The threat itself is what must be responded to.
  3. Using a threat from "an environmentalist" (which is a gross mischaracterization or oversimplification of the opposition to the KXL and uranium mining projects in South Dakota) does not add "realism to the scenario" because it's unrealistic. So far as I know, and so far as the planners know, there have been no threats of violence made against schools or any other public places by anyone in the opposition to these projects. In fact, the opposition has been explicitly nonviolent in its resistance. Yes, it's possible that an isolated individual may take extreme action, but that's true of any group. As Fred Wells said himself, even in fire departments extremist individuals are present--but who has ever run a school drill where the threat of violence is coming from a firefighter? Why paint any group with such a brush?
  4. The planners are contributing to an already polarized, and polarizing, climate in this country in which it is considered "extremist" or "illegitimate" or "unpatriotic" to advocate positions other than those supported by "the authorities." Both men (as did other sources I talked with) were feeling a strong backlash from the public since the drill was reported, and one source has even felt physically threatened. I apologized for any perceived or real threats to their well-being, but I also stated that the public anger is understandable. Many citizens are feeling betrayed by their elected and appointed public officials, and they are becoming increasingly resentful of authority figures who are not adequately addressing their legitimate concerns. The planners' recent actions have only added fuel to the fire, unfortunately.
There's more I could report, but these are the most significant points. I plan to write a letter to the editor for at least a couple of newspaper over here, East River. I suspect it would be good for somebody West River to write for local papers there. We can't let this go unchallenged.

For people beyond South Dakota, stay alert--such situations will continue to pop up as the resistance to Big Oil grows. Be prepared to address them directly and in timely fashion.