372. "Homeland Defense Offers Best Option for Volunteerism." USA Today (December 12, 2001) p 15A.
We shall soon find out what President Bush meant when he called on Americans to do more than fly, shop and "get down to Disney World in Florida."
Bush's director of homeland security, Tom Ridge, is heading a task force to flesh out the president's call for Americans to volunteer for civil defense.
Karl Rove, the White House senior adviser, said at an American Enterprise Institute meeting Tuesday that such a service should not be limited to helping the government; people should be welcomed to serve their communities, if they so desire. These ideas have tremendous potential, but only if they withstand attempts to bend them to advance other agendas -- even those that have merit all their own. True, we've already responded to the assault in a particularly American way, with volunteerism ranging from blood donations to cash contributions. There also have been numerous expressions of renewed patriotism: the approval rating of the commander in chief has reached historic heights, and homes, buildings and cars have been bedecked with flags.
But there are strong sociological reasons to fear that these sentiments will soon dissipate, as the attack -- as horrible and unprecedented as it was -- recedes, and people return to their daily routines. So now is the time to convert the heightened willingness to serve into more lasting forms.
The best place to invest this urge is in homeland protection. It is the place we most need new hands. It is the service most directly related to the source of renewed patriotism. And if Americans are busy helping to guard our water resources, dams, borders, airports and other vital public resources and spaces, they will transform their nagging anxieties into socially productive activities.
Some argue that this is the time to restore the draft, enlisting every citizen between the age of 18 and 25 to serve for 18 to 24 months in the military, homeland security or other forms of national service such as AmeriCorps. Among the draft's proponents are Charles Moskos, the leading sociologist who dedicated a lifetime to studying these matters, and Paul Glastris, the editor of The Washington Monthly, a liberal publication.
Advocates of the draft hold that it would lead to more qualified people choosing to do their time in the military, and that it would make the military less of a professional elite and more an army of the people. They believe that from the practice of service to the nation will grow an appreciation of it.
Missing in all of the call-to-arms discussions is even a crude estimate of the billions of dollars such a draft would cost and which other priorities are going to be denied to pay for it. And I doubt that serving against one's will is a way to reinforce or instill a commitment to the nation. A draft, after all, is the antithesis of volunteering. And it is sure to revive ugly controversies about who is to be exempt and unsavory attempts to avoid coercive service. Nor ought one to ignore the adverse effects that this cheap labor will have on employment rates and pay levels, especially in a weak economy.
Another attempt to marry homeland-protection service with an unrelated agenda is to use the opportunity to expand AmeriCorps and vastly increase volunteerism beyond caring for elderly Americans, promoting literacy and building homes for the poor.
These ideas are reflected in a bill that Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., have introduced. It calls for increasing AmeriCorps from roughly 50,000 to 250,000. No one can quarrel with the desirability of expanding all of these services, but combining homeland protection with doing good will not work well.
Americans are now agitated -- and for some very good reasons -- over the dangers they face from terrorists. They are anxious to do something to protect our nation from such attacks. If the call to volunteer mixes routine service that has been going on for generations (however meritorious) with responses to the new emergencies, the motivational confusion is sure to dampen the willingness to come forward.
Several progressive Democrats favor increasing benefits for those in AmeriCorps. They are asking for larger stipends, bigger college benefits and greater tax deductions for those who volunteer. These actions will increase the resources available to poor and disadvantaged youth who often are drawn to AmeriCorps as a way to pay for college. As worthy as such a goal is, it is hardly a reliable way to reinforce volunteerism and to cast into lasting forms the renewed spirit of patriotism.
The best way to proceed is to involve more than the 20,000 volunteers Bush is reportedly calling for and fewer than the millions draft advocates seek. New volunteers at this juncture should be asked only to serve in matters that directly concern terrorism prevention.
Many could serve as part-timers and should not be compensated. These could include (after proper training) many thousands of new volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians, to be called upon in small and large emergencies. Others could give, say, an evening a week and 2 weekend days a month to help patrol the perimeters of strategic sites from bridges to electric plants. They should act as eyes and ears of public authority, equipped with communications devices but not with arms. Others could serve as the organizers that any volunteer effort lives and dies by, and take over some duties from the National Guard, Immigration and Naturalization Service and other governmental agencies.
This is the time to invest the renewed patriotism in forms that have staying power: in homeland-protection service. But it is not the time to piggyback on this drive other good deeds, from increasing the military with more citizens to enlarging the lines of do-gooders. The challenge we face is grave enough to command all of the new hands we can marshal to work on this one front.
Amitai Etzioni, the author of The Spirit of Community, teaches at George Washington University. He is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.