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A Mulligan for the Homeland

Excuses running out for excesses.

by / September 2, 2004
Three years ago this month, a New York Times headline read, "How to Protect the Homeland," as if the word "homeland" was part of everyday conversation. It had only been two weeks since the attacks.

Now the word has become common parlance, but it still sticks in the throat, perhaps because it is formal and arcane in an informal, postmodern America. The BBC reminds us of the term's 17th-century origins, and that homeland is "popular in times of war as signifying more than just a mere plot of land, but instead embodying the emotional values of the home."

Perhaps it is because homeland served numerous rhetorical masters in the 20th century. It has been used to describe the destination for the vanquished -- Winston Churchill spoke of "driving Japan back to her homelands" and South Africa's former apartheid government drove black tribal groups to backwater "homelands." It has also described a quest for home by lost peoples. The founding of Israel popularized homeland as the end state for people seeking their own land -- a pattern followed by Kurds, Basques, Sikhs and Palestinians.

Perhaps it is because it can evoke thoughts of unfortunate historic synonyms -- Fatherland (for the Nazis) and Motherland (of Stalinist Russia).

Homeland is now about what happened to us. A national defense panel in Washington, D.C., was the first to couple homeland with security in 1997. "Homeland security" became a beltway term of art through repetition by subsequent commissions. The phrase came to life as the largest federal government agency ever was created -- and an annual $33 billion industry -- through the campaign on terror. Writing in, author Leslie Savan reminds us that "campaigns exist only in three areas of life: politics, war and advertising."

Selling homeland security has relied on all three areas ever since. The allure of its appropriations overcame good taste on both sides of the table.

The watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste details the opportunistic behavior of hundreds of instant homeland projects -- including the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP). Originally designed to "capture energy from the aurora borealis," it now aims to "heat the ionosphere to improve military communications." HAARP, which received more than $95 million in federal money since 1995, morphed into a homeland security proposal in pursuit of an additional $5 million.

Not to be outdone, the private sector responded to the ill-defined but lucrative line of business with instant homeland products of its own. Some were genuine innovations. Others were a marketing function. The most flamboyant entrant came with a road show personally fronted by Thomas Siebel -- flanked by employees playing the role of FBI agents -- touting the possibilities of adapting CRM technologies to pursue stateless rogues through Terrorist Relationship Management. The name alone was too clever by half.

Forcing a fit between a project, product or service and the name of an appropriations bill is nothing new. The Y2K remediation effort was no stranger to such budgetary shoehorning -- some of which elicited at least grudging respect and a smile for its subversive creativity. Some excesses from selling homeland security would be funny too -- if they were not born of an American tragedy.

Amateur golfers have an expression for moments like this -- a mulligan. That is, taking a second shot when one doesn't like the first. In IT, our mulligan could include returning to the language of core disciplines that initially brought us to the homeland table -- security, data sharing and communications.

With 33 billion reasons to push forward, taking a mulligan on homeland security may seem quaint and unrealistic. But there are 2,976 reasons to practice restraint, the official death count from that September morning.

Their memories deserve at least that much.

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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