Keep fear alive

Jul 2, 2003 at 12:00 am

What do you get when you mix business and security? Once upon a time it would have been called good old-fashioned fascism, a system Sinclair Lewis said was big business with bayonets.

But those days of worrying about jackbooted thugs are over. As we have heard over and over again these last two years, “The world has changed.”

It almost seems as though the generals and G-men couldn’t be happier.

A June 18 seminar at the Detroit Athletic Club afforded a look at just how the world is changing. The seminar, part of a normally sleepy morning lecture series sponsored by Crain’s Detroit Business and Detroit Downtown Inc., drew more than 200 people, so many that some had to be turned away. In the wood-paneled main dining room on the second floor, business types gathered to eat a cloth-doily breakfast with DAC silver. Near the sumptuous buffet breakfast, television news crews jockeyed for position to interview our local security czars.

The button-down crowd consisted of mostly midlevel company executives and corporate IT geeks, not the square-headed 100 percent Americans with flag lapel pins you’d expect at a homeland security event.

Ostensibly an opportunity to listen to key homeland security honchos discuss “the top five things businesses need to do,” it could also be described as an effort for security-staters to sell local businesses on the program.

Predictably, the breakfast talk presented another opportunity to talk about how “the world has changed,” sowing the seeds of insecurity that make intrusive searches and government snooping seem valid, if not vital.

Detroit Police Chief Jerry Oliver beat the drum early in the meeting, declaring, “Consider that everything we know from our relationships to our civil liberties, to the way in which we do business … all of that changed at 9/11.”

Speaking of a recent visit to Israel, Oliver remarked, “We may be looking at the future when we look at what’s going on over there. In order for me to get into a shopping center … I had to personally go through security twice.”

Yet it would seem that the world has not changed, at least at the Detroit Athletic Club. None present had to go through security searches at all to get into the breakfast talk, which furnishes an interesting disconnect: Despite all the appeals to those present to stay alert, to get used to the idea of being searched, grilled, or surveilled, these well-dressed businesspeople didn’t have to endure any probing or polling.

Similarly, despite Oliver’s urging to take color-coded alerts seriously, he openly admitted, “I can tell you as police chief here in the city, we have never received any information that was specific to Detroit. … We’ve never received from the FBI, from the federal people, anything specific. Almost every time we’ve gone to a higher level of alert it’s been as a result of something that’s happened in another country, and they were just trying to make sure that we were somewhat alert and prepared here.”

Panelists nonetheless urged everything from emergency plans and exit strategies to employee background checks, repeatedly urging employers to drill minions on evacuations and contingency plans, all of which will do their part not only to prepare employees for unlikely disasters but also to soften resistance to the growth of security.

And, as one might suspect at a business breakfast, the phenomenal growth of the security industry was a constant undertone. Moderator and Crain’s Detroit Business managing editor David Barkholz hinted at the bonanza, mentioning sky-high figures, such as the billions of dollars spent by city governments countrywide on added security since 9/11, or the $4.4 billion President Bush has announced in federal allocations for homeland security and emergency preparedness since March of this year.

Of the latter figure, the state of Michigan stands to get $41 million, 80 percent of which will go to local and county units of government for security. The panelists were among the chief people entrusted with making the best use of those funds.

With the possibility of terrorism pouring cash into these agencies, it only makes sense that they are interested in a partnership with business. Two years into the security state, with no high-profile acts of domestic terrorism grabbing headlines, homeland security types are eager to find a lobby outside government, in addition to surveillance and security contractors, one that could demand more funding to protect white-collar workers in downtown high-rises.

It’s troubling, but also unsurprising, that security bosses are eager to use the funds to snap up equipment that can be used to spy on folks and crush public displays of dissent. The audience was treated to a glimpse of this when Dr. Anthony Shannon Jr., director of homeland security and emergency management for Wayne County, was asked what security could cost. Shannon was nearly breathless over the technological possibilities.

“It can be costly, it depends on how much you want to do, “he said, growing gradually more excited, “You can get infrared, listening devices, you can get retina devices, you can get fingerprint devices, you can have cameras, hard-line cameras, soft-line cameras, you can have computerization, you can have, you know — we have a truck that’s coming in that’s $365,000, it can see through smoke, and it’s infrared.”

Perhaps realizing that his Strangelovian enthusiasm was getting the better of him, he calmed down and qualified by adding, “That’s what we’re buying, that’s not what you have to buy.”

Michael Jackman is a Detroit-based freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]