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US looking for 'security blanket'

Americans have become so obsessed with achieving absolute security that they are creating what one religious leader terms a "Linus" nation.

BY SUSAN KIM | PRINCETON, N.J. | March 26, 2006

"As I reflect on what America has become, I cannot help but observe there is nothing more dangerous than a powerful nation that is afraid."

—Bishop Timothy Whitaker

Americans have become so obsessed with achieving absolute security that they are creating what one religious leader terms a "Linus" nation.

Linus Van Pelt - the blanket-toting, thumb-sucking Peanuts character created by Charles Schulz - might make us smile but there's a serious analogy between that little boy and the current state of the nation, said Bishop Timothy Whitaker, a Florida United Methodist leader.

"Linus is always hugging his security blanket," said Whitaker. "America has become a Linus nation where we are always searching for our security blanket."

Whitaker spoke Sunday, opening a Domestic Disaster Forum in Princeton, N.J., offered by the Church World Service Emergency Response Program. The theme - bringing together disaster responders, religious leaders and scholars - is "building human security."

Hailing from a state that's been hit by six hurricanes in two years - Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, Katrina and Wilma - Whitaker knows as well as anyone that human security is hard to achieve.

"Philosophers and poets are always reminding us, there is no absolute security in this world," he said. "We are mortal. Trouble will come to all of us just because this is the way things are."

Given the heavy emphasis on national security from policymakers and news reporters, the topic deserves to be thought out from a theological perspective, Whitaker said.

"The word security is on our lips today. I wonder how may times the word security is mentioned on CNN every 24 hours. Government officials seem to spend more time discussing security than any other topic. We talk about global security, national security, social security. We want secure airports and secure subways. We wire our homes with home security systems. We equip our cars with technology like OnStar for security."

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks four years ago spurred the nation into an unprecedented - and furious - search for security, said Whitaker. "As I reflect on what America has become, I cannot help but observe there is nothing more dangerous than a powerful nation that is afraid. We are attempting to use our power to control events in an obsessive search for absolute security. We overreact when we overestimate our ability to guarantee our security."

When Hurricane Katrina struck, he said, the aftermath revealed how, in some ways, our security-driven nation utterly failed to be ready.

"Katrina descended upon us like a biblical apocalypse," said Whitaker. "This event unveiled some cold hard truths about ourselves as a nation. Why did we neglect the repair of levees around New Orleans and ignore the disappearance of wetlands for decades - even though the ecological dangers were well known? Why did we neglect people with no means of transportation or way of caring for themselves? Why do we still ignore the reality of natural forces and allow development on barrier islands and wetlands?"

Hurricane Katrina has also forced the nation to examine issues of gender, culture and ethnicity - and how those factors complicate recovery, said Patricia Stukes, a teacher and researcher in women's studies at Texas Woman's University.

Stukes, a native of New Orleans, drove through the city after Katrina hit. "I felt like my heart was going to explode in my body," she said. "I was driving through the city seeing the desperate look in people's faces. I started reading the signs I could see on the roofs: 'We're here.' 'Don't leave us.' 'Don't pass us again.' "

The more she saw, said Stukes, the more overwhelmed she became.

Unless national policies regarding housing, poverty and racism change, the nation will remain just as vulnerable to the next disaster, said Stukes and others.

"We're going to keep building the places back up and putting people right back in - and it's not going to change until we change the policy," she said. "It seems to me the faith-based organizations can put out the idea of theological disaster. If we are a nation of Christians, perhaps we need to look to God to figure out how to solve this real problem."

Finding security and recovering from a disaster both require building a genuine sense of community, agreed Whitaker and Stukes.

"There can be no security without community," said Whitaker. "We have the capacity to relate. We are created of communion with God and community with one another. And to relate to the whole environment of the natural world. To be created in God's image is to be a relational being."

As disaster responders examine the lessons of Katrina, they should consider not just the hurricane-impacted areas but the rest of the nation. "There are historical patterns of segregation we have not attended to," pointed out Brenda Phillips, a professor in the fire and emergency management program at Oklahoma State University. "People continue to live in vulnerable places all over our country - not just New Orleans. It took a Katrina to lay the problem bare for so many people."

Phillips echoed her colleagues in calling for a way to address poverty as an integral part of disaster preparedness and recovery. "If we really want to deal with disaster vulnerability, we have to commit to social justice and social change," she said. "It's a lifetime commitment."

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