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'Homeland Security Behind the Redwood Curtain' by Judy Boyd, essay review 

Homeland Security Affairs, Sept. 2007

(available on the web at www.hsaj.org )

Ever wondered what a high-ranking official from the Department of Homeland Security would make of Humboldt County? Wonder no more. Get right in there and read how a Beltway-bred stuffed shirt came to find a little piece of this great and troubled nation’s lost soul while on spiritual retreat at the Riverwood Inn, on the Avenue of the Giants.

According to her bio, the author of the present work is Homeland Security’s “Deputy Assistant General Counsel for Intelligence and Analysis in the Office of General Counsel.” She came to Humboldt County on vacation about a year ago — “shortly after the five-year anniversary of Sept. 11,” she writes — in order to clear her head among the redwoods. If her essay is to be believed, what she found here profoundly shaped her thoughts about how her department should interface with citizens of rural America.

Her story appears in an academic journal, but she saves her analysis for the last third of her roughly 5,200 words. She spends the bulk of her time trying to adequately limn the exotic specimens of humanity she encountered one night on the Riverwood’s porch, underneath the monstrous, otherworldly trees. Here she meets several instantly recognizable Humboldt County types, and she records their impressions about terrorism, the federal government, the meaning of life. She becomes enchanted in the way that tourists to the developing world become enchanted. A kid drives by on an ATV, beer can in hand. A grown man and woman, brother and sister, come and go mysteriously. Everyone knows everyone’s name.

There’s an unintentionally comic aspect to the narrative. It comes in the form of a grizzled fellow Boyd calls William — “a man in his late 50s with shoulder-length bleached blond hair and a deeply lined and weathered face.” William buys her drinks, talks about his grandkids, struggles to come to grips with his mixed feelings about the United States. He runs off to burn a CD for her and brings it back, saying it will express his feelings more deeply than he ever could. He kisses her on the head to say goodbye. Twice. But Boyd takes his attentions as signs of a damaged man from an alien culture grateful for the chance to express his thoughts to a governmental representative; she apparently never realizes that the poor sap was just trying to get in her panties.

Still, not everything escapes her. “The general impression I was left with, after my conversations on the front porch of the Riverwood Inn,” she writes, “was that the locals do not expect much from their government; the biggest threat to their lives is drugs and not terrorists; and they want to maintain their frontier-like attitude of fierce independence.” Her conclusion about the threat of drugs is a bit puzzling, since she shrewdly pegs a couple of her friendly informants as dope growers, but the “fierce independence” bit certainly hits the mark.

Boyd’s conclusion, after her night on the porch at the Riverwood and a next-morning conversation with Loreen Eliason, the Inn’s owner, was that Homeland Security needs to do a better job speaking these people’s language and addressing their true concerns. She reviews a bit of sociological theory before coming to the conclusion that Humboldt County, probably like many rural places, has a good deal of “bonding and bridging social capital” that the federal government can leverage in times of crisis, so long as citizens feel they are being heard.

“To pierce through the Redwood Curtain, homeland security must become a local concern in order to start building the social capital that is required for a true culture of preparedness,” she concludes, sending a shiver up the spines of Williams all over the county.

— Hank Sims

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Hank Sims

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