History Should  Matter to Emergency Managers

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

My recent blog entries, based mainly on my own “history” in emergency management and public safety roles, have warned that failure to acknowledge and prepare in advance for disruptions to foundational elements of our society could pose serious problems when an actual crisis occurs. Last year I observed, well before the fact, that the peaceful transfer of power, a symbol of our nation’s unity (no matter how disappointing the outcome to the losing side), might be challenged violently by those espousing unfounded theories about the fairness of the 2020 elections.

That symbolic expression of national unity was challenged on January 6, 2021. It likely was not a spontaneous event – evidence is mounting that the attempt to overturn the national election results was merely an initial assault that has not ended; its impetus is not tied solely to mass fealty to one individual but appears fueled by long-term historical fixations some of us hold. We will have to confront these “fixations” head-on; there is no handy “Easy Button” we can push to thwart these forces. It will be a hard slog.

History reminds us that such challenges to rational thought are hardly confined to the USA. Better writers, researchers, and smarter people, in general, have noted that societies’ rise, and demise, have depended upon recognizing developing negative trends and acting, or not, to counter such influences.

There is a fair amount of ferment in the nation over approaching US history in terms of slavery, voting rights, or even what constitutes a “decent” book for children to read in school. I’ve posited that the truth of our American past reveals both honorable and dishonorable policies, practices, and actions. Still, studying American history – our actual history – should not leave any of us feeling bad or guilty. Instead, we should be amazed and grateful that a review of our actual history would provide demonstrable evidence that we have the capacity to fix (temporarily at least) what is broken. When our ship begins to list too far to the right, or even the left, collective corrective action is necessary to keep us afloat.

Not just schoolchildren, but current and future emergency management curriculums should study our history as it happened, without apology or equivocation: one could view it as an after-action report leading to the formulation of an improvement action plan. Understanding the forces that are threatening us, whether they are due to ground motion, climate change, or civil disruption, is the best way to head off the next crisis. Suppose our public safety disciplines confront those threats unflinchingly from a basis of knowable, verifiable facts. In that case, they will be well-positioned to anticipate and interdict attempts to undermine, from within, our nation’s reserve of goodwill and support for each other.

 “If destruction be our lot – we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide” Abraham Lincoln (1838)