Arriving in Baton Rouge


Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second . . .
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open.
                       — Thich Nhat Hanh

I’ve been writing this article in fits and starts over the past year, each time with a slightly different introduction and angle, depending on the latest news.

First, the headlines linked music and movie piracy to terrorist funding. Next came the publication of the “9/11 Commission Report,” the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal, the Madrid bombings and, most recently, London.

Each was another wake-up call about the tenuousness of life and liberty in an age of terrorism – a reminder that, personally and professionally, there are things I can do to try to change that or at least to feel a little less vulnerable.

Then came Katrina, and once again, I’m rewriting. This time it’s from the perspective of a Red Cross volunteer.

You see, I’m about to be deployed to Louisiana.

The gist of what I wanted to say is intact. My basic premise is that, as a country, we’ve all been profoundly affected by the events of Sept. 11. And lawyers, perhaps more than members of any other profession, have had to deal with some of the fallout’s hardest issues, not the least of which includes maintaining the fragile balance between ensuring our national security while protecting our civil liberties. Fortunately, we’re up to the task.

That’s not just my opinion. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy praised the legal profession’s contribution to maintaining security. At an American Bar Association dedication ceremony a few years ago, Kennedy urged lawyers to continue to promote democratic ideals.

Security hinges on “the acceptance of the idea of freedom,” Kennedy cautioned. And, he said, there is a “very important part for the legal profession, for the American lawyer, … to play in that struggle.”As if that weren’t enough, Kennedy called on lawyers to go the extra mile and “find ways to increase the resources you devote to this by at least tenfold.”

Lawyers were, and continue to be, a vital part of the post-Sept. 11 political and institutional landscape.

“The legal profession will be intimately involved and directly affected” in building homeland security, said Dr. David McIntyre, deputy director of the Anser Institute and former dean of the National War College, in a September 2002 National Law Journal article.

Three years later, his predictions hold true. Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, a hundred lawyers have been hired to staff its new Office of General Counsel. The new secretary, Michael Chertoff, is himself a respected lawyer and former judge.

Of course, we can’t all go abroad to help spread democracy. If we could, we might participate in some of the American Bar Association programs, such as the Africa Law Initiative, Asia Law Initiative, Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative and Latin America Law Initiative, to help use the legal profession’s energy and commitment to helping build principles and institutions supporting the rule of law. And we can’t all move to Washington, D.C., to help the Department of Homeland Security, a work-in-progress, become a fully realized, well-oiled executive department. If we could, we also might check out the ABA’s Standing Committee on Law and National Security, which holds regular meetings and offers panel discussions for lawyers on national security issues.

But the majority of lawyers can’t. Most of us have jobs and families and other responsibilities that prevent us from doing anything on that kind of global-national scale. And that’s okay. There are opportunities to get involved locally, as well.

Today, for example, the Los Angeles County Bar Association is holding its “Dialogues in Freedom” program, which brings lawyers, judges, and high-school students together to discuss the basic rights and freedoms of Americans.

This program, like others begun after Sept. 11, probably will not be disbanded anytime soon. After all, Los Angeles continues to be a prime target of potential terrorist activities. Then there’s that little problem of earthquakes.

Which brings us back to Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster of confounding proportions. Whether it’s a natural or man-made disaster, the results – and needs – are the same. If there is anything positive to say about this horrendous predicament, it’s that it presents us with a too-vivid picture of the chaos and complexities that accompany mass care and recovery and, as it increasingly appears, the recipe for failure and ineffectiveness that can ensue without adequate preparation.

We don’t have to wait for another terrorist attack or the next hurricane, in order to envision what we can or can’t do better. We can’t even predict, let alone control, earthquakes. And it’s hard to trust our color-coded scheme for assessing the risk of terrorist attack. But we can start preparing for these or any other potential disasters.

The Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency and any number of other organizations provide materials and information on emergency preparedness plans and disaster kits. The national volunteer program known as CERT, Community Emergency Response Team, offers an eight-week training course in first aid, search and rescue, firefighting and other forms of disaster preparedness. (If you have a group of at least 20, they’ll even come to you.) It’s just one of five specialized partner programs, including the
Medical Reserve Corps, Volunteers in Police Service, the Fire Corps and Neighborhood Watch, under the umbrella of the Citizen Corps, that offers volunteer opportunities and emergency courses locally.

Twenty years ago as an attorney with U.S. Customs, I wrote an article for District Lawyer (now Washington Lawyer) titled, “Lawyers and Arms Control: Insanity Is No Defense,” in which I argued that lawyers have a special, perhaps even greater, obligation than others to defend and protect our right to a safe and ordered existence. I’m not sure I feel that way now. But I do think we lawyers have the same obligation as others do to defend, if not protect, or at least assist victims of natural and man-made disasters.

I know that some, particularly in the legal profession, consider me an idealist, or worse. Lawyers like my once-prospective boss who, during the last of our several interviews before I joined the aerospace giant,  said to me, “You can’t change the world, you know.” Actually, I do know. But that doesn’t mean I can’t try.

So I think I’m finally done with that long-pending article. I just heard an NPR report on new Red Cross volunteers, like me, and the trial-by-fire we’ll experience assisting the victims of Katrina. Some of us may  not have had sufficient training and preparation for this catastrophe.

So I’m thinking – should I not go? Ah, but then I’d have to change my beginning once again. And I wouldn’t have the chance to help change even a small part of Baton Rouge, La.

 

Karen Miller is a copyright and trademark lawyer, as well as a writer whose articles have appeared in The Washington Post and various legal journals. She balances her work on emergency preparedness and homeland security matters with designing and selling jewelry and handbags.  She can be reached at kmilleresq@earthlink.net or through her web site, www.nativechic.com.

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