Fortress Hoover and the Vigilantes
Who Will Wake the Watched?

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson

revised September 2001


Foreword: September 2001

The little diatribe below, on being protected by others versus responsibility for protection on the national scale, was written in 1978 during the Carter Administration. I have tweaked or added only a handful of words, for style or clarity. Explanatory and chronological addenda are in brackets.

What is our responsibility, what is the government's, to protect us? Do we learn from experience? Or is it also true of responsibility and awareness and delegation, that the more things change, the more they stay the same?

Juvenal asked the Romans, Who will guard the guardians? Should we also ask, Who will wake the watched?


Delegation versus trust?

Perhaps I can shed some historical light on the question of local protection [by stepping back, and considering some institutional and national issues]. Both Bruce Ramsey and Erwin S. Strauss [in statements not reprinted here] have raised the point of superior special skills possessed by those who are the full-time official protectors, regarding their humanitarian techniques as well as weapons efficiency. But I don't think specialization is the real point at issue; rather it is one of delegation of responsibility followed sooner or later by a collapse of trust attributable to betrayal or incompetence.

An analogy:

  • Nutrition is literally vital to each of us.
  • A nutritionist knows far more about what is good for you to eat than you do.
  • Nutritionists ought to be licensed, with amateurs suppressed.
  • When hungry, you should go to a nutritionist to be fed.

After all, if we can't trust the government specialists to protect us from poisoning, certainly we daren't take that responsibility on ourselves.

Vigilance of delegation

Mitford M. Mathews' A Dictionary of Americanisms On Historical Principles is the equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary for words which were coined or modified in America or otherwise entered the language here. The earliest mention Mathews found of Vigilance Association is in South Carolina in 1831, where a reward was offered for conviction of any white person distributing abolitionist literature. Pre-Civil War organized vigilance was used both for recapturing runaway slaves and for aiding their escape. But the classic example is the Vigilance Committee of San Francisco during the Gold Rush — George R. Stewart has a whole book about the San Francisco experiment — which was set up because of the hopeless corruption and uselessness of the official police, and joined by virtually all the stable citizenry of the city. The word Vigilante itself came into our Southwest as a loan-word from the Spanish, where it means simply Watchman.

On the other hand, Judge Charles Lynch was a member of the Virginia legislature, a militia colonel, and an official magistrate. According to H.L. Mencken in The American Language, Lynch "was disowned by his fellow Quakers for taking the oath of office." His 1870 trials were later found reasonable by the Virginia legislature.

Obviously I am not arguing here for the good or bad of particular instances. But the lesson that emerges from the historical perspective is that people are going to employ private justice when their delegation of official justice no longer seems adequate. And when the delegatee has assumed a mantle of sanctity, he will fight back to retain his status. If America is a process "of, by, and for the people", then surely delegation is always rescindable. But if America is a hierarchy of agencies staffed by cogs, and lubricated by perpetuity, the sanctity of official justice is merely an excuse or cover-up of the fact that delegation no longer exists.

Forting-up against nuclear attack

Now, the deadly thing about the sanctity of the delegation [of protection, of the right to exercise protective force] is that it is likely to make suckers out of we proto-peasants. I'll take an example not from crime in the streets but from the highest level, defense of North America against nuclear attack.

Have you noticed how many of our so-called public buildings lately resemble [since the 1970s] some monumental Inca fortress or a concrete blockhouse of the Germans' Atlantic Wall [in World War II]?

  • The University of California at San Diego (which I once innocently attended), although distinguished since its 1964 opening by a structural-concrete fetish, later began developing a spacey military look.
  • The U.S. Post Office in south central Los Angeles, across Vermont Avenue from the University of Southern California (where I once worked) caught my eye with its gray concrete ugliness. At the time I thought it was just the Post Office's estimation of the neighborhood, although USC wasn't visibly forting up — but USC is a private school.
  • San Diego City College and San Diego High School, between downtown San Diego and Balboa Park, are old institutions recently transformed [in the 1970s] into complexes of keeps, tower houses, and parapets.
  • In my own old neighborhood the high school I attended, Herbert Hoover High School, built 1930, has also been transformed [in the 1970s] on the excuse of earthquake safety into the semblance of a fortress. Sure, the machine-gun-sized firing slots have cute red pinstripes around them, and the buildings are buff rather than blockhouse gray, but it's still a fort. [The Alumni Association provides a nice photo progression for historical perspective; the current frontage is shown, rather foreshortened, on the Hoover High page of the San Diego Unified School District.]
    Perhaps doubling as a prison compound: there's a ten-foot fence around the compound, heavily padlocked at night (except, ironically, during night-classes in citizenship) and Watched during the day as by the tower of Cirith Ungol.

Institutions like their denizens well-preserved:

As he gazed at it suddenly Sam understood, almost with a shock, that this stronghold had been built not to keep enemies out of Mordor, but to keep them in.

J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings

A woman who for one term was rather a gadfly on the San Diego Board of Education campaigned for re-election, among other issues, against windowless schools. Obvious, perhaps, but not to the government or the public of delegatees. She lost. I understand that during a recent power failure at Hoover High the kids went wild in the day-dark classrooms. Naturally. At least they still have mechanical doors instead of electric ones.

Dispersing from undefended targets

While considering these absurdities I came across an article in a trade journal that sheds light on our tax-built Age of Fortification: "Gimme Shelters: Why IBM Fled the City", by Thomas B. Mechling in Computer Decisions, March 1977. The author considers it rather a public relations record that the whole truth behind the move of International Business Machines headquarters out to the country took sixteen years to come out:

The real, unwritten and unspoken reason that Thomas J. Watson wanted to get his IBM top management the hell out of mid-Manhattan in 1961 was to escape and survive a nuclear bombing of New York City, a likelihood seen by the most influential, inside-information sources he was uniquely privy to on the national, state and scientific levels.

Watson's friends included the new U.S. President John F. Kennedy, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and nuclear-genocide analyst Herman Kahn. A bomb shelter for everyone — IBM even offered each of its employees interest-free loans to build home fallout shelters. The joy of living in suburbia, given out as the reason for the move to Armonk, was an elaborate cover. Various publicity trial-balloons and a six-month test of suburban relocation were to disguise IBM's fear from the public, lest there be a national panic. IBM itself panicked, though: only halfway through its six-month test it began the permanent move.

Having our resources dispersed is a good idea; from a defensive point of view, entirely reasonable. Run for it, and the State take the hindmost. Urban analyst Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, would urge us to balance dispersion against the likely decline in innovations and spinoffs resulting from leaving the city. IBM's concern seemed to be too shiversome to care about that, or even to share its analysis with the country at large.

IBM's directorate and the Presidential Cabinet currently being almost a double-chambered clubhouse [during the Carter Administration, four top people overlapping], IBM no doubt knows even more now than then of what is not told to the peasantry. Delegation of peace-keeping at the national level has failed twice before on the grand scale, where in the Lusitania (1915) and Pearl Harbor (1941) incidents it deliberately contrived and connived at war-mongering. IBM's worry is probably better informed than ours — as to the value of our on-going delegation of peace-keeping to specialists. Fortunately President Kennedy was distracted from the thrills of nuclear brinkmanship by the beginning of his great adventure in Vietnam. [But see my review of The Kennedy Tapes, coming soon.]

All considered, I don't think the government would cry too much if survivors turned out to be largely loyal civil servants and malleable schoolchildren, the two groups increasingly housed in concrete bunkers. And if the government's worry is shifting from attack to insurrection, then Fortress Hoover and its cousins could be held as strongpoints. Blank concrete walls may serve best against blast and radiation, but loopholes are intended against close-range small-arms. Perhaps we ought to be brushing up on our siegecraft, which after all, is less attack than isolation.

On the other hand, when the Confederate States began seceding, the Federal fortifications turned out to be quite helpful in defending the Confederacy against the Union — the delegation of defense was pulled back, toward a more local control. [The issues that resulted in America's worst war in number of casualties, a war against itself, will be discussed elsewhere at Troynovant.]

Which kind of burst of light?

Do we have to wait until sweeping delegation of responsibility, with its self-protecting sanctity and ruthlessness, destroys us before we repudiate it? Or, with the help of history to give a nudge, may we eliminate it on principle; and however protective force and its management may be delegated, work back toward the individual's retention of awareness and responsibility?


Afterword: September 2001

So —

  • Is an accident that different kinds of American public, government buildings such as schools and post offices are styled like Soviet forts?
  • Have the primary responsibilities of government — to preserve, protect, and defend — been well met?
  • Has a corollary but innate responsibility of a free country's government — to keep the people accurately informed of risks and requirements, so they may remain citizens rather than subjects — been well met?
  • Has a primary responsibility of citizens (rather than subjects) to delegate power thoughtfully, in an informed and responsible manner — been well met?
  • The Romans asked, Who will guard the guardians? Should we also ask, Who will wake the watched?

© 1978, 2001 Robert Wilfred Franson

Main text first appeared in Mike Dunn's
Notes from the Underground, 1978


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