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Barack Obama Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere

The Obvious Truths Neglected in Responses to the Christmas Bomber

[digg-reddit-me]As I mentioned today, David Brooks has been writing some damn good columns in recent weeks – and in his most recent, he reiterated a point I had made earlier. As I wrote:

Few seem willing to admit the obvious truth: No centralized power can keep us safe. No intelligence system will be perfect. No watch list will be all-inclusive. No screening procedures are foolproof. We can make it harder for a terrorist to succeed, but in order to win, we need to prevent every attack; while they only need to slip through the cracks once. And there will always be cracks. Even in a totalitarian regime, there are cracks. Part of the price we pay for a free society is vulnerability.

Brooks compared how the Greatest Generation – which greatly expanded government during the Great Depression and World War II – viewed government to how people presently seem to view government:

During the middle third of the 20th century, Americans had impressive faith in their own institutions. It was not because these institutions always worked well. The Congress and the Federal Reserve exacerbated the Great Depression. The military made horrific mistakes during World War II, which led to American planes bombing American troops and American torpedoes sinking ships with American prisoners of war.

But there was a realistic sense that human institutions are necessarily flawed. History is not knowable or controllable. People should be grateful for whatever assistance that government can provide and had better do what they can to be responsible for their own fates.

That mature attitude seems to have largely vanished. Now we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved…

Brooks got a minor point wrong here – as he claims we “expect perfection from government.” My impression is that we demand perfection from the government and expect incompetence, which I would suggest has something to do with government clusterfuck that the 1970s represented along with the demonization of government bureaucracies by the Republican Party starting with Ronald Reagan coupled with the constant invocations of an all-powerful and competent government national security apparatus in mainstream thrillers and right-wing politics. Brooks continues:

At some point, it’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t the centralized system that stopped terrorism in this instance. As with the shoe bomber, as with the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pa., it was decentralized citizen action. The plot was foiled by nonexpert civilians who had the advantage of the concrete information right in front of them — and the spirit to take the initiative.

For better or worse, over the past 50 years we have concentrated authority in centralized agencies and reduced the role of decentralized citizen action. We’ve done this in many spheres of life. Maybe that’s wise, maybe it’s not. But we shouldn’t imagine that these centralized institutions are going to work perfectly or even well most of the time. It would be nice if we reacted to their inevitable failures not with rabid denunciation and cynicism, but with a little resiliency, an awareness that human systems fail and bad things will happen and we don’t have to lose our heads every time they do.

Greenwald is able to overcome his ressentiment for once (“I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but David Brooks actually had an excellent column…”) Greenwald continues to develop the idea:

The Constitution is grounded in the premise that there are other values and priorities more important than mere Safety.  Even though they knew that doing so would help murderers and other dangerous and vile criminals evade capture, the Framers banned the Government from searching homes without probable cause, prohibited compelled self-incrimination, double jeopardy and convictions based on hearsay, and outlawed cruel and unusual punishment.  That’s because certain values — privacy, due process, limiting the potential for abuse of government power — were more important than mere survival and safety.  A central calculation of the Constitution was that we insist upon privacy, liberty and restraints on government power even when doing so means we live with less safety and a heightened risk of danger and death.  And, of course, the Revolutionary War against the then-greatest empire on earth was waged by people who risked their lives and their fortunes in pursuit of liberty, precisely because there are other values that outweigh mere survival and safety.

I have yet to see any right winger continue to histronically attack Obama while acknowledging either of these two (essentially undisputed) points. Instead, they are forgotten or shunted aside as Obama is accused of all sorts of malfeasance and naïveté.

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