David Brooks Has It Half Right

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 1, 2010


Concerning the reaction to the Obama Administration’s initial “the system worked” claims in the wake of the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253, Brooks writes:

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.

Brooks is certainly correct to point out that a great many times, decentralized civilian action is responsible for more good work than is centralized government effort. But he should not be in the least bit surprised that the citizenry would react with outrage to the reports that intelligence signals that could have prevented Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from so much as boarding Northwest Flight 253–let along trying to set off a bomb on the plane–were missed.

We pay lots and lots of tax money to ensure that our intelligence systems work. They failed. We pay lots and lots of tax money to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security is on top of things. It wasn’t, and the Secretary of the Department actually had the temerity to try to insult the nation’s intelligence by seeking to convince us that “the system worked.” When the citizenry does not get its money’s worth, it tends to get angry, and rightfully so. Neither Brooks nor anyone else should reach for the smelling salts when this happens.

I certainly hope that more people learn from this episode that government bureaucracies are not the most adept creatures in the world. If a little sangfroid develops as a consequence amongst the members of the body politic, that’s fine with me as well. But to pooh-pooh the anger seems a little ridiculous. I am sure that Janet Napolitano would be delighted if we shrugged our shoulders in response to her incompetence, and out-of-touch statements. But why should David Brooks encourage that kind of behavior?

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