Saturday, September 10, 2005

Ideological Incompetence and Homeland "Security"

Slate magazine's Bruce Reed on the Michael Brown/FEMA/DHS fiasco:

Ironically, Bush made homeland security a campaign issue in 2002 by turning Democrats against their own bill because he insisted on civil service reforms to make it easier for the agency to fire incompetent workers. Bush forgot to mention his plan to hire incompetent bosses.
The Washington Post reported yesterday:

Five of eight top Federal Emergency Management Agency officials came to their posts with virtually no experience in handling disasters and now lead an agency whose ranks of seasoned crisis managers have thinned dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

FEMA's top three leaders -- Director Michael D. Brown, Chief of Staff Patrick J. Rhode and Deputy Chief of Staff Brooks D. Altshuler -- arrived with ties to President Bush's 2000 campaign or to the White House advance operation, according to the agency. Two other senior operational jobs are filled by a former Republican lieutenant governor of Nebraska and a U.S. Chamber of Commerce official who was once a political operative.

One of the many things that frightens and angers me about Hurricane Katrina is how we now see that the Bush administration has absolutely no plans for recovering from a disaster. Instead, the entire focus of the Homeland Security effort, the Patriot Act, and everything else has been on an impossible effort to prevent every risk. We have placed all our eggs in the basket of prevention, when it should be obvious that no system of prevention is perfect--and we have relied on the hope that perfection is possible.

Sometime, somebody is going to succed in bombing a subway, or releasing toxic gas, or smuggling a gun into a school, or something. More people will die, and there will be economic repercussions, but ultimately it will be a small disaster. Meanwhile, we have seen the destruction of a vast area of the Gulf Coast, the loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of lives, and complete bewilderment and incompetence on the part of the federal government. One thing is predictable, though--the next attack will lead to calls for further restrictions on civil liberties and more surveillance and oppression.

What we're witnessing is a vicious circle where the fears and the worst instincts of the political right feed off of each other. The exclusive focus on prevention both leads to, and provides support for, authoritarian control and the restriction of civil liberties--because we can't afford any risk. Broadening the focus to include serious plans for recovery from disaster, on the other hand, would require two things that appear to be impossible for this administration: admitting fallibility (from a president who, in the televised debates, could not think of a single mistake he had made in his first term), and recognizing a role for government in solving problems--an admission that is impossible for a President who famously claimed that "government is the problem."

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