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Not Until The System Is Reformed


Thursday, May. 30, 2002

It is often said that crisis brings out the best in America. To some extent, the response on September 11 and thereafter bears out this adage. Unimagined tragedy inspired magnificent feats of courage and compassion.

But the quality of our systemic response has been no triumph. Despite a security threat of near missile crisis proportion, our national leadership remains mired in a partisan chess game - a pawn-takes-pawn of public posturing and finger-pointing.

The game is heading inexorably towards stalemate, and as long as we allow politicians to play it, it will effectively preclude meaningful planning or reform.

Sincerity So Tainted by Political Game-Playing, Even Terrorism Warnings Are Suspect

In the latest installment of a long-since tiresome saga, Washington is currently transfixed by a debate over whether there should be an independent investigation of how law enforcement and, ultimately, the Bush Administration handled the once only potential threat that Middle Eastern terrorists would hijack domestic aircraft.

In a similar vein, our leaders now tell us that we face the virtual inevitability that suicide bombers will strike in America, and that the nation's most implacable and irresponsible enemies are certain to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Vice President Cheney has gone so far as to say that another terrorist attack is "virtually certain." No one seems seriously to doubt these predictions. Yet it's hard to escape the cynical conclusion that the timing of the Administration's orchestrated campaign of warnings was motivated more by politics than public safety - and, worse yet, these warnings come unaccompanied by any significant countermeasures.

For the first time in a long time, a real crisis is upon us. Those who are enemies of our values, and who envy our power, pose a genuine threat to our way of life and seek the means of killing us by the tens of thousands.

Yet our system seems incapable of producing a creative, constructive, and far-sighted counter-strategy. Year after year of bitterly divided government has largely sapped our system of the capacity for effective response, even in the face of potential catastrophe.

Instead we maneuver mainly to apportion blame. What should be the true thrust of the "What Bush Knew," and "What the FBI Knew" investigation - using the experience of past failures to better assess future terrorism threats - is relegated to the sidelines.

It will not do us much good to have measured out culpability with an eyedropper if future attacks do come. A Presidential party switch would be cold comfort for the casualties and their families. Yet for the Administration to avoid an investigation, for fear it will be misused to assign blame, will only make the likelihood of those attacks more probable.

What is really needed is a sincere investigation geared towards prevention, not blame, but I do not know if within our system, such an investigation is even possible.

Another Quagmire Threatens: A Cycle of Cynicism Fulfilled Precludes Real Change

I cannot point to a magic escape route from the dangerous swamp in which our political culture is mired. But it is not so difficult to identify some of the missteps that have led us into quagmire, and that must be retraced prior to exodus.

For a generation - since Vietnam, I would say - we have been engaged in a relentless assault on the very idea of government. In a bitter irony, the political class has decided that the path to public office must be paved with contempt for the institutions of government and the possibility of effective governance.

Those who govern us even shrink the conceptual strength of the enterprise they oversee. Thus, the Supreme Court insists ever more radically on disabling the federal government and parceling national power out among 50 disunited states.

The cycle is an especially vicious one. Our expectations of government are undiminished. But we starve government of the resources and inspiration to even remotely satisfy our demands.

In the absence of leadership and inspiration - in the absence of mission - governmental departments become exactly the sodden bureaucracies their enemies predict. And with discretionary government spending shrinking dramatically year by year, the possibility of meaningful new ideas and initiatives withers on the vine.

A Politics of Symbolism Can't Fight Terrorism; A Practical Politics Is What Is Needed

Instead, we wallow in a politics of symbolism - one that features education programs full of rhetoric but with no money to fix crumbling schools or hire the thousands of new teachers we need; health care programs that leave tens of millions uninsured; and a home security department with little staff and no power, to give just a few examples.

Small wonder that government fails to meet our needs or expectations. And, thus, the cycle perpetuates itself - as another round of aspirants to national leadership promise to cure the small potatoes problem of government waste, instead of solving the monumental dilemma of reinvigorating our political apparatus to actually accomplish its appointed tasks.

Naturally, a restoration of inspired and effective government will require the services of the nation's brightest and most innovative minds. Yet everyday we do a yeoman's job of making government service as unattractive as possible to the most enterprising among us.

This is partly a question of money. The disparity between a top-level government salary and salaries offered in the private sector has probably never been greater. But if the allure of government service is sufficiently strong, the problem of fiscal sacrifice can largely be overcome. The root problem is that government service has become increasingly demoralizing, even perilous.

Moving Far Beyond the Culture of Scandal and the Politics of Personal Destruction

At the highest levels of government, where the benefits of government service still draw many impressive volunteers, fear of being touched by scandal creates an atmosphere of CYA conservatism. Meanwhile, at the mid-level, where the real work is often done, the perils of government service, and its inevitable frustrations, send the most talented running for the hills.

This problem is anything but theoretical. Today, FBI Director Robert Mueller announced a full-scale reorganization of the FBI, to change the agency's focus to intelligence and counter-terrorism. By all accounts, Mueller is a smart man who is wholly dedicated to public service and he is undertaking a bold and necessary mission. But for the moment, the cards are stacked against him.

Before this reorganization - or any other for that matter - will succeed, our leadership will need to make a broader and deeper commitment to the basic worthiness of government and its remarkable potential for doing good. The restoration of that faith is the only formula for drawing the best among us into its ranks - and having the best of us engaged in the common enterprise of wise governance is, in turn, the only formula for security in this terror-filled world.

Edward Lazarus writes about, practices, and teaches law in Los Angeles. A former federal prosecutor, he is the author of two books - most recently, Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court.

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