David Brin: Reducing Blame to Fundamentals

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  • This article is copyright ©2005 by David Brin. It was originally published in Contrary Brin and is reproduced here with permission; further copying is not permitted without permission of the author. (This copyright notice supercedes the site-wide GPL, which applies only by default.) Links may have been added by the editor which were not present in the original text.

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In a veritable blamecasting festival, we are witnessing a variety of imaginative methods for distracting and passing the buck. One that is fast becoming an old favorite is "I take full responsibility."

When delivered free of any rolling heads or changes in policy, it translates as "I hereby declare that I am the mature one; now tag! You're it."

Always try to see a way around standard polarized opposition. One way is to back away from the left-right chasm and parse the situation in terms that your opponents would have trouble denying. (even though they clearly want to.) Here are a few fundamentals to copy and pass on. These facts stand above partisan finger-pointing.

  1. In the year 2000, a blue ribbon panel described three worst-case emergency scenarios: a terror strike on New York City, a levee-breaking storm hitting New Orleans, and a mammoth quake in California. Hence, warnings had been given. (This was, in fact, just one of many accurate predictions.)
  2. On September 11, 2001 it became clear that the 21st Century would feature emergencies that strike suddenly and unfold rapidly. The very same complexity that makes our society creative and free also offers many points of vulnerability, to terrorism or natural calamity. The lesson: we should prepare to for what can be anticipated... but also bolster resilience against the unforeseen.
  3. Despite a near-universal effort by government and media to suppress or ignore it, one salient fact stands out from the events of 9/11. An informed and fully empowered citizenry can react with fantastic agility and resiliency. We are told that America "panicked" that day. Yet, there were almost no events that supported such a view. Every useful action that was taken that day, to reduce the damage, ease suffering and fight back against our enemies, was taken by citizen amateurs, armed with cameras, cell phones and undaunted will.
    (In contrast, the one common trait of emergency response officials at ALL levels, during the Katrina Disaster, was to at all costs pevent citizens or amateurs from doing anything. Anything on their own behalf. Anything on the community's behalf. Anything illegal. Anything quasi-legal or even anything legal. Anything at all.)
  4. While "emergency" spending increased under the Bush Administration, the lion's share has been spent on a war that at-best could be justified as "elective surgery". In other words, removing Saddam, while desirable since 1991, could have been done at a deliberate pace, after careful advance planning and building a mature consensus among allies. Preferably a clever plan that used local forces on the ground, instead of our own, an approach that worked well in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
    (Noteworthy and significant: those demanding his ouster in '03 were the same parties who deliberately left him in power, in '91.)
    Instead, a frenetic "emergency" was invoked, based on flawed (and possibly deceitful) evidence, demanding that a complex and difficult task be performed in urgent haste, following a war plan concocted in secret by a small coterie of amateurs. Even those who admire the goal should admit, this was more clumsy and costly than it had to be.
  5. While elective surgery in Iraq was pursued as an "emergency", our nation's actual emergency readiness languished to levels much lower than pre-9/11, and possibly pre-Pearl Harbor. At present, our active and reserve military strength is stretched thin while emergency stockpiles have gone the way of the Budget Surplus. Some - even before Katrina - legitimately questioned our ability to respond to a new shock of any kind. These questions now seem especially cogent.
  6. One might have expected FEMA to be enhanced after 9/11, with critical attention paid to general flexibility - our ability to respond well to any national emergency, including - but not limited to - terrorism. Before Iraq, drills involving federal state and local agencies had uncovered countless command flaws of the very kind that we saw emerge, tragically, during Katrina. But contrary to assurances made at the highest levels, this process of drills and contingency planning ebbed after 9/11, with budgets transferred to Iraq.

The crux? Whoever bears tactical blame for this or that specific blunder - even if the Governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans were pinheads - it remains irrefutably FEMA's job to prepare a fail-safe process that we all can rely upon. One that will react quickly and adjust with agility, overcoming all individual failings.

By definition, FEMA is the agency with responsibility for managing emergencies. Could anything be more clear? Can there possibly be a deeper and more profound test of confidence, than for a mission that was so clear to have been so clearly botched?

In the post 9/11 era, should any organ of the United States Government have received higher priority? We were warned.