Saturday, January 2, 2010

David Brooks on Umar Abdulmutallab

David Brooks had an insightful piece in yesterday's Times (The God That Fails, here) criticizing Americans for their expectation that government can produce failsafe systems to protect them.

The context for Brooks' piece is the tremendous amount of hand-wringing in our collective response to the failure to prevent Umar Abdulmutallab from boarding Flight 253.

Brooks argues -- rightly, I think -- that we expect too much of our government and rely too little on ourselves. I don't think his is a conservative position so much as a libertarian one; he wants people to have more faith in people and not to place it all in institutions.

Here's an excerpt:

After Sept. 11, we Americans indulged our faith in the god of technocracy. We expanded the country’s information-gathering capacities so that the National Security Agency alone now gathers four times more data each day than is contained in the Library of Congress.

We set up protocols to convert that information into a form that can be processed by computers and bureaucracies. We linked agencies and created new offices. We set up a centralized focal point, the National Counterterrorism Center.

All this money and technology seems to have reduced the risk of future attack. But, of course, the system is bound to fail sometimes. Reality is unpredictable, and no amount of computer technology is going to change that. Bureaucracies are always blind because they convert the rich flow of personalities and events into crude notations that can be filed and collated. Human institutions are always going to miss crucial clues because the information in the universe is infinite and events do not conform to algorithmic regularity.

Resilient societies have a level-headed understanding of the risks inherent in this kind of warfare.

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