Beating Up Government

Pitting Americans against the bureaucracy in the anti-terror effort doesn't help anyone.

Earlier this year, I picked up An Army of Davids by University of Texas law professor and noted blogger Glenn Reynolds (online he's known as "InstaPundit"). The essence of the book is in its subtitle: "How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government and Other Goliaths" (Nelson Current, 2006).

I was intrigued by the notion of who might want to beat big government-usually only tax cheats and other criminals are interested in that kind of racket. So I couldn't pass up the book. But it turns out that on the subject of government, Reynolds is out of his depth. He focuses, like so many others recently, on public officials' role in dealing with the threat of terrorism and the aftermath of natural disasters. No problem there. That's government's biggest and most important job right now. But Reynolds argues that "responding to attacks and disasters is something that individuals and small groups may be better situated to deal with than governments."

He cites the actions of the passengers on Flight 93 on Sept. 11, who used cell phones to find out what had happened at the World Trade Center and improvised their own heroic form of resistance to the terrorists on their plane within 109 minutes. "Against bureaucracies," he concludes, "terrorists had the advantage. Against civilians, they did not." In those limited circumstances, that might be true-although one would assume a planeload of bureaucrats, under the same conditions, would have made the same decision as the civilians on Flight 93.

Even less convincing is Reynolds' other Sept. 11 example, involving the improvised evacuation of thousands of people from lower Manhattan. Citing an article in Professional Mariner magazine, Reynolds declares that operators of ferries, commercial boats and pleasure craft handled the evacuation on their own for four days before federal authorities took over. But that same article reports that "by the time the second aircraft hit the [World Trade Center], the Coast Guard was in a crisis mode, knowing people had to get off of Manhattan Island, and that would require a massive evacuation." By 10:45 a.m., the Coast Guard had set up a floating Maritime Command Center on the pilot boat New York.

On top of that, some of those on the ground who were quickly improvising a response were actually federal officials. In 2002, Government Executive and the Partnership for Public Service honored the Coast Guard's Kenneth Concepcíon for the key role he played in helping coordinate the evacuation at Pier 11 on the lower Manhattan waterfront.

Nevertheless, Reynolds cynically suggests that even under such circumstances, citizens' efforts to help merely "infuriate" government officials. "It seems pretty clear that the authorities, overall, view the citizens as a herd, not a pack. They see ordinary people as sheep, with themselves in the role of shepherd."

So what's to be done? Come up with ways to promote swift, dispersed responses, Reynolds writes, "even if doing so reduces the career satisfaction of the shepherds."

At this point I found myself wishing I could prove Reynolds wrong. But before I even had time to think about what research might be required to show that federal officials actually were leading efforts to promote and coordinate citizen response, Reynolds did it for me. The Coast Guard, he notes, has set up America's Waterway Watch, encouraging recreational boaters and maritime industry workers to be vigilant about potential terrorist threats. The Air Force's Eagle Eyes program trains people in and around its bases to recognize and report suspicious conduct. The Homeland Security Department has helped organize a vigilance program for truckers. And NASA has recruited amateur astronomers to be on the lookout for an entirely different kind of threat-deadly asteroids that could strike the Earth.

Of course citizens and the government should work hand in hand, not only to address the threat of terrorism and the response to natural disasters, but to accomplish all kinds of other societal objectives, too. That's why people across government already are finding innovative ways to get citizens involved. Perpetuating the notion that real people only can succeed in spite of the bureaucracy will merely hinder their efforts.

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