What Jack Bauer can do in 24 hours, real-world law enforcement accomplished in 53 —"a pretty good number," in the words of New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, celebrating the dramatic capture of the Times Square attempted bomber.
On TV, it takes a day to foil the most complicated terrorist plot. The Times Square investigation is ready for primetime as the spin-off "Are You as Smart as a Government Bureaucrat?"
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 22 percent of Americans say they usually trust the government in Washington, D.C., close to an all-time low. This same government just made the collar of the century.
Bureaucrats manning surveillance cameras — cameras that might not be in place today had the coalition of conservatives wailing about Big Brother and the civil-liberties left gotten their way — went to work after a T-shirt-selling tipster alerted police to a Nissan Pathfinder packed with explosives.
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Thanks in no small part to those meddling bureaucrats who maintain what is no doubt a massive database of vehicle identification numbers, the car was traced to a seller on the Craigslist website. While the dramatic final moments of the manhunt proved that the no-fly list needs to be updated more than once a day, the bottom line is that Faisal Shahzad didn't make it into the air to Dubai.
It was a day to cheer. If government could defuse a bomb and catch a bomber every day, maybe gratitude would trickle down to its unsung heroes with their pocket protectors and red tape. Alas, almost nobody has the courage to challenge the conservative dogma that government is the problem, never the solution. So we are left to suffer a cascade of catastrophes, from the financial meltdown to dead miners to oil as far as the eye can see in the Gulf of Mexico.
In all these cases, government was asleep at the switch after two decades of Republican-administered euthanasia.
It started in 1981, when Ronald Reagan told us government was the problem. Actually, Barry Goldwater had told us that in 1964, but no one bought it. What a difference 16 years and some decent acting chops can make.
Starting with Reagan's successful 1980 campaign, tearing itself down became government's main mission. The philosophy was enshrined a decade later in the White House of George H.W. Bush, when Vice President Dan Quayle was put in charge of the Competitiveness Council, a demolition team that believed government itself was waste, fraud and abuse. The Fortune 500 would now regulate itself — or not, as the case may be.
When Republicans took over Congress after the 1994 election, their new House majority whip, Tom DeLay, wanted nothing more than to let corporations be corporations. Complying with safety regulations as a pest-control operator in his pre-Congress days had infuriated DeLay so much that one of his first acts was to institute a moratorium on any new regulations. Businesses were given a seat at the table so that they could call the shots on their own deregulation.
Even Bill Clinton caught the anti-regulation virus during his triangulating phase, buying into the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which amplified the reckless behavior of Wall Street.
That was nothing compared with the glee with which Bush II picked up the deregulation cudgel. An industry lobbyist came in to oversee global warming, blacking out inconvenient scientific evidence in official reports.
Of course, the Securities and Exchange Commission was long missing in action. Ditto the Federal Reserve, which somehow missed the housing bubble. Miles-per-gallon standards that would markedly reduce dependence on foreign oil got ditched. Agencies charged with regulating the most dangerous industries were jammed with officials from industry. The No. 2 official at the Interior Department, Steven Griles, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, was sentenced to 10 months in prison for obstructing justice.
The reigning philosophy is to let corporations decide what regulations they agree to. Interior's Minerals Management Service OK'd BP's statement that it could handle "a worst-case discharge." Not even close. After the April 20 explosion of a BP-leased rig in the Gulf, the Coast Guard and other federal agencies had to come to the rescue, since all those supposed fail-safe mechanisms proved not to be.
BP staved off regulations with appeals to its putative regulators like this one, read on ABC's "This Week": "While BP is supportive of companies having a system in place to reduce risks, accidents, injuries and spills, we are not supportive of extensive proscriptive regulation."
You can say that again.