America’s Security Oafs

TV shows and Hollywood movies often portray elite government security teams as oafish incompetents around whom brilliantly evil criminals run rapid circles. The plots then center around a cat-and-mouse game played by the evil-doers and the one or two members of law enforcement who can see through the bureaucratic haze well enough to outwit the bad-guys as well as their own department heads. Variations on this theme fuel an unceasing flow of such crime dramas; writers seem in no danger of running out of loud-mouthed, dim-witted police captains and iconoclastic department members willing to skirt the law in pursuit of justice.

One might simply relegate such fare to the realm of mindless entertainment designed to play on the public’s simultaneous fears of crime and governmental incompetence were it not for the ways in which reality justifies the truth of such narratives. The most recent example is the intrusion of an armed individual into the inner reaches of the White House, purportedly the most secure facility in the entire world. Not only did he succeed in sprinting across the lawn after scaling the fence, but he overpowered the Secret Service agent inside (the agent who was supposed to be outside was apparently off grabbing a cappuccino or something) and after racing through the entrance made his way through two more rooms before being tackled and restrained. If this were in a movie, the audience would be groaning at its implausibility, yet it happened.

Without doubt, the most spectacular failure of our security apparatus happened on 9-11. That four commercial airliners could be hijacked simultaneously and re-routed to ultimately be used as flying bombs; that no air force jets were scrambled to intercept them until too late; that sites like the Pentagon remained undefended by any anti-aircraft technology; and that all this happened while President Bush read “My Little Goat” to an elementary school class defies all expectation, not to mention budget expenditures for defense and security. The writers of a stupid Bruce Willis movie would rightfully reject a plot so replete with government incompetence, yet it happened.

The usual plot solution to such colossal failure is conspiracy, that things like this don’t just happen but are planned “inside jobs.” Thus conspiracy-nuts find plenty of fodder, and in many ways such ideas make perfect sense. In Hollywood and TV-land conspiracies remain the standard of excellence, the only way to make sense of the bumbling sloppiness and stupidity of security teams and plans. After the uncountable billions spent on technology, training, equipment, simulations, personnel, spying and yes, even torture, the “bad guys” seem able to evade our best laid plans. Short of living in a Stasi-like Communist East Germany or isolated totalitarian state such as North Korea, for us ordinary folks our national security is a more a matter of faith than execution.

For all we know, there may be a real-life Bruce Willis-type character who knows more than anyone else about what’s really happening or is about to happen. Perhaps it’s not incompetence; maybe the missing agent at the White House door was being dressed down by his boss for the lousy shine of his shoes, all the time suspecting an intruder was about to breach security. We’ll never know the whole truth, thus the conspiracy theories fly.

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