Over the weekend, faced with the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the terrorist incident in Times Square, government officials at all levels sought to reassure us. In the case of the SUV on 45th Street, we were almost instantly told it was amateurish, a one-off, a lone wolf, maybe someone angry about health-care reform. In the case of the oil spill, it was that, in the words of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, “Every possible resource was being lined up on shore.”
Of course it wasn’t a one-off lone wolf mad about health care. And it turned out that every possible resource wasn’t being lined up on shore — that the main system for dealing with oil spills to keep them from the shore line, the so-called “fire booms,” were nowhere near and that no one had properly marshaled resources to get them there.
We can discuss the reasons for the bizarre assertion by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who should be lucky he will never run for office again, that the bomber was probably just a talk-radio listener driven to mass murder by the passage of Obama’s health-care measure. No matter that his own police department busted an Islamic terror ring aiming to strike the subway system just last summer. In some odd way, by pinning the possibility on, let’s face it, a white guy, Bloomberg was trying to stem panic. A lone attack by a lunatic has no larger meaning except the meaning it can be given by armchair sociologists and the politically expedient. A very nearly successful mass-murder plot arranged in Pakistan and carried out by an American citizen who bought a car for $1,200 cash off a website makes it clear just what kind of casual jeopardy we are in even now, nearly nine years after 9/11, and how fiendishly difficult it can be to prevent small-scale efforts that could bring about enormous pain and suffering and destruction.
Similarly, with the oil spill, though federal government officials say over and over again how dangerous and threatening the results are and may be, they are compulsively insistent that they are on the ball, they are competent, they are doing everything necessary — even though the fault and liability, as they make clear, is with BP, the owner of the rig. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned over time, it’s that when one-of-a-kind crises occur, no one in the early stages knows what on earth he’s doing. Feds and state officials and local officials bump into one another; everybody thinks somebody else is in charge of some aspect of fixing the problem; fights break out; the media screams like banshees; and clarity is achieved only after the initial confusion can be resolved.
Instead of acknowledging this truth, government officials believe it is their role to provide reassurance even when they cannot do so. And they’re simply wrong about that. The American people are far more sophisticated about these things than those officials appear to believe, and they can be talked to like adults. That was the lesson, in part, of the immediate aftermath of September 11, when Rudy Giuliani simply said that the “number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear, ultimately.” He sugar-coated nothing. And that is the truth of crises and crisis management. When it is done well, there should be no sugar-coating. The impulse to sugar-coat is a mark of the conviction among politicians that they are in the same relation to the body politic as a parent is to a child. In our system, a politician is an employee, not a parent. For a rational employer, an employee who gives it to you straight will always be someone you take more seriously than an employee who pretends that everything is fine when everything isn’t.