What do you want your government to do in the 2010s? The wish lists tend to be ambitious. Here is one from Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf: “Somehow, we must manage to sustain a dynamic global economy, promote development, deliver environmental sustainability and ensure peaceful and co-operative international relations.”
He adds, “This will take sustained statecraft of the highest order.” No kidding. Last month the superpower that is supposed to lead efforts to achieve those broad, complex and elusive objectives demonstrated its inability to—run a search engine.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be bomber on the Northwest plane to Detroit on December 24th, was on the terrorist watch list. That database was not consulted before he boarded the plane, even though red flags abounded, like his traveling without baggage.
It should take airport security seconds to search for a name. Billions of people use Google or Yahoo to find what they’re looking for on the Worldwide Web, often in less than a second. After all these years and untold amounts of taxpayer money, you’d think there would be an efficient internal search engine to find names quickly in the main security database compiled by the US, and that it would be accessible by security personnel anywhere and routinely checked.
That sounds like something a big and lavishly financed federal bureaucracy can actually achieve. Quick database searches would be no imposition on travelers—-unlike the restroom ban airline passengers are now required to endure during part of their flight.
But it is not surprising that a hyper-active government, pursuing mandates to make the world better in every possible way, fails in its core job of stopping bombers. Overreaching results not in “statecraft of the highest order” but incompetence of the highest order.
If our wishes for the government were tempered with a realistic view of what it can do and limited to its proper functions, maybe those functions would be better performed. Let’s just hope for a security apparatus that puts the right names in a database and regularly searches the database. And allows you to go to the restroom.