Bad Ideas

Cheney Face The Nation
In the past month, the world turned upside down for Americans.

Many sad moments were accompanied by noble gestures and expressions of resolve. The shock of the attacks in New York and Washington has caused many to rethink their personal security and priorities, and the government has described its retaliation as a “new kind of war.”

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, in discussing ideas for extending his term, encouraged people to start thinking “outside the box”. A number of people and organizations have been doing just that. Many have come up with extremely creative good ideas. Some have come up with extremely bad ones. Here are my candidates for the worst ideas of the past month:

  1. The FBI posting an “alert bulletin” on its Web site (initially labeled Skyfalling) without any context, specifics or action plan. An already jittery nation doesn’t need more scares—especially ones without information about what to look for or what to do. Americans are getting very mixed messages from the government—go back to life as normal but be on high alert.

    Several hours later, President Bush explained that the alert was mainly to law enforcement and that it was similar to other alerts put out earlier this month. The tactic smacks of bureaucratic cover, the FBI making sure that if something happens they’ve “warned” people. But without telling citizens how to be on “alert” or what to be “on alert for” the message is irresponsible.

  2. The government telling the press what to write and broadcast. There was an unprecedented call to network executives from NSC advisor Condoleeza Rice in which she asked them to keep national security in mind when deciding whether to air messages from Osama bin Laden or Al Quaeda.

    While the request was reasonable and one which the networks were thinking about already, it’s a slippery slope toward censorship. There have been other unreasonable and heavy-handed attempts to clamp down on dissent and criticism. The First Amendment gives the press responsibilities as well as rights, but the press needs to exercise this responsibility voluntarily -- not in reaction to government pressure.

  3. Hiding Dick Cheney. While separating the president and vice president is logical in highly tense times, Cheney is an integral part of the president’s team and a comforting figure to Americans. Removing him from sight leads to speculation about his health or political status and is not helpful to the administration in selling its message that they have things under control.
  4. The Democratic National Committee’s “emergency “ request to the FEC to get a waiver to bend soft money rules to compensate for a fundraising shortfall in the past month. Couching an attempt to change soft money regulations as a response to the September 11 attacks is, in the words of Common Cause, a “cynical and ill-conceived” idea.
  5. President Bush’s idea to cut down access to classified information on the Hill. This is a natural instinct of chief executives when they feel security has been breached. But Congress has a Constitutional role to pay and needs complete information. This now seems to be resolved with full briefings going again to all the relevant committees, but the issue is likely to break out again.
  6. Rep Terry Everett’s (R-Ala) attempt to get peanut subsidies as a matter of urgency after September 11 by saying that “farm aid strengthens national security.” The Wall Street Journal pointed out that the proposed peanut subsidies would just happen to benefit Everett, a farmer as well as a Congressman, to the tune of $30,000.
  7. Using water slides or Ferris wheels as ways to get people out of skyscrapers or issuing parachutes to all workers in tall buildings. These are fanciful notions which will probably go nowhere but might get in the way of more serious attempts to deal with evacuation and protection of workers.
  8. Stockpiling antibiotics or buying gas masks. Public health services must beef up their capacity to treat victims of biological terrorism but few individuals have enough information to self-medicate. Gas masks must be fitted in person and worn around the clock to be truly effective. There’s no “one size fits all” variety available.
Allistar Horne in his wonderful book "The Fall of Paris" discusses the ideas and inventions that poured into Paris during the siege in 1870-71—everything from poisoning the river Seine where it left Paris to using huge balloons to carry dispatches. There were so many of these ideas they set up a committee (Comite Scientifique) to evaluate them.

Thinking outside the box has strong historical roots in wartime but separating the solid new ideas from the dumb ones takes a lot of good judgment and common sense.

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