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Why It Will Happen Again

by Barnabas
May 22, 2002

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Why It Will Happen Again_Barnabas- "Bush 'noble but uninformed,'" reads the BBC headline in reference to an evaluation of the American President by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The dangers of lack of information were highlighted a day later with the story about the failure of investigators, before September 11, to share with each other the evidence they separately held concerning possible air terrorism. Now ABC news has announced that Congress is going to investigate What Went Wrong in Order to Make Sure It Will Never Happen Again.

Here is a perfect subject for this column: a media report that addresses, in a deliciously vacuous manner, an ethical problem of vital public concern. Congress doesn't need to conduct an expensive and tedious investigation. They already know what went wrong, and so do we. They also know there is no way to make sure it will never happen again.

But in case you don't know that you know what went wrong, I'll remind you. With about ninety-five percent certainty, I assert that each investigating office or agency either wanted to Break the Case (if real investigators use this common expression from fiction) on their own, or they didn't want to risk Being Wrong.

I told you that you already knew. When a situation gets out of control, do not look first for malice or even incompetence as the reason —look for self-interest. On paper and in theory, the Public Good must always prevail over Self-Interest; but in act and fact, Self-Interest is most often how the Game Is Played.

The players may kid themselves that self-interest is the most direct route to the public good. Among competing lemonade stands, that might be true; but not when you are supposed to be united against enemies who want you dead. Let’s not compare lemons with hand grenades.

When things go shockingly wrong, and consequences are far worse than we imagined, self-interest as a reason why we acted or failed to act is simply too embarrassing to acknowledge. So don’t expect this explanation to be confirmed by Congress.

Of course there is no way to make sure it will never happen again. I can’t imagine anyone being comforted by a claim like that one. We can harass evil and contain it, but we cannot end it by force. Evil is extremely inventive and has almost unlimited opportunity to act in a vast country that is also a free society.

A wise person once said that you can do an enormous amount of good if you don’t care who gets the credit. The opposite is also sadly true. You can do a huge amount of harm if you don’t care whether you live or die in the doing of it.

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