Sunday, March 8, 2015

Control Freaks

The March 9 New Yorker carries two articles about  how two very different governments fail to control what they want to control, each in it's own pathetic way.

Peter Hessler describes being escorted around China by his government assigned censor, who is in charge of deleting phrases to pages from a book Hessler wrote about China.  What was most remarkable is that stuff which you might expect  would evoke the wrath of a sensitive authoritarian regimen was untouched--descriptions of the Communist party's manipulation of a village election, bosses hiring underage workers, violating safety laws, damaging the environment, tax officials taking bribes--but when the author discusses a former Premier, Li Peng, and gets the word for "orphan"  mixed up with "bastard" he has discussion with his translator which is pretty funny-that discussion was stricken by the censors, even though it was about the author's own clumsiness. 
The censor explained his bosses simply did not want the name Li Peng connected to the word "bastard."
In the end, the "censors" appear as hapless and timid functionaries, who are simply looking for work, and trying to please unseen masters higher up the ladder, who are, in turn trying to divine the thinking of those above them. 
Hessler develops a friendly relationship with one censor cum translator assigned him and ultimately  Hessler is able to throw enough work in the direction of this censor to establish this man in a career. 
Of course, when you really think about it, what the Chinese government is doing is pretty thoroughly Orwellian--the bureaucrats are trying to control thought, to manipulate free expression, to insure uniformity of opinion. It's just that the actual people you see struggling with this are just as frustrated as the author, because once you start down that path, all sorts of absurdities fly loose. Bribery? No problem. An American who can't tell the difference between an orphan and a bastard--well, get out the scissors. 

Eric Schlosser's piece, "The Break In at Y-12" is far more disturbing. This one is about failures of the American government to exert control, but this is a control most Americans would like to believe is effective. 

Schlosser wrote the wonderful Command and Control about the misadventures of American nuclear weapons over the years--a nuclear missile explodes in its silo in the Midwest,  and on several occasions, nuclear bombs slip loose and fall to ground in the United States from B-52's which once were kept aloft, just in case they needed  to fly to Russia to obliterate a few cities. 

In this piece, no missiles explode. It's worse than that.  A couple of  80 year old nuns penetrate the defenses around the storage facilities where weapon grade uranium and plutonium are kept. They did not intend to steal the radioactive stuff. They pour blood on concrete walls and spray graffiti with quotes from the Bible. The disturbing thing is that these dottering nuns were able to follow a not much younger confederate with a bolt cutter and walk right in. 

These "Highly Protected Areas" turn out to be not all that highly protected, mostly because the security has been "privatized."

You remember "privatized."  Like privatizing social security. In case you haven't thought about this concept lately, it's like this--The basic concepts are: A/ The government can't do anything right.  B/ Private enterprise should always lead the way because C/ Private enterprise is always more efficient.

The problem with private enterprise, when it comes to protecting our nuclear material from all those Jihadists who are drooling over the prospect of getting their hands on fissile material,  so they can wipe out New York City or Washington or Chicago, or Las Vegas, roughly in that order, is that what private enterprise is really good at is turning a profit.

So, if you want to turn a profit, you've got to cut expenses. This is the concept of a two sided ledger sheet. You've got expenses on this side and income on the other side.  Now, with respect to expenses: People are expensive. You have to pay them to watch those monitors and to patrol the fences when the monitors show there are two nuns and guy with a bolt cutter cutting through the fence. 

The company in question is, or was, called Wackenhut Services (I am not making this up. WACK-N-HUT!) But then it got sold to a Danish company, Group 4 Falck, then to a British company "G4S." (The Brits always like names which are simply letters and numbers: M4, Double oh seven,  007, you know, as in James Bond.)

So now you've got the nuclear fissile material of the United States of America in these storage facilities run by a private company which last week was Danish, this week is British and next week, who knows? Somali? Syrian? How about ISIS? It's all private enterprise!

Anyway, eventually the nuns get caught and arrested and treated really brutally, considering their age and the fact they are nuns and quoting a lot of Scripture.
But, clearly the guys arresting the nuns are really embarrassed these nuns got to the quarterback when they were supposed to be providing protection, so they keep these 80 year old women sitting on the group with their hands hand cuffed behind their backs for 5 hours. (Try that sometime.)

A word about these protester people: They are not exactly what you would call "practical." They believe it is better to die turning the other cheek than to resist nasty people--even Nazis.  They would not harm the man who is about to detonate a bomb in New York City because they are non violent, to a fault. So, it's not as if you can really embrace their entire approach to policy.

But, they do seem rather harmless to be sentenced to 18 years in prison for smearing blood on the concrete wall and spray painting Scripture on the same wall. 

Oh, but the judge explains, as he sentences the nuns to years in prison: "If all that energy and passion was devoted to changing the laws, perhaps real change would have occurred by today." 

Do you think the judge has ever heard the word, "Gridlock?"

Anyway, the nuns and the bolt cutter guy are now in prison with other dangerous types: rapists, murderers, drug kingpins. It really is straight out of "Alice's Restaurant." You can just see all those rapists and murderers moving away from the bolt cutter when they find out he's in for spray painting Scripture. But then they move back again, when they hear he cut through three fences and took a sledge hammer to a concrete wall, causing malicious mischief.

Contemplating how easily the nuns penetrated the "Highly Protected" complexes where fissile material was stored even some Republican Congressmen found reason to be alarmed: "It is outrageous to think that the greatest threat to the American public from weapons of mass destruction may be the incompetence of the Department of Energy security."  Of course, being a Republican, Rep. Michael Turner made it sound like it was the incompetence of a federal government agency, but the DOE had long ago been stripped of its security funding--that had gone to private enterprise, the infamous company, G4S. 

If Timothy McVeigh had known a few nuns and a guy with a bolt cutter, he wouldn't have had to use fertilizer to make a bomb. He could have leveled Oklahoma City with fissile material.

Schlosser notes Al Qaeda's current leader, Ayman al-Zawhiri has said a nuclear weapon, such as one he could construct with material from sites like the Y-12 site the nuns penetrated, would be blessed by Allah: "If a bomb were dropped on them, destroying ten million of them and burning as much of their land as they have burned of Muslim land, that would be permissible." 

These particular nuns, it must be noted would not like to see that happen, but neither would they stop Mr. al-Zawhiri if that meant blood might have to be shed to stop him.

As Schlosser leaves the prison housing the bolt cutter he looks back at the American flag flapping and he writes, "And a thought occurred to me: the walls of the penitentiary guarding this pacifist were taller and more impenetrable than any of the fences at Y-12."

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