Keeping The Next Bridge Collapse Secret
In the name of national security we are willing to jeopardize so much: national unity, national ideals, even, well, national security.
Take the case of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, a warning sign to all that a country that built up its road system in the 1950s and 60s is due for a major infrastructure overhaul. The natural immediate reaction after the collapse was for inspectors across the land to take a closer look at their bridges--and for citizens to come in behind those inspectors to check on what's being declared safe and what's being swept under the carpet.
But then national security came into play, and, as it does all too often these days, trumped common sense.
The feds, ever vigilant for new ways to take public information out of reach of the public, issued a Homeland Security alert encouraging the states to withhold bridge inspection reports because evildoers could use them to identify weaknesses in the infrastructure that they could then use to do their evil.
Excuse me, but those evildoers could save themselves a whole lot of trouble and just drive over to some of those bridges and see the rust and the holes and the other plain-as-day signs of neglected maintenance. Isn't it vastly more important for the public--independent engineers, road safety advocates, news reporters, regular citizens who might want to check on the safety of their daily commutes--to be able to do its duty to act as a check on government?
Virginia's Department of Transportation dutifully announced its effort to recheck the state's bridges, but when it came to sharing the results with the public--an ordinary and routine part of open government--suddenly all we were permitted to know was when inspections had occurred and how the inspectors had scored a particular bridge. (Here's the list for northern Virginia.) This is the moral equivalent of name, rank and serial number.
A similar problem in Florida led state legislators there to insist on public release of more detailed information, and a compromise reached last month has made it possible for citizens to get a more straightforward accounting of how their bridges are doing, with summaries of inspections posted on the state's web site and full reports available to those who request them.
Fear of attack is no reason to toss out our ideals or our traditions; a government that retreats to secrecy is one that cannot operate either efficiently or with the public's trust.
By Marc Fisher |
September 6, 2007; 7:35 AM ET
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