A Culture of Arrogance

The behavior is all of a piece – abuse of power by the IRS, deadly neglect by the VA, cavalier intrusions by the NSA, aggressive demands by Health and Human Services, an ever-growing number of “federal agents” in SWAT gear, and who knows what else. Each reveals an aspect of the corrupt culture that has grown up in Washington. It has undermined a once strong ethic of service and replaced it with arrogance and a sense of privilege. It is a sad turn, sadder still because this by now entrenched, ugly culture will take at least a generation to change.

Before moving on to specifics, here now the required caveats. Many honorable people still work in government. They diligently serve the public and the nation. They fulfill their obligations respectfully, with care, and with prudence. Often they accept less pay than they could receive in other walks of life. These people deserve the thanks of all citizens. The problem is that they no longer dominate the way government conducts itself.

SWAT teams are the most frightening aspect of this brave new governmental approach. Phalanxes of heavily armed and armored men and women have become increasingly common. Their heavy cavlar outfits, visors, sometimes masks contrast starkly with older police custom that insisted on the display of numbered badges and frequently nametags. According to research done by the journalist, John Fund, such para-military units seem to have found a home in almost every department and bureau in the executive branch. They are understandable at the FBI or the Bureau of Prisons, but why does the Department of Education need such enforcers? It has them. It used a SWAT team not too long ago to break down the door of a private home, handcuff the father of the family, and leave his three small children in a police car for hours while the team ransack his the house looking for nothing more dangerous than evidence of college financial aid fraud by the man’s estranged wife. Why does the Bureau of Land Management also need its own SWAT enforcers, the Department of Agriculture, the TVA, the Railroad Retirement Board? They all have them, fashionable in all black.

Even when the agencies resist the temptation to SWAT, they still seem intent on intimidation. How else can one explain reports that the EPA sent six cars and twelve armed agents from Homeland Security to a private home in order to seize a car that might have violated pollution standards. Obviously such vehicles should be kept off the road. The issue and the concern here is, however, not about pollution but rather how the authorities go about their business. If this was not a SWAT team, one still has to wonder why so much force was necessary for such a mundane matter concerning people who did not otherwise seem threatening or even have a police record.

Why do these bureaus need enforcers at all, much less SWAT? Why do they not refer their enforcement needs to specialized arms like U.S. Marshals or the FBI, where presumably managers can better judge the extent of firepower necessary and where there are better safeguards for people’s rights and dignity? Is it that these agencies fear people so much? Is it that they recognize their own high-handed behavior and expect an aggrieved public to react in kind? Why else would they so readily use so much force in such an intimidating manner over relatively minor and certainly not dangerous matters? It must be fear, for otherwise the preference for SWAT teams and intimidation would reflect widespread adolescent attitudes in government, and that is too frightening to contemplate.

If the actions of the IRS, the VA, the NSA, and HHS are less brutal than the swing toward SWAT, they are more insidious. The VA seems to have such a sense of privilege that it literally allowed people to suffer and die rather than rouse itself to its obligations. It speaks to worse corruption that the only time it showed any energy or initiative was to cover up its incompetence. The IRS, to be sure, has been more energetic. Its political biases, combined with its sense of privilege, prompted tremendous effort to evade its own rules and twist its purpose. Of course, many claim that all the evidence is not yet in, and so it is too soon to judge. That is true. But it is also obvious that the lack of investigative zeal and more than a hint at cover up speaks to arrogance and a sense of privilege. Even those who agree with the political biases exhibited by the IRS can also agree that the place to act on them is not through the nation’s taxing authority.

Many defend the NSA by saying that its intrusions were/are perfectly within the law. That may be so, but just because the law allows something does not make it good policy. Even within the law, the NSA showed arrogance and sense of privilege when it decided to intrude on all and sundry. It could further be described as corrupt because it seems unable to recognize much less acknowledge that its behavior has hurt this government, government in general, and this country’s foreign standing as well. HHS, too, showed a sense of privilege and arrogance by insisting on rules for the Affordable Care Act that it knew would offend the sensibilities and sincerely held religious beliefs of many Americans. The law may have given the department leeway, but it did not insist that it make itself obnoxious to a large part of the public. Whatever a person’s preferences on the issue of abortion, he or she would have to admit that only arrogance and a sense of privilege can explain the high-handed manner in which the department proceeded.

Sadder still, Washington seems blind to its own failings and shows no sign of even considering reform. On the contrary, this culture of arrogance looks set to build on itself. Because it lies on all sides of the political spectrum, because it stems not from a single leader or even group, it will take a long time to drain this swamp. Since no one in Washington seems ready even to begin such efforts, it is up to the public and the media to prepare the ground for reform, to shout down the abuse, and to embarrass the bureaus and departments that make such stupid decisions.

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