Just who is it we can confidently believe, and about what? Sadly, the smart answers these days are “very few” and “not much.”
No, this is not about religion and its practitioners, but about our more down-to-earth institutions, the ones that are supposed to organize our civilization. They can do that only if they are inherently credible, but our society has been poisoned by an understandable cynicism about them. Worst of all, that disillusionment is reinforced constantly, to the point that we sullenly accept, without surprise, a daily tortuous drip-drip-drip of examples where our organizations fail us or cheat us.
Where do we begin? Almost hidden in all the news and non-news about the vanished Malaysian airliner were the disclosures that General Motors, for more than a decade, buried knowledge about faulty ignition switches in some of its vehicles. GM now admits that a dozen people died as a result, although outside experts place the number much higher. Most of us are automatically inclined to assume the company is seriously low-balling.
And while we’re at it, what about the ball-dropping on the part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is supposed to intercede, but didn’t.
And before we leave the auto industry, let’s make sure we heap scorn on Toyota, which has now settled with the Justice Department and agreed to pay a $1.3 billion civil penalty for falsifying information about its accelerator pedals that got stuck and sent some terrified car passengers hurtling to their deaths. That’s a lot of money, but it’s a civil penalty, not a criminal one, which could have ensnared those top executives who could be proven responsible for intentional actions or inactions that killed. The crime of manslaughter comes to mind. And fraud. But that’s for lawyers to decide. And let’s not even get started about our legal system. That’s too obvious.
The auto industry revelations were no more a surprise than the release of two reports about official incompetence, findings released, after the fact, about tragedies that exploded into the news and then were shoved aside by the next crisis. Try hard to remember last November’s shock when a lone gunman went on a rampage at Los Angeles International Airport, killing a Transportation Security Administration officer and injuring several others before he was finally arrested. The post-mortem investigation paints a picture of an amazing lack of coordination: emergency radio systems that didn’t communicate with each other, lax security procedures — in short, chaotic mismanagement.
Or how about the deranged man who roamed the halls of the Washington Navy Yard in September, fatally shooting 12 people and injuring others before police killed him. Turns out he was a private federal contractor whose severe mental-health issues had been overlooked by those who granted the security clearance that gave him easy access. Ho-hum, you might say.
And you’d be part of the crowd. A recent Pew poll of young people concludes that the bulk of them don’t trust our institutions. That’s good news and bad: It’s good because they have a realistic view of them, and bad because we won’t make it as a nation unless we have a credible social structure. More and more we do not.
© 2014 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Synd.