A few days ago, I was bumping along a tooth-rattlingly rough stretch of interstate when I saw a sign: Rough Road. No kidding, Sparky. A mile or two of shake-rattle-’n’-roll later, another sign: Rough Road. You don’t say. Rocka-rocka-rocka-thumpa-thumpa-thump: Rough Road. Sign after sign after sign: Rough Road.
You know what they could have done with all the time and energy and resources put into erecting those Rough Road signs? Maybe — here’s a crazy notion — put some new blacktop on that sorry lunar hellscape that Uncle Stupid calls I-10. But that’s government for you: “Not only do we refuse to do our job and maintain these roads despite a $40 billion a year budget for doing just that, we’re going to pay a gang of union-goon schmucks $40 an hour to erect signs advertising the length and breadth of the shaft we are giving you.”
Tim Cook is the CEO of Apple, and Uncle Stupid is leaning on his company just at the moment, demanding that the firm create some specialized iPhone code — call it “FBiOS” — that will allow it to crack the mobile phone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists. Which is to say, with all of the power and money and other resources we put into national security, law enforcement, and counterterrorism, the Men in Black cannot defeat some yahoo’s iPhone PIN.
This is what happens when you apply the Rough Road–sign model to fighting the war on terror. Yes, of course we’d like to have some prosecutions and convictions in the San Bernardino case, inasmuch as it is clear that the jihadists there did not act without some assistance. And, yes, there probably is some useful information to be had from that iPhone. But there is something deeply unseemly about a gigantic and gigantically powerful national-security apparatus’s being stymied by ordinary consumer electronics and then putting a gun to the head of Apple executives and demanding that they do Uncle Stupid’s job for him.
From the IRS to the ATF to the DEA to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s super-secret toilet e-mail server, the federal government has shown, time and again, that it cannot be trusted with any combination of power and sensitive information. Its usual range of official motion traces an arc from indifference through incompetence to malice.
Where the federal government imagines that it gets the power to order a private firm to write software to do its incompetent minions’ jobs for them is anybody’s guess. Tim Cook and Apple are right to raise the corporate middle finger to this nonsense. Cook says that the software the FBI demands is “too dangerous to create” given the risk that it could fall into “the wrong hands.”
Perhaps he is being polite, but the fact is that the FBI is the wrong hands. Its agents have leaked secret information in live investigations to their girlfriends, engaged in various and sundry episodes of extortion and blackmail, and used federal resources to check up on their favorite strippers. (Nobody got fired, of course. Nobody ever gets fired.) And of course, as in a great many federal offices, FBI supervisors spend a great deal of time watching pornography on their office computers and masturbating. That earned one supervisor a 35-day suspension. Is that how they do it in your office?
The more you think about what the hell it is the federal government actually does, the less important it seems.
The more you think about what the hell it is the federal government actually does, the less important it seems. About 80 percent of its activity, as measured by cash flows, consists of simply transferring money from one group of Americans to others in the form of Social Security checks and subsidized medical benefits. Its senior leaders steadfastly refuse to do their jobs: The border goes unsecured, visa controls remain nonexistent in spite of a specific legal requirement that the government address this problem, the roads and other infrastructure under the federal umbrella of responsibility are a mess in spite of the trillions of dollars thrown at them in recent years, etc. And the federal government’s answer is: “Why won’t those mean meanies at Apple do our jobs for us? So what if that means rendering many of their products entirely worthless and betraying the trust of millions of customers?”
Maybe your experience is different. In my experience, what government actually does at every level is hassle me and take my money while failing to do the basic things that we constituted it to do. The borders are a joke, the roads crumbling, the schools a sty of corruption and miseducation, and the police, as a wise man once put it, are a janitorial service that takes your body away after the deed has been done. Perhaps it is appropriate that our next presidential election may very well pit a reality-television grotesque against an antediluvian Red from Brooklyn. American politics consists of an increasingly bitter and hate-fueled fight over an increasingly irrelevant institution. If Apple disappeared tomorrow, the world would notice. You can’t say the same about the TSA or the Small Business Administration, and it is not entirely clear that you could say much better about the FBI.
Rough Road? Indeed, it promises to be.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.