Epstein’s prison death, and the decline of American competence

Fox News photo.

The apparent death of suspected sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein illustrates, in a nutshell, the problem with American government at many levels and on both sides of the aisle today.

And it’s a problem that has concerned me for some time.

American competence is slipping away. We’re losing our ability to get the job done, whatever that job may be. The corny notion of a “can-do” spirit which typified this country for most of its existence and pre-existence is becoming a museum relic. And I fear that we’re too busy arguing with each other to care.

Last month, we celebrated the golden anniversary of the U.S. lunar landing in 1969. But 50 years later, what big projects are on the American agenda? What big problems are we posed to solve?

Here’s the fact, and it’s a difficult one to acknowledge for those of us who love this country: We can’t even keep a guy in a prison cell alive.

The reason doesn’t really matter, but I’ll get to that in a bit. If you can’t keep a man in custody, one of the highest-profile criminal suspects in the world, a man whose prosecution is important not only as a message to others who would engage in the same kind of disgusting sexual behavior with children but as justice for all those whom he abused, then what can you do?

He’s basically in a cage. You feed him. You monitor his health. You make sure he doesn’t kill himself. There aren’t many more basic tasks than that. It doesn’t require great education, intellect or technology. If you can’t keep that guy standing until trial, it’s time to roll the end credits.

If you can’t do that, don’t ask us to believe you can be trusted with anything else. Don’t bother with an investigation. If you can’t keep a single prisoner alive, you sure can’t investigate it to anyone’s satisfaction.

I don’t really care why he was allowed to apparently take his own life. None of the explanations are good. One of his guards at the time of his death was not a full-fledged corrections officer, it turns out. Anybody feel better now? Nope. Incompetence. The other guard had been working overtime and wasn’t around. Nobody checked on Epstein for hours before his death. He was taken off suicide watch despite a previous apparent attempt last month.

That, my fellow Americans, is not giving a damn. And there’s a lot of that going around.

A good many people think it’s something worse, and it’s hard to blame them, if only because the level of incompetence required to let something like this happen is so mind-boggling. They see a payoff, or a political murder, given the number of rich and powerful people Epstein stood to implicate. Some question whether he’s even dead, whether he wasn’t spirited off in some kind of high-level conspiracy. And you can understand why people would think those things. And not just crackpots, but intelligent people. And why not? A lot of crazy theories have proven not-so-crazy lately.

So in checking the scorecard (sportswriter here, you know), either we’ve got a Federal prison system too incompetent to keep a single prisoner alive or too corrupt to allow him to be brought to trial.

Neither inspires a great deal of confidence.

I’m not a “bash America” guy. I know we as a nation have had some faults, many of them major. But whatever its faults, this country historically has seen big problems and worked to find big solutions. When Europe was starving after World War II, we had the Marshall Plan. When Russia tried to keep us out of Berlin, we fed the city via an airlift. Yes, we exported our culture as well as large amounts of food and money. Yes, our efforts have sometimes been long on symbol and short on substance. But we did those things out of a knowledge that secure and happy allies advanced our interests in the world and made it a safer place.

Out of this country came the airplane and the cellphone, the internet, the automobile and the first nuclear reactor. This nation has looked less to conquer than to co-exist. When we became the richest nation on earth, we attempted to be a source of hope and help for the less fortunate around the world.

None of it happened without failures. In the 1960s, we didn’t see mass shootings in the news, but we saw assassinations. John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. We could send a man to the moon, but we couldn’t protect our leaders. We couldn’t even prevent the killing of JFK’s suspected killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was shot dead on national television. There have been conspiracy theories ever since.

And we’ve seen plenty of failures in recent years. Failures to prevent terrorist attacks. A financial crisis that was poorly understood and nearly crippled the country. Hurricane Katrina revealed the government’s inability to deal with a mass tragedy. The gulf oil spill and aftermath showed failures of operations, particularly when it came to safety inspections, but in the aftermath, as well.

All of these breakdowns and others like them are complicated.

This is not: To have a prisoner in a controlled environment, in a cell, completely under supervision and to allow him to kill himself, or otherwise die, is a new low. A new blow to American competence and confidence.

I don’t know where we go to regain either, but we badly need to. We have a refugee situation on our own border that we haven’t solved. We can’t find a solution to the growing menace of mass shootings. We can’t figure out how to better deliver affordable health care to many Americans. We can’t agree on a unified approach to environmental responsibility. We have major cities in decay, and we can’t educate their children or curb the violence that comes as a result.

I wish I had an answer at the end of this, or something better to offer. Unfortunately, if we can’t, or won’t, keep alive a single prisoner in a single cell, well, I’m afraid the fault lies in ourselves, and I’m afraid it doesn’t bode well for the larger, far more complicated problems we face. If we want better, all we can do is demand better. But this problem has been so long in the making that correction may be a long way off.