Dealing with Disaster.


Terrible disasters often bring out the best in people, sending individuals soaring to unsuspected heights of heroism, creative intelligence, and selfless devotion to the well-being of others. The effect on governments, as a rule, is quite the opposite: Public policymakers and their bureaucracies tend to react to great calamities with timidity, stupidity, and reckless indifference to the greater good.

The nuclear catastrophe that occurred in late April [1986] at Chernobyl in the Soviet Ukraine was, unfortunately, no exception. The Soviet government, which had begun, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, to build a welcome new image of relative candor, immediately reverted to type. Days went by without any official disclosure of the disaster, and it was only after extraordinary radiation levels had been detected in Scandinavia, that the Kremlin acknowledged something was amiss.

But if the Soviet government deserves condemnation for its pathological and obsessive secrecy, the government of the United States did not exactly cover itself with glory in responding to Chernobyl. The Reagan Administration immediately seized on the opportunity to engage in crude...

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