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Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin
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The Observer: The Rise Of Straight Thinking

It's refreshing to see a call for common sense, even though the rules of engagement have changed, Lou Bertin says.

Brava, Janet Wejman.

Ms. Wejman, CIO and senior VP at Continental Airlines, is my newest idol for putting the lie to my recent thought-to-be-inescapable conclusion that common sense had, as the windshield-washer brigades once had from the streets of New York City (more about that later), disappeared from the intersection of business, technology, and public policy.

In InformationWeek's insightful July 22 piece about the dovetailing of the Bush administration's still-aborning homeland security plans, Security Synergy, Wejman's comment that the art of her job is to "meet security requirements but also to make a return on investment for the airline" is as pure a piece of unadorned straight thinking as you're likely to see all year. With it she captures without any lament the reality of the challenge facing even the smallest of enterprises doing business within U.S. borders.

Surely, executives are right to be concerned with the specifics of the administration's plans. It would be horribly wrong, for example, for the administration to mandate specific technologies, much less specific vendors, even though many of the same wary executives are those responsible for having led us down the garden path to a Windows monopoly. But to date, there's been precious little grousing from the business and technology communities about "The Government" stepping in and calling some shots ... with plenty more shots to come, one hopes.

Unlike a public scarily concerned about yielding anything in the way of privacy, even though we're at war with enemies who exploited the absence of any semblance of effective controls, it says here that executives are precisely correct in being willing to let the government take the lead on an issue of such importance to the global economy.

This is precisely the sort of issue where government fails us miserably if it doesn't step in briskly, surely, and brooking no nonsense. As Wejman says, "Let's make sure the technology is successful before [we] ask the public to buy into it." Fair enough. But we're at the point where bake-offs among technologies are no longer attractive options. We need a blueprint for a security policy, and we need it fast. The colors of the rooms and the specific fixtures can be specified later, but construction needs to begin in a hurry.

We've been thrust by the most horrible of events into a new phase in which government once again is relevant and its imposition of security standards is welcome. That business appears to be accepting of same is as welcome as it is astonishing, in some ways. Had the feds substantively weighed in on the issue 18 months ago (not a bad thought, in retrospect), the hue and cry about government interposing itself into the private sector would have been a show unto itself. But the post-Sept. 11 world is irretrievably different.

I take a back seat to nobody when it comes to lavishing praise on former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's superhuman performance, which began shortly after 9 a.m. on that horrible day. He was impossibly (and simultaneously) humane, spiritual, comforting, and commanding. I don't know how he did it, and I suspect it will be the mystery of the rest of his lifetime for him to figure out for himself how he did it.

Yet I'm drawn to a quote that appeared in a year-end retrospective about Giuliani's performance. To wit: "There are times when we need a tight-assed control freak in charge." The author intended it, no doubt, as a backhanded compliment, but there's more than a germ of truth to the thinking. The same mayor who was reviled by his electorate for his no-nonsense policies on everything from the squeegee brigades (they're somehow back on the scene in post-Rudy NYC, by the way) to X-rated emporia to how and where pedestrians ought to cross the street earned and supremely deserves the adoration and, most important, the respect of anyone with an ounce of understanding of the challenges he and his citizens faced.

The pre-Sept. 11 Giuliani was the same person, with the same long-held and consistently acted-upon public policies. But Giuliani was smart enough to know that the world changed that morning, that the rules of engagement changed as soon as those buildings collapsed. He was smart enough, too, to act immediately.

In an immeasurably less tragic sense, so it appears that corporate America is reacting to the changed rules by welcoming government intervention in the public interest, even if it is at some sacrifice to private interests. The world has changed. The hope can only be that some good comes of the reconstruction of our priorities, just as the hope is that some good can come from rebuilding that scarred, sacred space in lower Manhattan.

Above all, as Wejman reminds us, let us never take leave of common sense.

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