By Tom Kando
On May 21, President Obama and former Vice President Cheney had an exchange of speeches about our government’s approach to terrorism, including the use of torture. The two men’s positions are clear, and I don’t have to rehash them. I obviously agree with Obama. But this made me think of a more profound problem, namely that during most of my life, America has been in a near constant state of war.From 1940 to 2009, our country has been at war for 32 years, i.e. nearly half the time. This includes World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and the Iraq-Afghan War. Plus, we had the Cold War for nearly half a century.
This is tragic. I call America’s history prior to 1917 the “Age of Innocence.” Except for the Civil War and a few minor skirmishes, our country’s focus was to avoid war, to avoid entanglements in world affairs (E.g. the Monroe Doctrine), to concentrate single-mindedly on forging a fantastic new society that was materially and spiritually more advanced than anything the world had ever seen. This was the age of splendid isolationism. The age of American exceptionalism. And by and large, it was a magnificent success. Sure, there was slavery, there was Manifest Destiny, there was Indian genocide. But the beauty is precisely that these came to an end (at great sacrifice to the American people, I might add). All in all, the American Project was the most noble effort in the world.
In 1917, America joined World War One. From then onward, it increasingly became the World Power. According to America’s detractors, this was the country's gain (an empire, exploiting the rest of the world). According to me, it is a terrible loss.
After World War One, isolationism was still kicking - briefly. We didn’t join the League of Nations. There were still those who felt that it was to America’s advantage to avoid foreign entanglements as much as possible.
But the die was cast. By the end of World War Two, our country was hopelessly entangled in every problem on the planet. It had assumed the mantle of world leadership. It had become responsible for everything on earth - the good, the bad and the ugly. The nightmare had begun.
Today, we live in a constant state of war. The tragedy is not so much financial (only a small fraction of our resources go to war), but psychological. In fact, America should be far more laid back and unafraid than Europe and the rest of the world: (1) We are still by far the most powerful country and (2) we are still blessed by geography, with two oceans surrounding us. Even in the age of ICBMs, we are much less vulnerable to attack, invasion, bombing and terrorism than are other parts of the world. Yet, we are told from morning till evening to be afraid, to be very afraid. We must be afraid of Iran, of North Korea, of Al Qaeda, of the Taliban, of other terrorist groups, etc. etc.
It seems that we must be afraid of someone, at all times. First we had to beat down the fascist onslaught. Great. No question about it, it had to be done. Then we had to beat Communism. Another success story. Now we have Islamofascism and the clash of civilizations.
Don’t misunderstand me: I am not denying that there are bad guys out there. But do we always have to obsess about some external foe, who is supposedly out to get us? When I travel overseas, I don’t sense that people are obsessing from morning till evening about terrorism (or during the fifties through the eighties, about communism). People live their lives and hope for the best. People don’t fret every day about imminent attack.
Luckily, most Americans don’t either (I hope). But the likes of Dick Cheney, and a great portion of the media, keep telling us that we should - “be afraid, be very afraid.” Psychologically, we are in a permanent state of war. Isn’t this terrible? Can’t we chill out a little?
If I am wrong, at least I’ll have lived a happy life until the terrorists/communists/hordes/pirates (take your pick) get me.
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Friday, May 22, 2009
By Tom Kando