Feared & Fearful

The United States is the predominant world power, the world’s lone superpower.  This is said so often that it is easy to forget just how ridiculously unbalanced the situation really is.

The United States spends $581 Billion a year on its military, more than the next nine largest budgets put together.  China, #2 on the list but with four times the US population, only spends $129, and most of the rest are allies: England, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, France.

The United States has ten aircraft carriers.  The entire rest of the world has ten, and Russia’s, China’s, and one of India’s are all horribly out of date.  China and India both bought the same model from Russia, and both carriers are never seen without a tugboat given the tendency for massive powerplant failures.

On airplanes and tanks, the bare numbers are less impressive, but this is mostly due to Soviet mass production.  The US equipment is undeniably more modern and (more importantly) more capable than the equivalent opposition.

We have bases in over a hundred countries – but imagine the outcry if another country wanted to put a base on U.S. soil.  We place troops that guarantee our involvement and support in the case of a war on a number of disputed borders, yet we would be deeply offended if anyone offered to help us guarantee our own in a similar way – a sign that on some level the U.S. feels very certain about its sovereignty and national security.

And yet, this country is afraid.

I began to regularly watch the news following the 9/11 attacks, and it seemed my growing awareness matched a rising paranoia in society and government.

And what are we afraid of today?  Terrorists, creatively seeking our destruction from underwear bombs to cyber attacks?  And if not them, maybe the rising China?  Or the newly militant and isolated Russia, which still has almost half the world’s nuclear weapons?

Odd that the objectively weakest of these – terrorists – are the most feared threat.  Or maybe not so odd, as terrorism is practically defined as advertising through violence, while the more powerful enemies would seem to prefer to merely quietly threaten, as a bargaining position.

Still, the fact remains that the United States is absurdly dominant, and none of these forces can really threaten national security – we’ve lost more citizens in our response to 9/11 than the last fifteen years of terrorist attacks actually cost us.  And so, I find myself asking, why?  Why are we so afraid?

One theory, constructed while ruminating morbidly on the supposed comedy that was Dr. Strangelove, is that over forty years, the Cold War built an existential fear into large portions of the population.  A fear so deep, so ingrained, so basic that even the fall of the U.S.S.R. could not banish it, and it lay dormant until a new crisis presented itself.  Was the World Trade Center collapse a sort of single-city-block microcosm of the expectations of a generation of a sudden, city-flattening nuclear strike?  Was the U.S. response to invade Iraq and Afghanistan merely the logical conclusion of a Standard Operating Procedure that called for Massive Retaliation?

Perhaps that is too simplistic.  Perhaps it was not the Cold War mentality, but the sudden, heartbreaking destruction of an illusion of peace – and peaceful victory – that was born of the end of the Cold War.  People blame the Bush administration, and rightly so, for the lies that got us into Iraq, but I remember vividly the anger, the demand that the administration do more and act more firmly.  Society and Congress have conveniently forgotten their own pressure, the respective blank checks they were so eager to write if it would help the government respond.

Maybe another factor is that we have aligned ourselves so strongly with the entirety of the international order that any threat, no matter how small or how distant, is seen as ‘harming our interests’, as the phrase often seems to go.  When people talk of globalized threats and a lack of borders, think of how far our force is projected.  With our global network of bases – land, air, and naval – is there any threat that could be said to be from the Other Side of any meaningful border?

In any case, we’ve stopped a few plots, we killed a lot of terrorists and also got a lot of soldiers killed, we overthrew some not so great governments and replaced them with other not so great governments.  True, Hussein was pretty horrible, but Iraq’s government is still failing to to be more than the mouthpiece of an oppressive and corrupt minority.  Iraq is now also a host to IS, which combines radical fundamentalist Islam reminiscent of al Qaeda with the coldly calculated organizational skills that only the unemployed and unemployable ex-members of Saddam Hussein’s secret police could bring to the mix.

As for the plots, well, the ones the FBI break up seem pretty incompetent and have more than a few hints of entrapment about.  Meanwhile, the anthrax attacks that demonstrated quite staggering reserves of competence and expertise have been pinned on a guy who conveniently committed suicide, and there remain significant doubts about that entire investigation.

But, while questioning the methods is important, I instead question the premise that demands such methods, because the premise – the fear – seems to lack perspective.  Consider some perspective, for scale: in 2012, there were over 33,000 automobile deaths and over 8000 gun deaths (mostly suicides).  Terrorism doesn’t even register in accidental or violent deaths, generally speaking.  Accidental and violent deaths don’t even appear in the top ten causes at all.  This is not to say we should ignore the problems of terrorism and foreign threats, but that the priorities demand questioning.

For the entire time I have been paying attention, we as a nation have been feared, and we as a society have been fearful.  I question whether we should be either, and I haven’t seen many answers being offered.

1 comment to Feared & Fearful

  • Immanuel Can't

    Per your penultimate paragraph, consider that decision makers, in search of perceived progress, find these issues relatively simple to address. This approach also has the added bonus of creating a sense that, domestically, things are going alright.

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