Americans today face an unholy tension between their sense of vulnerability, what they regard as realistic foreign threats, and their search for security. These three things simply can’t be reconciled. The effect is policies that inevitably fail, political leaders who are inevitably blamed, and a population that is apparently in a permanent state of anxiety.
Of course, we are potentially vulnerable to lots of things - violence, our own bad habits and modern forms of plague like Ebola. Objectively, some things are more realistically likely to kill us than others. Anyone (like myself) who drives the New Jersey Turnpike is at least faintly aware that they are taking their lives in their hands when they do so. We are more vulnerable to cancer, diabetes or heart disease than a terrorist attack. But you often wouldn’t believe that if you listened to the news.
Yet, in its broadest sense, Americans are less vulnerable than ever – at least when measured in terms of life expectancy. The average American is now expected to live to almost 80 - a record high. Sure, people in other countries live longer. Indeed, Americans are only ranked 32nd on that league table according to the latest World Health Organization assessment. But the fact is that Americans are living longer – a sign that we are better protected than ever.
And when it comes to national security threats, pandemics and natural disasters, Americans are better prepared to cope than any other country on earth. The US has the largest, best-equipped and best-trained military on earth. The Center of Disease Control is unparalleled in resources as is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in warning us about any life-threatening weather.
Yet far from being comforted, Americans now appear pre-occupied with their vulnerabilities. That wasn’t always the case.
The spirit of the Wild West
Americans now appear pre-occupied with their vulnerabilities. That wasn’t always the case. When I was a child growing up in Britain, the Marlboro man was a ubiquitous figure, evident on TV and cinema commercials long before cigarette advertising became taboo. Along with blue jeans, Coke and Elvis, to foreigners he was emblematic of America: tough, enduring, individualistic and uncompromising as he surveyed the vista of the Wild West before him. He portrayed a sense of invulnerability.
Americans in the 1950s and 60s seemed to share that feeling, one reinforced by history and geography. In two world wars, the only part of America that was directly attacked was Hawaii. of course, there has always been the fear of an “internal enemy.” Unscrupulous politicians expressed scurrilous and unfounded concerns about Americans of Japanese descent during World War Two and the Red Menace during the Cold War. But the only tangible foreign threat came from the Soviet Union. And Americans were reassured that in a world of mutually assured nuclear destruction, the Soviets were rational enough avoid a war.
Certainly, some things have not changed. Today many obsess about Muslims and Mexicans as the enemy within.
Growing anxiety demands solutions
Yet some things clearly have changed. Driven by a sensationalist media, Americans feel more vulnerable to the threats “out there.” More than the Marlboro Man ad has disappeared. A sense of invulnerability has gone with him.
Of course this is justified for the millions of Americans who are unemployed, lack adequate health care and worry about putting food on the table for their children. But there is no excuse for the rest of us. We and our media obsess about Ebola, IS attacks and illegal immigrants however much the evidence suggests otherwise. Politicians play on those anxieties.
And how do we react? America’s traditional answer to most problems is to build a technology. A cure for Ebola? Sure, it is just a matter of the right research and development. The threat of nuclear annihilation? Certainly, just build a defense shield. The menace of terrorism? Yes, develop machines for better surveillance, for airport screening , and to kill terrorists when they meet or sleep. The flood of illegal immigrants? Build electronic fences to stop them at the border.
“Good” leaders must offer decisive policies that generate immediate results. We wax nostalgically about former presidents like Truman, Kennedy and Reagan whom we recollect as resolute and effective. We forget that they had their fair share of foreign policy failures. So we hold our current leaders up to mythically high standards – and the media and opinion polls ensure they look weak by comparison. Obama’s approach is therefore characterized as weak and indecisive rather than what it is: cautious.
Europeans often regard the American search for a comprehensive security blanket as naïve. Some challenges, they skeptically respond, simply cannot be solved – or at least solved quickly. The invasion of Iraq didn’t create a lasting peace. The invasion of Afghanistan has not rid it of the Taliban.
Yes, we Americans are impatient. We want IS defeated now – and presidential rhetoric like ‘degrade and defeat’ only encourages us to believe a solution is imminent. We want Putin out of Crimea now. We want illegal flows of immigrants to end immediately.
President Obama is obviously built from different stock. His apparent abiding patience, and his habitual willingness to pursue all options incrementally, might be regarded as a sign of strength - if he were president of another country. But in the US such a measured approach is regarded as a sign of confusion (over what to do about Iraq and Syria), of bad management (about what to do about Ebola) or weakness (about what to do about Putin).
There is no perfect security blanket
But times have changed. The twenty-first century clearly differs from the past. The enemy is often spread across continents. Unlike the Soviets, those enemies are not interested in self-preservation. And unlike Japan’s Kamikaze pilots, they are willing to sacrifice themselves to damage symbolic civilian targets, not just military ones.
The threats are also novel. There is no historical precedent for miniaturized dirty bombs that can potentially kill thousands. Even if we have seen threats like Ebola before, the stunning rate at which the disease can be transmitted across the globe is unprecedented.
So our search for the perfect security blanket is inevitably doomed to fail. The enemy doesn’t disappear, it morphs, and so does the threat. And in the globalized world the US has helped foster, these threats will inevitably follow us home.
So we can’t ignore or destroy all our threats. The real answer is a sensible debate about which threats are realistic, which we should prioritize and how we can best deal with them.
Unless it is on Youtube, you’ll probably never see the Marlboro Man again