May 27, 2009
A paradox of the modern United States is that it wields unprecedented military power in the world yet its people are constantly kept frightened about unlikely foreign dangers. Its politics, too, are dominated by fear.
The way this plays out most often is that Republicans (aided by the U.S. news media) exaggerate overseas threats and denounce the Democrats for being "soft"- on whatever the current "threat" might be: the Reds, the yellow menace, Soviet "beachheads" in Central America, or now Islamic terrorism.
From the Vietnam War to today's "war on terror," Democrats have reacted out of fear of getting blamed for not doing enough to "protect" the nation, so they undertake misguided actions to look tough, as Lyndon Johnson did in escalating U.S. troop levels in Vietnam or as Democrats in Congress did in going along with George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq.
In the latest chapter, President Barack Obama is succumbing to the same dynamic as he retreats on his campaign promises to restore the rule of law and to put relations with the Islamic world on a more rational footing.
Fulfilling those promises would require political courage from Obama and the Democrats, a commodity that remains in short supply. And it appears to be beyond hope to expect that the Republicans and their right-wing media allies will ever behave responsibly--when there's a chance for political gain.
So, in the Age of Obama, the mighty United States again presents itself to the world as "Scaredy-Cat Nation," terrified about the danger posed by a small number of suspected terrorists who might be transferred, in shackles, from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to super-max prisons on U.S. soil.
All manner of terrifying tales have been imagined about inmates using their one hour a day outside their jail cells to organize breakouts or about terrorist comrades crossing the U.S. border to lay siege to a super-max prison and somehow busting the prisoners out.
Such fantasies, which sound like bad Hollywood movie scripts, have been circulated by prominent Republicans, including Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and FBI Director Robert Mueller, and have been echoed by key Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Fearing the Uighurs
The American people also are supposed to get very scared that some Guantanamo inmates who were locked up for no good reason--like the 17 Chinese Uighurs who have been imprisoned at Guantanamo for seven years though the Bush administration concluded that they are no threat to the United States--might get relocated to the "land of the free, home of the brave."
And then there's the panic over the slim possibility that after a trial, a few suspected terrorists might get acquitted, although in those cases the defendants would almost surely remain locked up pending deportation.
Whatever risks remain are so ephemeral that they are vastly outweighed by other dangers that the United States creates for itself by being perceived as a hypocritical nation that preaches human rights for others but not when Americans feel some remote danger.
If Americans really wanted to reduce the risk of a 9/11 repeat, they could undertake any number of policy changes, from reducing their dependence on Middle Eastern oil to demanding that the Israeli government grants meaningful statehood to the Palestinians.
Instead, the United States has opted for a behavioral pattern that veers from victimhood to bullying, from the tears that followed the 9/11 attacks and the lament "why do they hate us?" to the cheers for George W. Bush's "shock and awe"- bombardment of Iraq and the tough-guy treatment of captives.
On May 21, former Vice President Dick Cheney defended this approach, which relies on force to eradicate perceived threats to the homeland:
"In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed. You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States, you must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist out of the United States."