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Why Are Americans So Afraid?

The national jitteriness fuels unnecessary Pentagon spending increases
Photo: U.S. Army/Sgt. Thomas Carwell

The traditional American character—a pioneer willing to head west into dangerous territory to seek a better life for himself and his family—stands in stark contract to her counterparts today.

Strangely, it has long seemed that we are stronger standing alone like the pioneers head out to the frontier than we are when we stand together under arms.

During the Cold War, we were spooked by Red soldiers allegedly 10 feet tall, but they turned out to be a greatly-magnified mirage. So too did the era’s bomber and missile gaps, which we spent billions filling. I can remember attending Sunday Mass in an abandoned Nike missile base—built to deter Soviet bombers—in mid-1960s’ Connecticut.

Then came President Reagan’s 1983 declaration that the country would build a “Strategic Defense Initiative” to shield Americans from incoming Soviet warheads. Thirteen years later, I climbed into the massive radar pyramid at Nekoma, N.D., that was home to the nation’s first missile defense site for six months in the 1970s—at a cost of $25 billion.

The U.S. has now spent well north of $100 billion in the effort to create a technological shield to protect its mainland from incoming missiles — much of it on long-forgotten and never used systems such as Nike, Nike Zeus, Nike-X, Sentinel and Safeguard.

The grandest of these, the Safeguard system, was built nearly 50 years ago in Nekoma. Huge earth-moving machines dug up 1.75 million cubic yards of rich, black loam from the 470-acre site. Contractors built the base with 160,000 yards of concrete and 12,000 tons of steel. They crowned their work with a partly buried, 123-ft.-tall pyramid containing the system's key radar.

Each of its four "eyes" had sprinklers to wash away any potential radioactive debris from collisions between the nearby nuclear-tipped interceptors and incoming Soviet missiles. The government shut the system down after four months in service, because of its high cost and doubts about its utility.

There seems to be a Pavlovian need in some quarters of this nation to try to build invulnerable shields to missiles being built by foreign madmen. The challenge of constructing an ocean-spanning missile carrying a warhead big enough to do real harm – and getting it to its target–is immense. The notion that Tehran or Pyongyang could do it – and hit an American city, or anything else of value – borders on the vanishing point.

In fact, we are living through an amazing peaceful period. Sure, to say it is to jinx it, but we shouldn’t let that deter us from acknowledging the reality. We are living in a less-violent world than that of our parents and grandparents, even if politicians and generals speak darkly of the current era as the most dangerous in American history. History, thankfully, doesn’t back them up.

For nearly two centuries, oceans protected America. That’s why Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were so terrifying: the enemy had hit our homeland. I can recall wakening up on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, after a fitful night, and realizing that there were zealots willing to kill a lot of Americans to make their case. For weeks, the nation awaited the next 9/11-scale attack. Thank God, we are still waiting. Good intelligence and targeted killings have played a role in that success. A strong and effective military remains a keystone in U.S. security.

But it’s also worth acknowledging that the 9/11 terrorists succeeded only because they brandished “their” weapons—U.S. built and flown commercial airliners housed in U.S. hangars at U.S. airports—against U.S. buildings. Absent such weapons, they have been rendered largely impotent, capable of wreaking death only in a small-bore way. While that is no solace to those whose roughly 500 loved ones have been killed by terrorists on U.S. soil since 9/11, so long as we remain vigilant, that will continue to be the case.

But every time we over-react—as we have done in so many ways since 9/11—the terrorists win. Following the Mar. 22 London terror attack, a resolute Theresa May, the prime minister, declared “We are not afraid.” She said that Londoners “will board their trains, they will leave their hotels, they will walk these streets, they will live their lives.”

And they did. “As I was coming in through the Tube, I noticed there was a great air of calm,” Elizabeth Sweeney told the New York Times the day after the attack, which killed four. “That was the overriding sense that I had, first thing.”

Terror attacks are going to continue for a while. But so long as we can keep nuclear weapons—yet another U.S. invention that could boomerang—we will muddle on.

“One thing that happened in the aftermath of the trauma of 9/11 was `threat inflation’: political leaders and pundits inflated the perils that America was facing,” Paul Holden wrote in the Guardian last week.

“Nowhere is this tendency more pronounced than in relation to defense issues and the global arms industry,” he added “…The defense industry, the military, like-minded leaders and a pliant commercial press…can collude to create magnified perceptions of threat to justify unpopular military endeavors, pursue particular foreign policy ideologies and divert massive financial resources to the industries and individuals who will be paid to defuse the threat.”

Notice a pattern here? Be it offense or defense, the U.S. always has seemed to feel that it can buy its way out of fear. Cold War Soviets have been replaced by Holy War terrorists. We are spending more money on our military today to deal with a wider range of relatively puny threats than we spent during the Cold War.

“Terrorism” is the not-so-secret word uttered by those seeking to keep the Pentagon budget at high levels. Every morning on Washington’s leading all-news radio station, there is a barrage of warnings about threats facing the nation, and how only the advertisers’ wares can blunt them. One of the nation’s leading evening newscasts warned last week, in its lead story, of the dangers posed by laptops on airplanes.

One of the nation’s leading newspapers warns, on its front page, of the danger posed by terrorist drones. One of the nation’s leading websites makes its top story a North Korean missile attack on a U.S. aircraft carrier—in a fictitious video produced by Pyongyang.

The only thing missing in action is perspective. While these are all valid news stories, they do not warrant such coverage. All it does is succor the terrorists and leave Americans cowering behind their TV trays.

We tolerate thousands of Americans dying every month in car crashes, from alcohol and drug abuse, or by handgun. Yet there is no call from Washington, or to it, for that matter, to reduce such scourges by spending billions.