America the Afraid

Jeff Alworth

My return to the newly-Democratic United States on Thanksgiving was colored by a strangely bittersweet note.  Just before we were asked to return our seats to their fully upright position, the staff of Cathay Pacific announced that they'd be showing a video by the Deptartment of Homeland Security.  It detailed, in animation so tres 1953 I thought I was watching satire, how visitors to the land of the free would be fingerprinted, photographed, and catalogued to "expedite travel and make them safer." Called US-Visit, it is a part of the Patriot Act, and was implemented just after my last trip out of the country in late 2004.   (Watch the video here.)  I have no idea whether it will make it easier to track terrorist operatives in the US, though surely it will stop politically embarrassing foreigners from, say, teaching courses in American universities.

But aside from the uncomfortably Orwellian aspects of the program, it highlighted for me a theme that seems to be increasingly dominating American consciousness: fear of the outside world.  I just spent time in India and Hong Kong, two places where international context isn't theoretical.  India is still locked in its own cold war with Pakistan and has China on another border.  And Hong Kong, of course, has its own complex relationship with China--one that dominates local politics and culture. 

Yet in neither place do you experience the kind of dread of the outside world you do in the US.  While I was in Hong Kong, China's leader Hu Jintao visited Manmohan Singh in Delhi and emerged with a statement declaring that the two countries are "partners for mutual benefit."  India, which has fought wars with both Pakistan and China, does not have the luxury to build a fortress.  Indians can't ignore China, nor is it in their interest to do so. 

More potently, India has had to deal with a terrorist threat across its border for decades.  As recently as this July, hundreds of people were killed by a train bombing in Bombay.  This is a constant threat in India--one that poses a far more tangible danger than vague orange-coded threats DHS mentions during national elections. 

You'd think that Indians would feel more skittish than Americans as a result of the regular attacks they've endured.  In fact, much as in England following train bombings there in 2005, Indians refuse to be cowed.  They do not let this threat manage their lives or dominate their politics.  In fact, India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has spent the past two years engaged in serious dialogue with Pakistan. It wouldn't take Republicans two seconds to call him an appeasing surrender monkey if he tried that in the US.

But here in the world's strongest country, we tremble. The world looks like a scary place, so we build taller fences and bigger guns and pass laws demanding immigrants speak our language.  For the rest of the world, "globalization" means engagement and greater connectivity.  This is a lesson the US needs to learn, and quickly. The failure in Iraq and the growing resentment across the globe (shared, I'm sad to report, by a growing number of Indians who have heretofore loved the US) will make this task seem even riskier.  But the real danger lies in giving into fear, hiding, and hoping the world will leave us alone.

  • Anonymous (unverified)

    Those at the top have the most to lose and the farthest to fall. Hence paranoia.

    Most Americans don't know history very well, not other countries or our own for that matter. Every empire rises and falls. No one wants to believe that an empire is declining under its own weight. "It will happen in someone else's lifetime." In reality, a decline can happen over generations.

    It is time that we reassess our place in the world. We needn't be Alone anymore.

  • Mike Austin (unverified)

    One of the most interesting aspects of the movie "Bowling for Columbine" is its portrayal of the differences between American news reporting and that in other countries, especially Canada. As you might expect, American news reporting is replete with stories that seem designed to make one afraid. I try not to be a conspiracy-theorist, but I don't think this is an accident.

  • (Show?)

    If you want to point the finger at the media, how about the failure to make foreign news reporting relevant? In the US, we get almost no foreign news, and when we do, it tends to be brief and overwhelmingly related to foreign policy. Part of the reason Americans are scared of the rest of the world is because we don't understand it. During the Cold War, US policymakers exploited that ignorance to create fear (perhaps wisely), but it evaporated when the wall came down and Russians were show to be more or less like Americans. Would that we saw more reports of other citizens in that light.

  • BlueNote (unverified)

    Interesting post. We saw the same film on our way home from Europe recently.

    I have two reactions to your post. The first and most obvious is that the Republicans have been using the September 11 attacks for their own political purposes, and keeping the general population fearful has been a very effective strategy until two weeks ago.

    My other thought is that we here in the US could probably benefit from a little fear as it relates to global competition for energy, jobs, wealth, security, etc. Too many Americans have grown fat and happy while resting on the hard work and success of prior generations. We ignore the incredible economic growth in China, India, Vietnam, Singapore, Ireland and other places. Our colleges churn out endless supplies of liberal arts majors, business majors, lawyers (that's me), etc., while Asian higher education institutions outproduce us 100:1 in engineers, chemists, and Ph.Ds in every scientific and technical field. China's government is led by engineers and scientists, while our government is led by lawyers and career politicians. We need to shake up our educational and governmental institutions quickly to meet global competition. Otherwise, the US will be just another nation in decline. And being a nation in decline sucks, unless you are France, where the decline is nicely offset by the great food and wine.

  • Slim (unverified)

    So maybe we should concentrate on better food and wine?

  • Zak J. (unverified)

    Policy successes and failures are affected by this ignorance of the outside.

    A recent Oregonian article highlighted the total lack of knowledge about Islam that most Congressman have--most can't explain the difference between Shi'a & Sunni. This from the people trying to fashion our middle east policy.

    Think also for a moment about what you've heard out of the mouths of politicians carping about the immigration problem. Which of them have even mentioned solutions that might be found by a review of Mexico's legal restrictions on foreign investment, its state monopolies, the affect of NAFTA on its farm economy, the distribution of wealth there, the number of American citizens living in that country, the effect of the American-led war on drugs on it armed forces and police protection in general, and on and on. The silence is deafening. You can find this information in the news if you dig for it, but from politicians you hear nothing beyond either fences, amnesty, "guest-worker" programs and other unilateral solutions to bilateral issues.

    Both examples are reflective of not only ignorance of the outside, but also of a fair degree of contempt for the world beyond our borders. And you're quite right that this ignorance hurts us.

  • iggi (unverified)

    "So maybe we should concentrate on better food and wine?"

    lol, i think we are...many American's are settling nicely into their new McJobs.

    great post Jeff.

  • Dave Porter (unverified)

    I share Jeff's concern about the US withdrawing from the world. We need to engage and connect to the rest of the world. For world peace and stability in the 21st century, as well as our own economic development, the US needs to connect more robustly with China in particular. Rep. Dennis Richardson and I have a proposal currently pending before the Oregon Business Plan entitled "Developing the China Connection through Educational Programs." Our suggested goals are that by the year 2015: (a) 5% or more of Oregon students graduating from high school have studied Mandarin for at least two academic years in high school and have spent at least four weeks in China, (b) 10% or more of the students graduating from Oregon public universities have studied Mandarin for at least two academic years, and (c) 50% of the students graduating from Oregon public universities have spent at least four weeks in China.

    Check it out.

  • BOHICA (unverified)

    "The powers in charge keep us in a perpetual state of fear: Keep us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant sums demanded. Yet in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, seem never to have been quite real...." ---General Douglas MacArthur

  • anne omalley (unverified)

    It is such a shame that Americans are so afraid. I find that so much of the world, far from being frightening and inferior to the United States, is more mature, more sophisticated, and more humane. It is such a shame that the vast majority of Americans have no idea of what lies beyond our borders. Is it unfair to compare our propoganda to that of the Former Soviet Union? Is that not how they kept their population at bay ~ "Do not leave our borders. The world is a frightening and dangerous place. Moreover, it is vastly inferior to that which you have here in the glorious Soviet Union." There is a reason that communist and other repressive regimes refuse the population access to information about other states. Unfortunately, such tactics work very well.

  • M Butterfly (unverified)

    Give the Democrats 6 years of one party rule and you'll be lucky to have a McJob, McHouse, or McFuture.

    <h2>And the Taliban will have their own prayer rooms in every airport. While the Christians are forced to ride in the back of the plane.</h2>

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