America's crumbling sense of immunity

There is no magic shield to protect us from the reality that global power carries global consequences.

Published September 12, 2001 4:44PM (EDT)

As the Pentagon and World Trade Towers crumbled on television, so too did a grand construct of the American psychology. Shattered is the sense that ordinary U.S. citizens are immune from the ruthless rage of any enemy of America. Gone is the disconnect Americans have been encouraged to feel between the overseas actions of their leaders -- their politicians, diplomats, CEOs, generals -- and the personal safety of their neighbors and loved ones.

This psychology of immunity, this imagined cocoon, has been woven over the years from various threads. One assumption is moral: Given the basic goodness of American democracy, no enemy with popular support could stay mad at the U.S. for long. A second is technological: No enemy but a madman would take on Fortress America's high-tech security apparatus. A third rests on a cultural assumption: So sophisticated are America's "best and brightest" technocrats, they could never be outsmarted by wild-eyed peasants living in the world's still-medieval hinterlands.

All of this construct collapsed in a smoking heap as the assault on America's institutions of military and financial power apparently went off as diabolically planned. On CNN, anchor Judy Woodruff, her eyes stricken, kept asking Pentagon and congressional experts how such destruction could be visited upon "places we thought invulnerable." What to say, she asked, to Americans feeling "betrayed" because they thought the United States was the safest country in the entire world. There is no reassurance available to Woodruff or her viewers, of course, because there was never any rational reason to believe the United States out of harm's way.

Nevertheless, this psychology of immunity was carefully reconstructed after Vietnam, after, that is, certain decisions by U.S. leaders left ordinary Americans with too many dead sons. As the nation shrank back in weary horror, president Jimmy Carter thought he knew how to reassure that safety and calm now lay ahead. He tried to shift America's foreign stance away from the aggressively interventionist postures of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon before him -- and soon found himself looking ineffectual in Central America, Afghanistan and Iran. The sight of Americans held hostage in Tehran by Muslim fundamentalists didn't play. Americans already felt weak and vulnerable; what they wanted was to feel strong and invincible.

That is what Ronald Reagan so clearly understood. And that is what, through words and images and budgets, he delivered to the national psyche. He set about mounting the largest peacetime military buildup in American history, including the B-1 and Stealth bombers and 16,000 new nuclear warheads to be added to a variety of new missile systems. That was the "strong" part. The "invincible" part was called the Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed Star Wars. If his saber rattling at the Soviets meant an increased fear of nuclear attack at home, Reagan offered his space shield, "the means," he said in a televised speech, "of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete." One version would use X-ray lasers pumped from nuclear explosions aboard satellites. It was named Excalibur.

Almost everything that has come after that speech of March 23, 1983, has worked to confirm, rather than undermine, the message that America was free to involve itself in other nations' troubles without bringing the violence of war home.

We have, of course, the prime lesson of Desert Storm, the showcase for all those high-tech weapons systems Reagan funded into existence. In the days just before, America held its breath at the high casualties predicted. Public support split right down the middle even as the first jets strafed Baghdad. But with every new image of robot "smart" bombs doing the dangerous work, with every grinning U.S. aviator speaking of a "turkey shoot," public support zoomed up. By the time CNN panned over the smear of immolated Iraqi bodies on the 60-mile stretch of road out of Jahra, Kuwait, the verdict was clear. America was able to wage war on a grand scale against the fourth largest army in the world and suffer only a handful of casualties among its own fighting ranks.

This is not recalled as an indictment of that war's aims, nor certainly in sympathy for Saddam's despotic rule. The point is to note the enormous disconnect communicated by Desert Storm. America could act with impunity, leaving Americans to turn their gaze back to the domestic pleasures of a surging economy.

Naturally, the war would leave a residue of hatred in Iraq among those not only bombed but among the tens of thousands more starved and killed by disease due to years of sanctions, but this was not much of a concern for Americans because to us it seemed to be a fact without immediate, personal consequences. Every once in a while, as the years unspooled, President Clinton would order the firing from some aloof aircraft a cruise missile into a military target in Iraq, a measure which inevitably killed some of the populace surrounding the target, but risked no American lives. And news of the event would quickly evaporate from page and screen in this part of the world.

When the World Trade Center towers blew up for the first time in 1993 the lesson was again perversely reassuring to our psychology of immunity. The towers, so technologically sound, stood. The losses were tragic but on the scale of a train wreck, nothing bespeaking "America under attack." The culprits were caught and they looked the part of catchable crooks, with a blind leader no less. Security was beefed up and life went on.

When the Federal Building in Oklahoma blew up, the lesson was, for different reasons, again perversely reassuring to the psychology of immunity. After a spasm of concern that the Jihad had really come to God's country, it was learned that the perpetrator was one of America's homegrown nuts. He had not attacked from without. He had bored from within. And the nation's sleuths, so smart, so high-tech, had caught him in record time.

America is now presided over by a president who is the son of the commander in chief of Desert Storm, and who has proposed his own "Son of Star Wars." His secretary of state, who conducted Desert Storm, crafted the Powell Doctrine, which holds that the military shall never involve itself in a war unless the enemy is clearly defined, the U.S. public is clearly in support, and the firepower available is so overwhelming as to assure victory with a minimum of casualties. This is a relatively new definition of the threshold for war, and speaks to how gingerly U.S. leaders feel they must treat their citizenry's feeling of safety and well-being. There hasn't been much appetite for risk, not for a long time, not since Vietnam.

And so George W. Bush has made his top military and foreign policy priority the creation of a $100 billion mechanism for knocking down a handful of missiles lobbed at America by one or another "rogue nation." The psychological need for such a national missile defense system was well spelled out in the New Republic by senior editor Lawrence Kaplan. America must play policeman in an unruly world, Kaplan asserts, yet Americans aren't likely to go along if the risks seem too tangible at home. A Bush National Security Council expert frets aloud that without NMD, countries with nuclear long-range missiles could "hold American and allied cities hostage and thereby deter us from intervention." A Rand report calls missile defense "not simply a shield but an enablerof U.S. action."

"In other words," sums up Kaplan, "missile defense is about preserving America's ability to wield power abroad. It's not about defense. It's about offense. And that's exactly why we need it."

But selling Americans on the dream of a world kept in line, and reshaped, by America will be a lot tougher now. Our psychology of immunity blasted, we are likely to examine the consequences in a far harsher, new light.

What yesterday's terrible events demonstrate, for example, is the folly of believing a shield against "rogue nations" is anything but a psychological illusion. Given that some 50,000 people worked in the World Trade towers, the death toll may well reach nuclear proportions. And if Osama Bin Laden's shadowy multinational underground is in fact responsible, the enemy is nothing like a nation, rogue or not.

Yesterday, in between the gut-churning images of jumbo jets crashing into New York's monoliths and the carnage and wreckage below, there began arriving TV scenes of Palestinian men, women and children cheering the news. The sight was made even more chilling by the sight of their supposed leader condemning the act in a quivering voice. The celebrants, who live in a neighborhood wracked by fighting over the last year, are but the latest to live far, far from the daily lives of Americans, and to believe that they are at war with the United States. The people of the United States either did not know it, or we knew it but felt sure it could not affect us right where we live. Neither can be true anymore.

By David Beers

Former Californian David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee ( an online daily magazine of news and views based in British Columbia.

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