05 Oct 2009

"America Needs a New Enemy"

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Somebody came just-shy of pining for another 9/11 during the Bush years–I don’t remember who–and now an Obama supporter is doing the same:

Where is Osama bin Laden when we need him? Don’t get me wrong; in no way do I wish death and destruction on our country. But as I listen to the increasingly vitriolic and even seditious rhetoric coming from the political right, I can’t help thinking that we need a threatening external enemy to help us cohere as a nation — a more looming threat than the almost vanished Al Qaeda leader or even his recently arrested alleged minion from Denver.

Oh please, don’t be so shocked. From time immemorial, collections of people have leveraged the fear of an enemy to keep their clans, groups and, later, nations from coming undone…

It’s not pretty, but it’s true. Both individual and collective identities are forged as much by declaring what and who you’re against as what and who you are for. Although we certainly don’t wish for violence on the group we identify with, there are times when we can acknowledge the social value of circling the wagons…

…Think back to 9/11 and how extraordinarily unified the United States was for that moment. In predictable fashion, the vast majority of Americans rallied around President George W. Bush.

It was a noticeable change. Before 9/11, the country was deeply polarized (though not as deeply as we are now), and, as important, we were in the midst of an existential crisis. The fall of the Soviet Union had sent policy wonks grasping for new ways to view the world and politicians casting about for new enemies. So geared were we to see ourselves in contra- distinction with the U.S.S.R., we had to wonder who we were without it. As John Updike’s character, Rabbit Angstrom, exclaimed, “Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?”

Compared with other modern nations whose identities are rooted in ethnicity or history, ours is decidedly more ephemeral and difficult to grasp. Throughout our history, crises — particularly wars — have played a crucial role in making this country’s disparate parts cohere. During World War II, shared patriotism and “one for all, all for one” bravura made many groups — including Chinese Americans and Mexican Americans — feel like more integral parts of America. It was during WWII (in the military) that African Americans first saw the beginnings of integration, a process that only gained momentum in the postwar years.

While the Cold War helped focus our national interests in domestic as well as foreign affairs (the 1956 federal legislation that led to the construction of a modern national highway system was called the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act), anti-communism also ate at us internally. More recently, Huntington’s search for an external enemy to unify us led him to try to identify Latin American immigrants as evil culprits (they threatened “to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures and two languages”). He didn’t think the loose-knit and hidden nature of Al Qaeda, our real enemy, was vast enough to make us huddle together and make common cause.

In the meantime, we all but ignored Bin Laden’s most recent tape, and attention to the arrest and indictment of Afghan Denverite Najibullah Zazi on WMD conspiracy charges has been surprisingly low-key. Such blase responses to our true enemies set us up for self-destruction, until we once again find out the hard way that we’re all Americans.

Don’t worry, Mr. Rodriguez. I am pretty confident the Obama administration is just waiting for the right time to take advantage of the rally-round-the-flag generated by a domestic terrorist incident. You weren’t the only one to notice how much it helped the Bush administration push through all sorts of things.

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