Mark Edmundson writes: Among the puzzling questions of world history and national identity, a few stand out. How, one might ask, did the Vikings, once the roving terrors of the world, manage to become equable Nordic socialists with lessons to teach us in the arts of decency and fairness? And how did the tough, soldierly Romans, conquerors of the world, manage to evolve into the charming, pleasure-loving Italians, with their gifts for good food, good wine, and civic instability?
Soon, a similarly unexpected question may be asked about Americans. How did a people who settled a continent, created enormous wealth, and fought and (mostly) won war after war devolve into a nation of such tremulous souls? And how did it happen so quickly? Where once there was the generation of the Second World War, ready to leave home and fight fascists on the far sides of the world, we now have a nation that at times seems composed largely of field mice, prone to quiver when they detect an unfriendly shadow. As a people, we seem to value security and prosperity above all. When someone threatens either, or seems about to, we become (in this order) confused, then terrified, and then very angry.
Those who dislike us around the world (and of course there are more than a few) tend to see us as a powerful, imperial beast, brutally pursuing our own ends across the globe. We are strong and violent, and when we want something, we assert ourselves with overwhelming force. But is that really the case?
What appear to the outside world as instances of bullying, and what appear to us as expressions of strength, may reveal themselves, on closer examination, to be actions driven by fear. We are a people obsessed with security. Our imagination of what counts as a threat to our security is hyperactive and becoming more so all the time. Two years into World War II, it took the fierce attack on Pearl Harbor to persuade Americans that it was finally time to fight. Once persuaded, they did. Now it takes only the least incitement to make us feel threatened. When even the most shadowy forces and conditions imperil what we call “our security,” we assault them with the furor of the easily scared. [Continue reading…]