Why have Americans been so gung-ho about engaging in a war? There is an overall context in which this conflict occurred, a history in which our nation has played an active and heavy hand, and so why do we call for the blood of others when we might more fruitfully examine our own backyards? Why does George W. Bush enjoy a nearly 90% approval rating, apparently unprecedented in history, for his simplistic (“This is a war of good against evil”) and brutal response to the events of September 11?
I suggest that we are a society that has been conditioned to violence. We were simply not prepared for an even-handed response to a genuine threat on our own soil. s.
I’ve heard it more than once: “It was like a movie,” referring to the horrid spectacle of the twin towers bursting, collapsing, pieces of people raining down on the street. In the movies, the bad guy is always REALLY bad, so bad he deserves to die. And we in our seats rejoice as he gets what he deserves and the threat is removed like a bad appendix. Force was called for, force was effective, and the ‘good guys’ live happily ever after.
In the movies, I sit uninspired by this trite and simplistic plot line. In real life, it scares the hell out of me. It doesn’t seem to bother the kids as they exterminate video-game villains with the touch of a button. But we, as adults, should be capable of grasping that real life is never quite so black and white.
During the holidays I watched “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”. It was the updated Hollywood version, and not a bad one, mind you, but one that like most of today’s Hollywood movies contained: 1) a celebrity star; 2) romance; and 3) the fiery explosion of a vehicle slamming into something. Upon seeing this, I reflected that if even a Dr. Seuss tale must now feature a fossil fuel explosion, we should not be surprised to live in a world in which jumbo jets crash into skyscrapers. We play with fire.
We are emotionally vulnerable. I could point to a thousand things, but take as a major example the diaspora of extended families and the degradation of even the nuclear family into a latchkey arrangement or worse. Television, school, and the streets have not proven to be worthy substitutes for the kinds of bonds found in healthy, intact communities (villages, if you will); they cannot as meaningfully teach the conflict resolution skills which would provide an alternative to unreflective violence. We bring a collective psychology of unmet, even unconsidered, needs to the problem of our own aggression and that of other nations. Scapegoating is inevitable.
We are physically vulnerable as well. Again I could catalogue elements of the debilitating American lifestyle, but onepervasive example is the simple lack of rest. The average adult has lost at least two nightly hours of sleep over the course of the past century. That’s seven hundred hours per year! In the 1970’s, Americans had 27 hours a week to devote to ‘leisure’ time. By the 1990’s we were down to 15 hours. Contrast this with contemporary France, where workplace parking lots are patrolled after closing time to make sure that no one works too long. Europeans also typically enjoy 4-6 weeks of vacation per year. We Americans, on the other hand, now average at least 48 hours of work a week, compared to 35 for the typical American worker of the 1970’s, and the Old World surely pities us our two weeks off per year. This not only makes us edgy enough to lash out when threatened, but who among us has the time for adequate research and reflection? And without such reflection, how can we possibly respond calmly and sanely to everyday events, muchless the slaughter of six thousand in the heart of New York?
Mark Twain wrote a story called “The Mysterious Stranger”, set in the time of stonings and witch hunts. During one such act of communal ‘justice’, the title character comments that not one of the stone-throwers truly wanted to participate; they were all simply afraid of what the others might do if they abstained. Perhaps we are not so gung-ho after all. Just uninformed…needy…tired…stressed.
We as a society may yet achieve a more rational perspective. After all, we are a young nation whose vast resources and ocean borders have so far shielded us from drastic international consequences. As those resources dwindle, and geographic obstacles shrink in the face of technology, perhaps it will become easier to appreciate our interdependence. I hope then we can drop the big stick and shake hands with our neighbors, our brothers – our own.