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Disillusioned

January 11, 2012

I have wondered before in my posts exactly what it is we suppose we are protecting. And my mind keeps wandering back to this question, especially as the presidential primaries begin.

The Republican candidates have asserted that President Obama is an apologist or worse, and they claim he sees America as a declining or diminished power. They assert that they see America differently. They would have us believe that Americans are innately different from others and somehow special.

They do not agree so much on what it is that makes us different or special though. To some of them we are freer. Others say we have higher morals. Still others say we have a stronger work ethic. If they agree on anything, it is that their leadership — or that of any Republican for that matter — is the key to making us more of these things.

More than one candidate has gone so far as to suggest he or she is running to save the country. They have asserted strongly that President Obama has made us less free, less moral and weaker. The solution, they tell us, is not just to defeat him but to shrink government.

This blog devotes a lot of time to the discussion of what our national security and homeland security investments protect us from, but not so much about what it is that we are protecting. Is that because it doesn’t matter? Or are we of the belief that we really are different and serve something bigger than any candidate or party?

During the Cold War, it was clear to most of us that we were not only protecting the nation from nuclear annihilation but also from the threat of totalitarianism. Our nuclear deterrent capabilities were arrayed against the threat of tyranny, or so we believed.

If that’s true, we could say that we won the battle but lost the war. As communism collapsed we enslaved ourselves to a corporate military-industrial complex that now dominates us in proportion to the extent to which we have allowed it to define, if not dictate, our productive and political potentials.

As a local public safety official, I spend most of my time focused on the homeland defense frontlines. When I look out at my community, I do not see the same thing the candidates do. The people I meet do not talk in terms of the lofty ideals of liberty and free enterprise. They don’t see themselves as all that different from one another or others they do not know.

Instead, they wonder why traffic is so bad or the bus always runs late. They wonder whether their kids are acquiring the skills they need to compete for jobs in the future. They wonder whether they themselves will earn enough to pay the mortgage or tuition bills. They worry incessantly whether they will have enough resources to retire. And they hope like hell that the problem they called us to help them with will not leave them unable to keep on carrying on.

In one way or another, they know that much of what worries them and others arises from anxiety about the future and frustration with the present. They would like to do right. They know they can do better. But they also wonder whether anyone will recognize and whether it will make any difference. Many if not most of them have concluded it will not.

Most of the work done by our frontline first-responders is now about holding a badly broken system together, keeping it from getting worse rather than making it better. We have no confidence that the market will solve these problems. We have little faith that politicians understand the problems, and much less hope that they will give us the resources and support required to address them properly.

That said, many of our first-responders, like the candidates for our nation’s highest office, have a misplaced, if not exaggerated, faith in their own ability to make a difference. They may not trust politicians, but they do believe they are different and special. They have great confidence that they could do better if only they were allowed the resources and opportunity to do so.

I’m not so sure.

Rather than looking for ways to help people avoid trouble and reduce their dependence on our services, we look for ways of getting more resources to expand our services or make better arguments to defend our budgets from those we deem less worthy of public support. The past decade was a Godsend in that respect. But the days of plenty are gone.

Our brute force approach to solving problems only works well when the threat and the capability to effect consequences are tightly coupled. Our contemporary adversaries surprised us with their ability to level the playing field. We managed to counter their threat, but at a cost far out of proportion to any ability they ever had to make us pay.

When it comes to saving lives at the local level, we know that training more people to perform CPR and encouraging healthier lifestyles by promoting development that favors walking and cycling would save more people than reducing EMS response times, but we won’t support the former unless politicians commit to do the latter. The debate at the national level is no more sensible. We are not only told we have to choose between guns and butter, but also that the economic and political system that provides both of them is more essential and therefore more valuable than the people who provide the resources to procure and produce them.

It is still true that Americans as a whole are wealthier than those of most other nations. We have been better endowed with resources and opportunity than most other nations. And we have had the benefit of many great gifts, often as the result of our openness and accessibility to people and ideas from every corner of the world.

Liberty and free-enterprise have played their parts in the American success story. But so too have access to public education and libraries, enforcement of health and sanitation regulations, and investments in water, sewer, public transit and other essential infrastructure. We will only see America become stronger if we place as much or more emphasis on making these investments as we do in protecting them.

Sadly, that seems less and less likely in the near term at both the national and local levels.

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