There are two predominant journalistic memes since the Arab spring began. The first, from the left: What if Bush was right? This was most famously and appropriately grappled with on Comedy Central, when Democratic foreign-policy thinker Nancy Soderberg consoled Jon Stewart with the hopefully facetious, but either way revealing, advice to hang on, things can still turn bad with North Korea or Iran. The other, from the middle and the right: As I wrote in this space two years ago, the invasion of Iraq will likely give rise to a surge of democratic feeling that will inspire the entire Mideast. This is known as making it clear to one’s fans and foes that you were on the right side of history.
It’s also known as bragging. But so what? All who supported the Iraqi invasion took lumps for it; all who defended it in what seemed its dark days, and argued for its potential to transform the air of defeat that lingered over Arab politics, deserve the right to say, “I was right.” So go here and here for a sampling of what things looked like to me back then.
I continue to think the president’s inaugural address, suggesting as it did that he was on a mission to expunge all political tyranny from the globe, and asserting that our nation’s survival depended on this utopian project, was a rather crazy speech, weirdly Wilsonian and at odds with conservatism’s ancestral knowledge of the imperfectability of this world and the inability of politics to heal all that wounds us. (Take it away, FreeRepublic.) Samuel Johnson was a genius of literature, but he knew his politics: “How small of all that human hearts endure / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!”
But some things can be healed, and precisely because the endeavor is not utopian but practical. The Iraq project was not utopian: it was a high-risk gut call, a gamble that was also an investment, and it was motivated in part by a belief that progress is possible when right action is boldly taken. By continuing a laser-like focus on the area in which so much of our nation’s energies had been so deeply invested, by staying the course, by sticking to his timetable for elections, President Bush, with his grit, has produced an outcome that is deeply impressive, moving, and cause for world-wide joy.
No one knows what comes next. No one knows what Hezbollah will do, no one knows what will emerge from what is still a cauldron. But no one can say that a new hopefulness has not been infused, and infused by America.
* * *
Which leaves the world right now in an interesting place. For America a moment of unaccustomed satisfaction; for the West a moment of unaccustomed admiration for the American president; for the world’s left a moment of unaccustomed doubt; and for many, of all persuasions, a sense of wonderment.
For America, the international plan would be keep on keeping on. Keep solidifying and undergirding the progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, encourage events in Lebanon, Syria and Israel.
But domestically, it’s high time for a pivot.
The drama of the past 3 1/2 years has left us persistently looking outward. America’s thinkers look at Europe and wondering if they appreciate or even understand our leadership. They look at the Mideast and wonder if the rise of people power promises improved stability or signals the possibility of some newer kinds of chaos.
Our outward-looking stance is understandable. 9/11 tripped a series of events. We were attacked from without. And then we were at war. But 9/11 also presented us with a pressing domestic challenge: civil defense. Keeping people alive, or as safe as possible, or with options with which they’re familiar, in case of attack. Not enough is being done in this area, not enough attention is being paid, not enough support is being marshaled, not enough emphasis put.
And who can say the day will not come when we bitterly rue our dreamy lack of preparation? We live in the age of weapons of mass destruction. We live in an age of freelance actors and nuts with nukes. We all know this. We know the word “nuclear” is followed by the phrase “or chemical or biological weapons.” Because of these weapons, as again we all know, we could lose a million people in some American city tomorrow. More than taxes, more than Social Security, more than the financial arrangements by which we live, civil defense is the great domestic issue.
* * *
Man has never devised a weapon he hasn’t eventually used. When you live in the age of WMDs you have to assume they’ll eventually be used. And if you assume that, then you have to take steps to keep people as safe as possible as long as possible, and you have to be thinking about how to help them if the next big bad thing happens. Right now, a wise man recently complained, we’re essentially waiting to be attacked. Waiting does not seem prudent.
I am not saying nothing is being done. We are searching out the wicked in foreign lands; we are attempting to break terror cells; we are attempting to get imprisoned terrorists to talk. We have a Homeland Security Department but it is in a continual gearing-up stage, as new bureaucracies, as bureaucracies in general, tend to be.
But we are not doing enough. And I know this because no one is talking about it. Not our political class in Washington, not our local leaders and not, God knows, the media. They should have been all over this issue in the ‘90s, and were not. They should have been all over Osama and were not.
As citizens I think we should ask questions every day. What is the status of vaccine production? Most of our children have never been vaccinated against smallpox. But we know smallpox is one biological weapon that terrorists may use against us.
Is the average U.S. citizen less defended from cataclysm than senators and representatives? They have shelters in the Capitol, and they have gas masks too. Why don’t we? Do people on Capitol Hill have access to medicines and serums that might be needed in a terror event? If not, why not; and if so, why not the rest of us? Do Senators and Congressmen have CBN suits? Again, if not, why not; and if so, why not us?
To this day I don’t think there is a politician in America willing to sound the gong consistently on civil defense, because to build up support for toughening our civil defense you have to tell people the facts, again and again. Politicians don’t want to sound like fear mongers. They don’t want to look eccentric or obsessed. And they don’t want to be tuned out. I think the general feeling among political leaders on civil defense is they’re afraid America will look at them and say, “You are ruining my high. You are so bringing me down.” No one wants to hear again and again that you’re a target. But we are a target.
* * *
Let me tell you what I’m seeing in my beloved New York. We are building. You can’t go by a big street and not see the scaffolding and cranes. We are rebuilding downtown where the towers were. We are building a memorial 1,776 feet high. We are rebuilding the Brooklyn waterfront, that beautiful waterfront where I walk each day. They’re planning on putting in parks. We’re building stadiums. We’re rocking. Building is good. But we’re not doing it with enough of an eye to the next big bad thing. And this is a city that knows something about big bad things.
We are doing all this building at the same time that various insane and quite evil men are planning on doing away with our city. They won’t be happy until those skyscrapers are cinders. And when and if they move, the children playing so happily in our brand new Brooklyn waterfront park are going to get hurt. So maybe we could throw in a fallout shelter? Maybe we could be throwing in a few small health clinics, well stocked for a bad day?
But we’re not. That would be a downer too. I think New York and other American cities are on such a building-and-beautifying binge not only because politicians like to take money and build things you can see, and not only because the local economy is growing. I think in New York we build and plan and draw up new parks and new skyscrapers because it makes us feel safe. As if “If you build it, they won’t come.” And it makes us feel brave, insouciant. “We must be a hardy people, or we wouldn’t be building new sports stadiums.” But it’s one thing to be optimistic and burly, it’s another thing to be fooling yourself.
Nothing is bigger than civil defense. At the beginning of an actual and metaphoric spring it is something we should turn to with renewed commitment. We’ll regret it if we don’t.