Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has written a book called A Nation of Wusses. I haven’t read it, but I know what it’s about because I’ve heard him speak about it many times. It is a lamentation that our nation seems to be stuck in a paralyzing malaise, immobilized by a victim mentality, frightened to do much of anything, let alone anything great or courageous or unprecedented like traveling to the moon or building infrastructure systems that span a continent. We can’t even muster up the political courage to raise taxes.
I think this mentality of moping around in moroseness is a residual effect of the events of September 11, 2001. I think, too, that we are still traumatized as a nation because our prize city and our capital city were both successfully attacked. And, because we are still traumatized, we still feel vulnerable and terribly, terribly anxious. Our nation has not yet healed. If we were Japan, having had our capitol firebombed into oblivion before seeing two of our industrial cities nuked, or if we were any of the European countries that have seen the barbarity of war played out in their backyards for centuries, we would have gotten over 9/11 by now. But we still quiver in fear because 19 religious lunatics with box cutters attacked New York and Washington, DC with our own airplanes and killed three thousand civilians. Despite the sprawling homeland security apparatus that has proliferated since then, we remain a trauma victim, and fresh tragedies have the effect of compounding a collective national sense of vulnerability.
This traumatized and vulnerable mentality that keeps us frozen in fear has become vividly apparent during the two most recent American national disasters: the striking of Hurricane Sandy and the latest mass murder at a school. The latter of these is the most recent in what has become a veritable epidemic of school shootings, this one at an elementary school named, weirdly and congruously, Sandy Hook, in Newtown, Connecticut. 20 little kids, as well as seven adults, were shot to death.
To help raise relief funds for victims still suffering through the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, a collection of some of the greatest living rock stars assembled for performances at a benefit concert entitled 12/12/12. It was the kind of thing we have seen before, like George Harrison’s Concert for the Benefit of the People of Kampuchea in the 1970s, like Bob Geldof’s Live Aid to raise money to get food and medicine to the victims of famine in Africa in the 1980s, and like the Amnesty International Human Rights concert tour to help raise awareness about government brutality in the 1990s. Surely, 12/12/12 was historic, but not for the reason that it brought together the remnants of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band on one stage; it was historic because it raised the question of why in hell it was deemed necessary to hold a relief concert to benefit people of the United States, the wealthiest country on the planet. Sure, the conditions and prospects that victims of Sandy are facing are rough, but this is the United States. This country has been building various eighth wonders of the world for over a century now. Can’t we take care of these survivors? It’s not as if they are facing down a government dedicated to purging all elements of modernity, including independent thought, from the ranks of the population like Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge government tried to do in Kampuchea, more commonly known as Cambodia. It’s not as if the United States, the most obese nation on Earth, is enduring a food shortage as a result of Hurricane Sandy, a common enough after-effect of typhoons in financially poor nations like, you guessed it, Cambodia. And it is not as if the United States doesn’t enjoy a long democratic tradition, free from monarchs and dictators and tyrannical governments that slaughter and make enemies out of its own people like the old apartheid regime in South Africa. No, it’s just that many people in pockets of New Jersey and New York are still without electrical power, many have lost their homes and need help rebuilding, many more need warm and dry places to stay, and the provision of basic services which people in wealthy nations take for granted, like public schools and hospitals and fire departments and waste disposal and collection, remains broken down. Is the United States really so “poorly,” as Charles Dickens often described his characters, that it needs world-renowned rock stars to come in and hold a benefit concert to make it all better? Further, Sandy didn’t blindside us. Climatologists have been warning us for a long time now that elevated ocean temperatures will cause more severe weather and that climatic changes will require localities that are unused to such natural disasters as hurricanes to learn how to experience them, endure them and deal with their after-effects.
Speaking of not being blindsided, the repetitive refrain about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School is that the whole world joins with Newtown in feeling its sense of shock and horror. Really? I must not be part of the world because in a nation which incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other, in a nation where there are more guns than people, where it is easier to get hold of guns than it is to own a car, indeed much easier to obtain a gun license than a driver’s license, I simply do not find it shocking that some deranged dude decided to go on his shooting spree down at the playground. Horrified? No, again. Immunized would be a better word. Or perhaps hardened or numb. It happens so often in these United States that it is difficult to feel horror unless we are personally involved. The previous mass shooting incident had taken place just two days earlier at a shopping mall outside of Portland, Oregon. A complete list of the mass murders by gunfire that have occurred in the United States over the last two decades would require far too many uncomfortable pages. Obviously, these occurrences are more than a problem; they have become the normal state of affairs and people are not shocked and horrified by normal states of affairs. Some say that the fact that most of the victims of this shooting were small children makes it more shocking than a disgruntled worker shooting up his workplace and killing adults. But this is not true, for when children are killed one at a time in routine outbursts of domestic violence, or as innocent bystanders in gang-related shootings, or in the senseless violence that plagues many impoverished urban areas, no one talks about such events as shocking. Tragic? Certainly. Shocking? Not so much. The estimate of the number of people killed by guns in the United States each day is 30, some of them children. But when those people die, no national attention is afforded them.
And what about places where death and violence and bombings and shootings are daily experiences? If the whole world is indeed sharing in Newtown’s grief, why do we not weep for the children of Somalia, a place that can only laughingly be referred to as a country, a place where civilization has reverted to barbarism, run by gun-toting thugs willing to do anything simply to survive? Why do we not cry for women in Islamist cultures whose existence is tolerated only because they can produce more men? Does anybody still grieve for Honduras, which in 1998 suffered Hurricane Mitch which wiped out 80% of that country’s entire economy and whose recovery was forecast to take decades? And doesn’t it seem like we have forgotten about the tsunami that devastated coastal areas of Southeast and South Asia, killing over a hundred thousand, and the later tsunami that smashed eastern Japan like Godzilla, killing tens of thousands and causing a nuclear accident on a par with the Chernobyl disaster? What about those who have been killed because they were inadvertently caught in the civil wars and religious strife between various factions in Iraq and Afghanistan, or in the American bombardment of those countries? What about the genocidal horrors that take place in Darfur and Rwanda and those central African countries whose names keep changing because their momentary leaders keep offing each other in unending cycles of revolution? What about the deprived people of guns-not-butter North Korea, who are ordered to cheer upon learning that their paltry national resources have been expended trying to send rockets into space rather than filling their bodies with nutrition?
When we look upon the world from this kind of perspective, the murders of 27 people in Connecticut, however unpalatable the manner, and the travails of survivors of a hurricane that should have been predicted, take on a hue of insignificance. What is truly shocking and horrifying is that this nation, with all its resources, feels a need to indulge in mourning, grateful to be joined in that mourning by the “community of nations.” Why don’t we do something about these matters? Signing the Kyoto Protocols and agreeing to stop belching so much carbon into the atmosphere would represent a start. Standing up to the gun rights lobby and calling out its operatives as the small penis syndrome sufferers that they are would represent another good start. This country needs to stop wallowing in self-pity and self-absorption and start proactively addressing its problems.
In the early 1980s, the punk band known as The Dead Kennedys told the privileged American classes that what they needed to add some much-needed perspective to their lives was a “holiday in Cambodia.” Privileged Americans in 2013 are in need of such perspective, too, and a similar holiday, maybe this time in Somalia, would provide it. Back in 2002, Aaron Sorkin wrote a scene for TV in which a psychologist for a fictional American President told that President that the reason for the President’s inability to sleep was that he was afraid to do what was right if it might cost him Michigan’s electoral votes. This was ten years ago, and this purveyor of what we call pop culture, even as cocaine-addled as he may have been, knew what was wrong with America, he knew what we needed to do to fix it, and he showed us the way. But still here we are, led by politicians who fear gun lobbyists, who doubt the veracity of climatology research and who cower in dread about the repercussions of raising taxes, enacting sensible gun control laws or making genuine efforts to do what we can to foster peace and justice in the world, efforts which involve more than just throwing bombs at problems. We face a “fiscal cliff” and a “debt ceiling” but our leaders are so gripped by fear that they cannot bring themselves to do what is quite obviously necessary to solve these problems – raise taxes. Tax revenue is what built this country into a superpower, what rendered it the place where millions of dispossessed people around the globe aspired to go, what allowed it to become the nation for which no feat was impossible. When we went to the moon, Mars was next but, instead, something new to America, fear, began to guide its actions, or rather, its inaction. Sadly, we have lost our courage and we now prefer to succumb to emotional turmoil and display for the world sorrowful tears over whatever unfortunate event comprises the tragedy of the moment.
Aw, you are sad that some people died and that some other people are suffering. Well, welcome to reality, America! Face up to it, behave like a responsible adult rather than a sniveling adolescent, show some grit and deal with the problems like we used to do, by raising the necessary revenue and then setting to work to craft unprecedented solutions. If we do not do this, we will deserve the derisive description, or worse, the embarrassing epitaph, of America as “a nation of wusses.”