What this country needs is a good enemy
Where is Osama bin Laden when we need him? Don’t get me wrong; in no way do I wish death and destruction on our country. But as I listen to the increasingly vitriolic and even seditious rhetoric coming from the political right, I can’t help thinking that we need a threatening external enemy to help us cohere as a nation -- a more looming threat than the almost vanished Al Qaeda leader or even his recently arrested alleged minion from Denver.
Oh please, don’t be so shocked. From time immemorial, collections of people have leveraged the fear of an enemy to keep their clans, groups and, later, nations from coming undone. Sallust, the Roman historian, believed that metus hostilis, the fear of enemies, promoted social unity, and that its absence fostered internal discord. (He thought the destruction of Carthage, Rome’s longtime rival, created a vacuum that led to internal strife and contributed to the decline of Rome.)
It’s not pretty, but it’s true. Both individual and collective identities are forged as much by declaring what and who you’re against as what and who you are for. Although we certainly don’t wish for violence on the group we identify with, there are times when we can acknowledge the social value of circling the wagons. In a 1963 essay, novelist Philip Roth wrote that, for Jews, “the cry ‘Watch out for the goyim!’ at times seems more the expression of an unconscious wish than of a warning: Oh that they were out there, so that we could come together here!” Likewise, historian and political scientist Clinton Rossiter once wrote, “There is nothing like an enemy, or simply a neighbor seen as unpleasantly different in political values and social arrangements, to speed a nation along the course of self-identification or put it back on course whenever it strays.”
And boy, have we ever strayed. Think back to 9/11 and how extraordinarily unified the United States was for that moment. In predictable fashion, the vast majority of Americans rallied around President George W. Bush.
It was a noticeable change. Before 9/11, the country was deeply polarized (though not as deeply as we are now), and, as important, we were in the midst of an existential crisis. The fall of the Soviet Union had sent policy wonks grasping for new ways to view the world and politicians casting about for new enemies. So geared were we to see ourselves in contra- distinction with the U.S.S.R., we had to wonder who we were without it. As John Updike’s character, Rabbit Angstrom, exclaimed, “Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?”
Of course, our national identity is also internally driven by a belief in the ideals of democracy, liberty, equality and individualism. These are the elements of an American creed that generations of immigrants have adopted and assimilated, and generations of the native-born have revered. But as Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington contended, their loftiness notwithstanding, “these principles are a fragile basis for national unity.”
Compared with other modern nations whose identities are rooted in ethnicity or history, ours is decidedly more ephemeral and difficult to grasp. Throughout our history, crises -- particularly wars -- have played a crucial role in making this country’s disparate parts cohere. During World War II, shared patriotism and “one for all, all for one” bravura made many groups -- including Chinese Americans and Mexican Americans -- feel like more integral parts of America. It was during WWII (in the military) that African Americans first saw the beginnings of integration, a process that only gained momentum in the postwar years.
But, of course, WWII and other wars also made enemies out of the U.S. citizens who had ethnic or other links with the people with whom we were at war. The most egregious example of that was the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. And that points to the problem of relying on enemies for national cohesion. It’s messy.
While the Cold War helped focus our national interests in domestic as well as foreign affairs (the 1956 federal legislation that led to the construction of a modern national highway system was called the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act), anti-communism also ate at us internally. More recently, Huntington’s search for an external enemy to unify us led him to try to identify Latin American immigrants as evil culprits (they threatened “to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures and two languages”). He didn’t think the loose-knit and hidden nature of Al Qaeda, our real enemy, was vast enough to make us huddle together and make common cause.
With 9/11 less than a decade past, we’ve returned to our corners to fight it out among ourselves with a vengeance. (About that, at least, Huntington was right.) Despite the fact that we have dangerous global enemies, the members of the disgruntled right seem content to find their primary enemies domestically. Though angry political dissent is an American tradition, the vitriol is reaching new levels. Last week, a columnist for a conservative website fantasized happily about a coup d’etat toppling President Obama.
In the meantime, we all but ignored Bin Laden’s most recent tape, and attention to the arrest and indictment of Afghan Denverite Najibullah Zazi on WMD conspiracy charges has been surprisingly low-key. Such blase responses to our true enemies set us up for self-destruction, until we once again find out the hard way that we’re all Americans.