The Great Problem-Solver

Early this month the respected investor Warren Buffett, reputedly the second richest man on earth, said that a nuclear attack on this country is “virtually a certainty.” Vice President Dick Cheney says more terrorist attacks are sure to come — it’s a matter of when, not if — and FBI Director Robert Mueller adds that suicide bombings here, like those afflicting Israel, are “inevitable.” We are told that another major al-Qaeda operation, of unknown but probably unpleasant nature, may be in the offing. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has added his own grim warning, more or less underlining all the others. Meanwhile, controversy rages over whether President Bush was sufficiently warned of terrorist hijackings last year but failed to take action. Maybe it wasn’t a failure to act, but a failure to imagine. Before last September, the traditional understanding (so to speak) of hijacking was the forcible diversion of a passenger plane, usually ending with the safe return of plane and passengers; hijackers might or might not escape, but it was taken for granted that, either way, they would leave the plane alive. Nobody imagined a suicide hijacking. That was the novelty that defeated all security measures. It was to terrorism what the atomic bomb was to conventional warfare: something horribly new under the sun. Since then, of course, countless new security measures have been installed to prevent the exact repetition of a unique event. We are now well protected against stupid terrorists. Anyone dumb enough to try to smuggle a pistol aboard a passenger plane is apt to get caught. The U.S. Government can foresee the past. But not the future. Our rulers are still haunted by the possibility that some terrorists may be too clever for them. They realize how vulnerable we are on many fronts, right here at home. A single nuclear incident in Manhattan — even without Hiroshima-scale fatalities — could cripple the U.S. economy. The worst of it is that the U.S. Government has indeed ignored many warnings and is still doing so. The most basic has nothing to do with the specific practical schemes of enemies; wise people have been warning for years against the interventionist policies that have made the United States, as Buffett observes, the most hated country on earth. If so, the people who are supposed to be protecting us are guilty of criminal responsibility in continuing policies that put our lives in danger. Our government has succeeded in bringing the wars of the Middle East to our own shores. Symptomatic — and highly symbolic — are the fights between Jewish and Arab students on American college campuses. It’s also symptomatic, and symbolic, that these fights are not about the interests of ordinary Americans, who don’t participate in them. There is no patriotic student group telling these people to take their quarrels elsewhere and leave us out. In fact we’re now told that it’s unpatriotic to want our country to mind its own business. The average American has been taught, and devoutly believes, that it’s natural for his country to “run the planet,” in the words of one hawkish neoconservative magazine. Fighting terrorism is just one aspect of running a planet. But how can the same government that provokes terrorism — a protean thing that takes many forms — also hope to defeat it? How can a problem be solved by the same institution that creates it? Americans no longer have a rational philosophy of government; they merely assume that government is a general pragmatic problem-solver. Yet most of the problems it’s supposed to “solve” — the national debt, the annual Federal deficit, the Social Security mess, economic turbulence, high taxes, failing schools, international crises — are of its own making. In a similar way, Americans were told that World War I was “the war to end all wars.” Its chief result was World War II, whose chief result was the Cold War. Some enormous mental block prevents people from seeing the simple truth that a problem can’t be its own solution. Don’t tell the proud parents, but a child born today is born $100,000 in debt — his tax share of the debt his rulers have accumulated. Of course he may not live to pay it off, since those rulers have also made foreigners want to kill him. In the meantime, he will attend public schools where he will learn that the government is his friend, protector, and benefactor. If he somehow manages to figure out that this is baneful nonsense, he will be told that he is unpatriotic.

Joe Sobran [send him mail] is a nationally syndicated columnist. He also edits SOBRAN’S, a monthly newsletter of his essays and columns.

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