Back in the 1960s, before Britney and Ludicris were even born, Frank Zappa was the most outrageous act in popular music. Zappa delighted in lampooning the complacency of middle-class America, most memorably in his a capella song, “It Can’t Happen Here.” The message of the song was that the worst nightmares of white suburbia — anarchy, drugs, interracial dating — really could happen here. Like Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 satirical novel of the same name, the song was a warning that no matter how safe we may think we are, we are not immune to the shocks befalling people in other places.
It seems this is a lesson that we are in constant danger of forgetting — even though we all remember 9-11, and even though the war in Iraq provides unpleasant surprises for U.S. forces on a weekly basis. Only two months into the new year, Sunni insurgents have (1) used new tactics to down a quarter of all the helicopters lost to hostile fire since the occupation began; (2) stepped up employment of explosively-formed penetrators that can punch through most armor; and (3) started combining lethal gas with high explosives in their suicide attacks. Each of these developments appears to have caught U.S. commanders and intelligence analysts off guard.
So of course the whole nation will be caught off guard when terrorists again mount an attack within U.S. borders. Even though logic and experience tell us such an attack is coming, emotionally we have been lulled by five years of peace on the home-front into believing it isn’t really going to happen. That is why the Bush Administration sells its Iraq strategy on the implied guarantee that as long as we keep fighting there, we will be safe here. That is why critics in the Democratic Party feel free to attack the war effort as if there is no connection between what they say and whether terrorists are emboldened by the prospect of American retreat. Both parties, unconsciously, have fallen into the trap of believing that terrorism can be contained “over there.”
Complacency about the terrorist threat is also a factor in the recent stock-market rise, the real-estate boom in downtown Washington and the lack of concern in political circles over the porosity of the southern border. It may even explain, perversely enough, why we don’t object to the continuous flow of public commentary on how terrorists could attack public schools, river levees, food courts, chemical plants and subway tunnels. We are too detached from the possibility of those attacks actually happening to worry that such commentaries will give terrorists ideas about which targets are most lucrative.
Perhaps complacency is a trait that evolution has preserved because it makes us more efficient. Like our ability to detect strange odors, we can only sustain an energetic awareness of new stimuli such as 9-11 for a brief time before our brain begins to move on to other matters. But here’s the rub — since we do grow so complacent over time, the next big shock after a long lull can elicit a reaction just as powerful as the first time the shock was felt. If there is another 9-11 style attack in America, the stock market, downtown housing prices, foot traffic in food courts and Democratic Party standing in the polls will all collapse overnight. And if you think $600 billion per year is a lot to spend on national defense, hold onto your wallet — because once the electorate realizes 9-11 wasn’t an anomaly, it will support whatever level of funding is needed to get rid of the threat for good.
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