The United States of Spinelessness
George Washington would be turning in his grave if he could see Donald Trump today.
Donald Trump is a sniveling coward.
Extremist Islamic terrorists have managed to kill exactly 19 people in the United States this year, but they’ve frightened Trump so much that he wants to ban all Muslims from entering the country, and monitor the ones already here.
He might as well go hide under his bed while he’s at it: That would be more likely to enhance his personal safety than a ban on Muslim visitors, and would have the added virtue of getting him off my television screen.
But before we start congratulating ourselves for being braver and more enlightened than Donald Trump, remember that this is a low bar. Even former Vice President Dick Cheney, a man not known for his liberal sentiments, thinks Trump is flirting with fascism. And though most Americans haven’t quite reached Trump’s level of hysteria, we’re pretty close: An astonishing 36 percent of Americans are frightened enough to support Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims, while 61 percent think the United States should reduce the risk of terrorism by turning away Syrian refugees. Some 49 percent of Americans say they fear that they or a loved one will become a victim of terrorism, and a whopping 83 percent of registered voters say they believe a terrorist attack in the United States will cause “large casualties” in the near future.
Perhaps we should rename our country the United States of Spinelessness. After all, terrorist attacks represent a miniscule threat to Americans, despite the publicity they generate. We don’t have to hand terrorists a victory by letting them terrify us: remember, in a typical year, more Americans are killed by cows than by Islamic terror attacks, and twice as many Americans are killed by their toasters. In the last 45 years, a total of about 4,000 Americans have been killed by Islamic terrorists in attacks. Almost two-thirds of those deaths were due to the 9/11 attacks, but even factoring in 9/11, that’s an average of well under 100 American terrorism-related deaths per year, worldwide.
If we want to be paranoid, we’d do better to be paranoid about ordinary homicides. In 2014, nearly 800 times more Americans were killed by ordinary, non-ideological murderers than by Islamic terrorists — and according to the FBI, roughly 15 percent of those homicide victims were killed by members of their own families. (Hey, Donald: Maybe we should ban families?)
We weren’t always a nation of selfish, irrational cowards. Granted, America has had its moments of selfishness and irrationality, and some were rather long moments: Slavery stands out as a particularly egregious example. But we haven’t always been frightened little mice.
Love them or loathe them, our forebears knew that there are many things more important than personal safety. The 115 courageous English colonists who settled at Roanoke in 1587 vanished without a trace; most are assumed to have died of starvation or disease, or to have been killed or absorbed by Native American tribes. The English pilgrims who sought religious freedom in Massachusetts in 1620 fared little better than the Roanoke colonists: 45 of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower didn’t survive their first winter. Later in the century, wars with the Wampanoag Indians led to a death rate among the New England settlers that was seven times higher than the American death rate in World War II.
But the settlers kept coming, despite the dangers: For hundreds of thousands of 17th and early-18th-century Europeans, the promise of economic opportunity, religious liberty, and freedom from Europe’s stifling class hierarchies was worth almost any risk.
In 1776, America gained its independence from Britain because — once again — American colonists were willing to risk their safety to defend their values. Re-read the Declaration of Independence, all the way to the end: In its closing lines, its signatories declare, “for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” That wasn’t just a rhetorical flourish: Had the rebellious colonists lost their war against the British, the signers of that declaration would have been executed as traitors. The War of Independence itself — presented in American schools as if victory was inevitable — must have seemed, at the time, a desperate venture; the scrappy colonists lacked both an army and a navy, yet they took on Europe’s reigning military power.
Foolish? Perhaps. But cowardly? No.
For a time, America truly was the Land of the Brave. During the Revolutionary War, as shoeless soldiers left bloody prints in the snow at Valley Forge, George Washington, then commander in chief of the Continental Army, still found time to remind his generals to treat enemies humanely and respect the religious beliefs of others: “I hope and trust, that the brave Men who have voluntarily engaged in this Expedition, [will] … avoid all Disrespect to or Contempt” towards those of other religions, for “While we are contending for our own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of Men, and to him only in this Case, they are answerable.”
During the Civil War, hundreds of thousands died in a conflict over whether humans should be treated as property. But even in the midst of the bloodshed, President Abraham Lincoln — who himself had but a short time left to live — promulgated America’s first laws of war: “Men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account to be moral beings, responsible to one another and to God…. Military necessity does not admit of cruelty.”
The American West was settled by pioneers willing to cross seemingly impenetrable mountain ranges and start their lives anew in a strange land, equipped only with what they could carry in a covered wagon. In World War I, U.S. soldiers fought to defend America’s allies, and many thousands died in the mud of the European trenches. In World War II, Americans fought against Nazism and Fascism, and more than 400,000 Americans lost their lives. Today, we call them “The Greatest Generation.” I have a feeling our descendants will dub us “The Wimpiest Generation.”
Terrorism is sickening and tragic, and I pray that my children will grow up in a safer world. But I also hope that if they find themselves contemplating the words of American politicians, they’ll remember Patrick Henry rather than Donald Trump when they think about the threat of terrorism: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” asked Henry in 1775. “Forbid it, Almighty God!”
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Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.