Schieffer’s question in last night’s debate didn’t really cause the neurons to fire at all — during the debate I was busy listening to how the candidates answered the questions. But later, before hitting the sack, I did something I often do to restore my faith in Western Civilization: I watched an episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, digitally remastered on DVD.
My subconscious must have been twitching a bit, because I managed to choose the last episode, Who Speaks for Earth? Sagan wrapped up his late-1970’s series by calling our attention to the juxtaposition between the best and worst of human instincts. The best, represented by peaceful scientific endeavor to understand our world. The worst, represented by the deadly standoff between superpowers which held the world hostage with tens of thousands of individual nuclear warheads, many set to “launch on warning.”
The episode, and indeed the series, was a triumph of scientific rationalism and a call to action. Today, however, they feel more like an elegy for the Enlightenment. It’s hard to watch the series without feeling like we’ve lost something essential in the last decade. But that’s a subject for another time.
As I think about Schieffer’s question, it’s hard to accept the premise. When, precisely, were we safe? Certainly not during the forty-five years of the Cold War, with its policies of mutually assured destruction and hair-trigger missile launch windows. Not during the Korean War, as we played a game of chicken with the Chinese and by proxy, the Russians. Not during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and not during Vietnam. There’s a case to be made that the United States has been safer since 1990 than the previous forty-five years.
Certainly, today we face enemies of a new and different type. I disagree with those who say that analyzing the causes of radical Islamic insurgency is “defeatist” or “irrelevant”, but again that’s a topic for another time. It’s enough here to acknowledge the threat as a real one, and acknowledge that we’re not as safe as we can and should be. But I can’t help but feel that we’ve developed a dangerous myopia in this country since 9/11/2001, where suddenly the threats we face are of epic and unprecedented proportions. So quickly do we forget the much greater, much broader, and much more final threat we lived under for several generations.
Remembering the breadth and depth of that historical threat — the superpower nuclear standoff, mutually assured destruction, overkill, and nuclear winter — is important to help us bring today’s threat back into perspective. We’ve faced deadly threats before, without losing our heads, without destroying civil liberties (except for episodes like McCarthy’s reign of terror), and we can do it again.
And so, my answer to Bob Schieffer is this: we are just as unsafe as we have been for the last 50 years. We need to strive to become as safe as it seemed we would be in those halcyon days of 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, and everything seemed possible.