American fatalism

Mark Salter Contributor
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David Brooks has the same dispiriting influence on my irregular attempts to write political commentary as William Trevor, the incomparable short story writer, has on my even less frequent attempts to write fiction.  Why bother doing something when someone else does it so much better than I can ever hope to.

I find fatalism an attractive quality of mind in some people, relying, as it often does, on the virtues of courage and honesty.  For me, however, and I suspect for a great many others, it can induce despair.

Mr. Brooks wrote another thoughtfully provocative column the other week, which, to be fair to him, I don’t think he intended as a brief for fatalism as much as a lament that Americans aren’t as uncomplainingly self-reliant as they used to be.  But his definition of self-reliance as the product of a sensible appreciation for the imperfection of all government institutions struck me as a spirited call for Americans to be more fatalistic. He wishes Americans were more fatalistic about government’s inability to prevent every potential terrorist bomber from boarding a commercial airliner, and ready to take care of business, should we find ourselves traveling in the company of one, without whining about government’s failure to spare us the inconvenience.

It’s hard to resist such a bracing appeal to your own resourcefulness and good sense, and I caught myself nodding in agreement with much of his argument.

Conservatives shouldn’t be disappointed by government’s incompetence.  We should expect it.  Maybe we have made gods of technological advances, and surrendered realism to our faith in their providence.  And, perhaps, Americans who lived through World War Two weren’t as outspoken and panicky about their government’s more calamitous failures.  Calls for Secretary Napolitano to be fired for her infelicitous observation that “the system worked” were a political overreaction.  And, I found flattering the implied suggestion I might still have the guts and a hard enough right cross to dispatch a threat posed by someone fumbling with something he retrieved from his underwear.

However, I think it expects too much of American political culture to think it should possess greater reserves of tolerance and stoicism than most of our political leaders exhibit.  I don’t expect President Obama will urge us, a la Churchill, to “brace ourselves to our duty.”

Despite widespread popular skepticism of government and politicians, American politics is often, as Samuel Johnson said of second marriages, “the triumph of hope over experience.”  The President campaigned on a message of hope and change.  His most liberal supporters interpreted the hope he offered as the transformation of America’s mostly conservative political culture into a thoroughly liberal one.  But the voters who decided the election, independents and the less intensely partisan, are not liberals and didn’t vote in the hope of ushering in a liberal ascendancy.  They simply hoped he would lead a more competent and responsive government than they believed President Bush had, and than, it still hurts to say, they believed Senator McCain would.

To nurse that hope they were willing to overlook his record as a conventionally liberal legislator, and trust in his intelligence, political talents and competent persona to make government work better.  Now they are angry his government failed a test of its ability to keep them safe, reviving fears, fair or not, that liberals are overly scrupulous about protecting civil liberties and multi-cultural sensitivities when it comes to fighting bad guys.

It’s probably unrealistic to expect them to be reconciled to the notion that in an open society it’s impossible to prevent every atrocity by people who lack compassion for the innocent or a strong instinct for self-preservation.  No one campaigned for their vote by confessing their impotence at vanquishing such unpleasant realities.  And while it might not be possible for government to prevent every attack, it appears it could have prevented this one.

It’s also unrealistic to expect the opposition party not to take advantage of the public’s anxiety.  They have to campaign on a message of change this year.  Or to expect Democrats to resist blaming President Bush and Vice President Cheney, whom they hope will prove as durably useful to their campaigns in this century as Herbert Hoover was in the last one.

Lastly, it might appeal to the last shreds of this middle-aged American male’s vanity to imagine myself so endowed with the “spirit to take the initiative” I could prevent a mass murder without the assistance of my government.  But were my wife and daughters in such a circumstance, my imagination would turn grimmer.  And I would want more than inspiration from courageous citizen action.  I’d want to know why the government allowed a terrorist to keep his American visa and board an American airliner without extra screening after his worried father warned our embassy he had embraced violent extremism.  And I’d probably want someone’s head to roll in answer.

Mark Salter is the former Chief of Staff to Senator John McCain, senior advisor to his presidential campaign, and co-author of his five books.