August 2, 2005

by Joe Sobran

     During the Cold War, some of the greatest believers 
in communism were anti-communists. When in 1957 the 
Soviet ruler, Nikita Khrushchev, boasted, "We will bury 
you," he was believed by many of the same Americans who 
usually insisted that communism could never work. That 
same year, the Soviets launched the first satellite into 
outer space, Sputnik I, and Americans panicked: obviously 
Soviet education and science were far superior to our 
own. We had a lot of catching up to do!

     In due course we calmed down. Communism was a shabby 
system, based on basic errors about human nature, and all 
we really had to do was wait for it to collapse. 
Sometimes I think it lasted as long as it did chiefly 
because the West believed in it. We overestimated its 
efficiency, its military power, and its popular appeal 
around the world.

     President Jimmy Carter later deprecated our 
"inordinate fear of communism." I was one of many 
conservative pundits who mocked him for this at the time, 
but he was quite right. You could hardly hate communism 
too much, but we certainly feared it too much.

     John Kennedy played on our inordinate fear when he 
warned of the nonexistent "missile gap" in 1960; it was 
enough to give him the edge he needed to win the 
presidency. His own inordinate fear led him into the Bay 
of Pigs fiasco and, worse, the Vietnam war. He also said 
we must get to the moon before the Soviets did.

     Our protracted overreaction to the Soviet threat 
should caution us against a similar overreaction to 
Islamic terrorism. The shock of September 11, often 
likened to Pearl Harbor, was more like the shock of 
Sputnik I.

     I heard the news of Sputnik at a University of 
Michigan football game; I'll never forget it. I was 
eating a hot dog with mustard and onions that chilly 
autumn day in Ann Arbor, and when the news came over the 
stadium's loudspeakers, I could feel terror sweeping 
through the huge crowd like the biting wind. We were 
doomed! Our hatred of communism was now mingled with 
dread and awe of its achievements.

     When we watched the World Trade Center turn to 
rubble that brilliant morning in 2001, the feeling came 
back. Suddenly we began toting up the terrorists' assets: 
a huge and fervent Muslim population around the world, 
possibly with secret cells of jihadists ready to strike 
in every major Western city. They had brought off the 
9/11 attacks with a few simple box cutters, but could we 
be sure they wouldn't have more-formidable weapons -- 
chemical, biological, even nuclear -- in the future? 
Might they not also have the support of evil regimes in 
Iraq and elsewhere?

     Today the enemy looks much less invincible. He has 
struck again, notably in Madrid and London, but his 
resources are clearly finite. He has enough explosives to 
wreak local havoc, and thousands of Muslims in the West 
may sympathize with him, but relatively few are actually 
prepared to offer themselves up as suicide bombers; Islam 
too has its Walter Mittys.

     President Bush reminds me more and more of President 
Kennedy. Just as Kennedy spoke of a "twilight struggle" 
to save our freedom, in which cause we would "pay any 
price, bear any burden," Bush speaks of our "resolve" 
even as fewer young Americans are enlisting for military 

     But what about the other side? Osama bin Laden can 
match Khrushchev in bold bluster; but it's highly likely 
that he has his own frustrations. Only a small fraction 
of the world's Muslims are responding to his summons to 
sacrifice and martyrdom. After a spectacular debut on the 
global stage -- his Sputnik I, you might say -- his 
movement looks pretty feeble. Some of his agents are 
being arrested and have started singing to the London 
police. Not exactly an airtight operation of iron-willed 

     We understandably began by overestimating our 
enemies again, and Bush has tried hard to sustain the 
apocalyptic note. But there comes a time when it sinks 
in, however gradually, that most of us are in no danger 
-- and never were.

     We've spent billions on everything from airport 
security to duct tape. We're still wasting other billions 
on the space program that originated in our previous 
inordinate fear.


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