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; Ill 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 stadiums 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 wouldnt 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 service.
But what about the other side? Osama bin Laden can match Khrushchev in bold bluster; but its highly likely that he has his own frustrations. Only a small fraction of the worlds 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 fanatics.
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.
Weve spent billions on everything from airport security to duct tape. Were still wasting other billions on the space program that originated in our previous inordinate fear.
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