By Peter Durantine
In the second term of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, during the waning years of the Cold War, I was aboard ship, headed out of Vladivostok, Russia, which, at the time, was under Communist rule and then called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
We sailed across the Sea of Japan to Tokyo on the Khabarovsk, a worthy rust bucket of a vessel that hauled a limited number of passengers and cargo. The Soviet ship was making her final voyage before the salvage yard took her apart; a metaphor of sorts for what would happen to the Soviet Union less than a decade later.
Amid the small group of Europeans I was traveling with was a middle-aged Austrian who during the course of our conversation one afternoon on deck spat, “Ha! You Americans think you’re free!”
He wandered away in disgust. Others in the group laughed. But his remark confused me.
I asked a German friend what the man meant, but he just shrugged. The episode stayed in my memory, fuzzy after nearly 40 years, but clear about the man’s main point, “You Americans think you’re free!”
I was left with the impression that foreigners saw something in Americans that we could not see in ourselves.
Our conversation that afternoon at sea was about my impressions of the Soviet state. I can only guess so many years later that what caused the man’s disgust was perhaps my telling him how much I appreciated living in a free and open society. Austria was a Nazi ally in World War II, and now bordered communist-controlled Eastern Europe.
At the time, debate raged about nuclear proliferation and Reagan’s deployment of new short-range weapons in Europe. The Austrian was of the same mindset as hundreds of thousands of Europeans who had marched against the weapons, arguing that more missiles would neither make Europe, nor the world, safer. Reagan believed otherwise.
Recently, the Austrian’s remark came to mind as I considered the U.S.’s response to the last four decades of war and terrorism. American policies have lacked the measured, strategic response that would have perhaps limited our impulse to react with fear, anger and violence.
Some of those reactions, particularly in the Middle East, made us not too unlike the terrorists we fight — attacking Iraq for the terrorist attacks against the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, of which Iraq played no part; torture of terrorist suspects; murder of civilians by mercenaries; errant bombing and drone strikes against terrorist targets that killed civilians in the process; and on, and on … .
Perhaps all of that was necessary. Perhaps none of it was necessary. But one theme stands out — we let fear drive our reasoning, and as such, we are captured by fear; willing to subvert freedom for the false feeling of safety when we tolerate excesses at home: from police killing black Americans, to demonizing Muslims, to permitting unfettered access to guns that has led to an epidemic of mass shootings in this country.
We harbor false beliefs that dispatching troops and drones overseas to battle enemies known and unknown will make us safe; that owning a gun, or owning many guns and joining a militia, will make us safe; that denying immigrants access to the U.S. will make us safe; that ignoring legitimate sources of information for sources that cater to our personal political views, no matter how accurate, will assure us, but it only separates us.
A result of this sorting was the election of Donald Trump, fearful were some voters of a highly qualified, competent woman to lead the nation. Now, nearly four years into his presidency, the completely unqualified Trump has left the nation sick because of his failure to address a virulent disease while he allows the basic federal functions to falter; even mail delivery is failing. This is how Third World dictators run their governments.
No nation, but particularly the United States, can survive when it’s divided by fear, which is how Trump is trying to win re-election, sowing fear with dangerous lies about his political opponents, about voting by mail, about the pandemic itself; lies that many of his supporters believe.
They are Americans, who think they’re free.
Peter Durantine is a Harrisburg-area writer. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.