Monday, October 13, 2014

Columbus Day

Some people might find it hard to believe that Columbus Day is a federal holiday in America.  You don’t hear so much about Columbus any more.  He must seem to our youth like just another explorer.  But back when I was a kid, he was celebrated – we were all very familiar with the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, the three ships he used to “sail the ocean blue.”   And I get the impression that during the earlier parts of our nation’s history, Columbus was even a bigger deal.   He, after all, was the guy who “discovered” this area for the Europeans, risking his life in the process.  And what he discovered was a land light years away from “civilization.”  It was almost like flying to a different part of the galaxy and finding a habitable planet.   America was notable, perhaps above all else, for its LACK of proximity.   Back then, to a would-be explorer, the Atlantic Ocean must have seemed like the infinite abyss.

But that was then.  Today, we refer to trans-Atlantic trips as “crossing the pond.”  It’s a new world, isn’t it?   Much smaller.   Much more interconnected.   But still scary as hell.

These days, we want to pretend that the folks across the sea are our next door neighbors.   Everyone is obsessed with two twin scourges that were born and raised in the Eastern hemisphere:  Ebola and ISIS.   Back in Columbus’s day, Americans could have ignored those scourges.  “That’s their problem, not ours,” we would have said.   President Washington certainly could relate to that attitude.  He recognized that America’s greatest asset was its geography: vast and remote.  He wanted no entangling alliances with other nations.  He just wanted the rest of the world to leave us alone to prosper.  

There are many who still hold that aspiration.  They are commonly known as isolationists.  Not surprisingly, though, they control neither major political party.   Make no mistake: the days of Columbus and Washington are over.   When Liberia has a cold, America sneezes.

It really shouldn’t be surprising that an out-of-control virus in West Africa is causing a panic in the USA.   People travel, and this virus has an incubation period of literally weeks.   Of course it would move from country to country, continent to continent, hemisphere to hemisphere.  We had been assured that some of the problems that befell Africa couldn’t or wouldn’t happen here, but how could anyone take those assurances seriously?  Was it really plausible that every staffer in every hospital could be counted on to follow “protocol” to a T?  Yeah right.  We are, after all, flawless, aren’t we? 

The best hope against Ebola should have been finding a vaccine, not figuring out a way to “contain it.”   But as was revealed today, the National Institutes of Health lost nearly a quarter of its purchasing power during the past decade because it wasn’t allowed to increase its budget.   So despite the fact that the world is only getting smaller and dangers abound in every direction, we decided to skimp on infectious-disease research.   How’s that for flawless thinking from a nation with the world’s biggest GNP?  Now we have the NIH Director proclaiming that a vaccine for Ebola would likely have been found already if only his budget had been allowed to increase with the cost of living.  I guess when it comes to taking seriously the needs of public health, we are still operating with a Columbus-era mindset.

Not so when it comes to war and peace.  Thanks to 9/11, we’ve become all too familiar with what happens when America ignores the goings on in places like Afghanistan.  We were so paranoid, in fact, that we started a war in Iraq based on bogus “intelligence.”  The result of that pointless war was a huge void, which has largely been filled by the group known simply as ISIS.  Unlike Ebola, ISIS doesn’t yet have a body count on this side of the pond.  But I can’t imagine that any of us are taking its threat lightly.  It seems like just a matter of time before  ISIS-inspired fighters get hold of some weapons and start wreaking havoc in places like Columbus, Ohio, Columbus, Georgia, or Columbus Mississippi – and that’s even assuming that they start their killings in the big cities, like Al Qaeda did.

Last week, I attended a program discussing ISIS and its threat to the homeland.  On the surface, the point of the program was that there are plenty of things we can do to protect ourselves, like developing an infrastructure composed of imams, school teachers, social workers and local police forces who are skilled in noticing the tell-tale signs of would-be terrorists and intervening in productive ways.  I take seriously the suggestions I heard that evening.   I don’t doubt that implementing them can prove invaluable in making our nation safer.   But I also left with a sense that groups like ISIS are a cancer that is spreading, one that we may never be able to eradicate altogether.  There will always be pissed -off adolescents.  There will always be crafty, pissed-off adolescents.   And there will always be crafty, pissed-off adolescents who are attracted to simplistic ideologies that offer a stark choice between the nasty status-quo and some utopian ideology.   We’ve seen teenagers like that turn into Marxists.  Or Nazis.  Or Ayn Rand-style libertarians.  And yes, we’ve seen them turn into religious fundamentalists of various stripes.  Truly, all ISIS is doing is providing a fundamentalist alternative to the alienating aspects of modern, Western life.  They’re bound to grab some of our teenagers.    And if they happen to get any of the especially crafty ones, look out.

Yes, my American friends, the world isn’t totally safe.  These threats we read about in the papers are real.   Problems in Damascus, Syria can become problems in Damascus, Maryland.  This is the new reality.   But let’s not exaggerate the trend either.   Despite all the frightening features of contemporary life, we’re still safer now than we used to be.  People still live longer lives.  And we live with more creature comforts than ever before.  So the smart money is that our species will survive these latest threats, just like we survived the Black Plague and the dangers of pioneer life.  On days like today, let’s take a page out of Christopher Columbus’s book and remember that when we combine intelligence and courage, we can defeat the dangers du jour.

Someday, I suspect, everyone will have forgotten Ebola and ISIS.  But they’ll still remember Columbus.

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