This past Saturday I went to go see the excellent new IMAX film on the Mars Rover expeditions at the National Air and Space Museum.
These Mars Rover missions represent the very best of America: teamwork, ingenuity, the quest for knowledge, and the willingness to dream. The film does a good job of showing how the success of the mission was dependent upon the contributions of thousands of people working together – not the result of isolated individual brilliance. The way that the film showed this was very inspirational: many little kids will be inspired to become scientists and engineers by this movie.
The movie made me reflect on something that is perhaps missing from our vision of homeland security today: an aspiration toward national greatness, one that can serve as a source of inspiration for America’s next generation.
In his speech in 1899 on “The Strenuous Life”, Theodore Roosevelt described national greatness as something that could be won “through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor.” And he noted in a 1910 speech that the “main source of national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation.” The idea of national greatness has since come to be identified with many of Roosevelt’s bolder initiatives – the building of the Panama Canal, or the world tour of the Great White Fleet – and has been invoked by Presidents throughout the 20th century when justifying bold new initiatives, such as space exploration.
The firefighters and police officers of New York City displayed the finest type of national greatness on September 11th, 2001 in their selfless response to the WTC attacks. But over the past few years, as homeland security has emerged, it’s started to become a routinized, bureaucratic function – and something that is largely disconnected from the individual lives of American citizens.
Are there ways to connect homeland security to a vision of national greatness? Or should we see it as a practical necessity, and focus instead on strengthening other initiatives and activities that enhance this vision?
I think we can do both. We can enhance the sense of national purpose in the homeland security mission by doing two things:
- Connecting homeland security more closely to peoples’ daily lives, going beyond simplistic ad campaigns and encouraging leaders in communities around the country – mayors, ministers, business leaders, teachers – to help instill an ethos of preparedness into peoples’ lives.
- Setting difficult “stretch” goals for enhanced security and preparedness, such as nationally interoperable communications, or a new generation of detection technologies, or a well-oiled emergency response system, and constantly talk about them in terms of national purpose.
And we can ensure that we do not diminish our other sources of national greatness by fighting to see that budget decisions are not driven solely by short-term necessity, but continue to recognize the value of science and discovery. The Washington Post reported on Sunday that NASA’s funding could be cut drastically in next week’s budget submission. If we cut things like space exploration, Pell Grants, and scientific research in favor of the practical expediencies of today, then we undermine our future in favor of short-term uncertainty. We need to do everything in our power to protect ourselves from the threat of terrorism – but figure do so in a way that does not unduly harm activities that promote a positive and exciting vision for our future as a nation.
Theodore Roosevelt said this best, in a speech at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1903. In the speech, he compares the experiences of ancient Athens and Rome. The Athenians built a society that promoted national greatness, but found themselves vulnerable to neighboring empires:
In consequence, the Greek world, for all its wonderful brilliancy and the extraordinary artistic, literary, and philosophical development which has made all mankind its debtors for the ages, was yet wholly unable to withstand a formidable foreign foe, save spasmodically. As soon as powerful, permanent empires arose on its outskirts, the Greek states in the neighborhood of such empires fell under their sway. National power and greatness were completely sacrificed to local liberty.
By contrast, Rome placed more emphasis on security, and expanded its realm over the course of centuries. But Rome’s focus on empire ultimately led it down a path that diminished its inherent greatness:
All other cities and countries were subject to Rome. In consequence this great and masterful race of warriors, rulers, road-builders, and administrators stamped their indelible impress upon all the after life of our race, and yet let an over-centralization eat out the vitals of their empire until it became an empty shell; so that when the barbarians came they destroyed only what had already become worthless to the world.
The United States needs to navigate a path, however difficult that might be, between the Athenian and Roman experiences – protecting itself against external threats while still investing in the hopes and dreams that make it worth protecting. This will not be easy in world where we face dire threats to our survival, but it is a vision toward which we need to constantly strive.