Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 11, 2012

Why are Americans so scared?

Filed under: International HLS — by Dan OConnor on December 11, 2012

Recently my wife and daughter went on a school/church trip to Kampala, Uganda.  They spent two weeks working in and around an AIDS orphanage and a small village.

The trip is part of a recurring program that has a variety of humanitarian, educational, and spiritual missions. It often shocks the team, typically a dozen or so 16-18 year olds, into stark awareness of how life is lived elsewhere, and what it looks like.

On this particular trip, they worked in a village than had never seen Caucasians, ever.  The kids on the team, almost all girls, were mauled — not in a malicious way, but purely a curious one as the children from the village wanted to touch their hair and pink cheeks.

One day the kids went to visit an older woman.

She was taken aback, thinking they were… well, ghostly.


It was after this visit that some real learning took place.

The woman had no income and lived by selling goat milk.  She was upset on the day of the visit because someone had stolen her goats.

Nevertheless, she felt compelled to give a gift to the visitors, as is their custom.

She did not want the kids to enter her home for a variety of reasons, but she returned from her shelter with a small sandwich style bag full of peanuts.  This was her food and she felt compelled to share it.


In Kampala, girls are relatively worthless.  Girls are considered trade bait and commodities.   A 12 year old girl has generally only two outcomes in Uganda: traded for a cow or sold for sex.   Mothers purposely distance themselves from affection because this is the course life takes.

The orphanage where my wife and daughter worked was overwhelmingly filled with girls who were discarded…no longer useful for trade or sex.  Imagine having no value at 13 years of age.

Towards the end of the second week, there was a question and answer panel set up by a seminary in Uganda.  The seminary students were African and had what I would call a binary understanding of the world and a qualified “if, then” thinking.

Here are some of the questions they asked the American visitors:

“Why did the Americans help Muslims in Yugoslavia and not Syria?”

“Why does your President say he is a Christian but allows Cops (Coptic Christians in Egypt) to be persecuted?

“You are a superpower, why do you pick and choose who you provide humanitarian aid to?”

“How can you be the richest nation in the world and have so much debt?”

“You are America, why are you so scared?”

My wife said they expected simply questions about America but not questions like this, in a place where electricity is on 4 hours a day and poverty and death are universal.

They did their best to answer the questions and while not contentious, the discussion did create tension.  The questions spurned a secondary discussion amongst the American kids.

They felt like there was a purposeful hypocrisy in our politics and felt like our affluence had less influence than our character.

Bright, wide eyed American kids, conducting foreign policy.  Perhaps this is our real responsibility in the world.  Not necessarily being so quick to drop money or food but being more consistent in our portrayal of character and consistency.

This being a homeland security blog, these people who live in mud huts and metal sheds, and who live simple, simple lives want to know why America does what it does.

Homeland security is monumentally bigger than money, policy, and security.  It is as much an idea as it is a function.  Our security and place in this world are directly affected by what we present, how we present it, and whether it’s authentic.

The world is full, literally and figuratively, of places like this that pose the question: why does America do what it does?

Perhaps if we were to become more attuned to our reputation and more consistent in our behavior, our kids and our citizens won’t struggle the next time they find themselves in a conversation that starts, “We love America and thank you, but why do you….”



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Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 11, 2012 @ 4:42 am

Dan, Thanks. A mentor offered, “The unrealistic expectations that others have of America are a great burden and our best hope.”

Many years ago a Japanese antagonist said to me, “I don’t expect Russia or China to behave any better, I do expect more of you.” (While he was scowling at me, I think he had all of us in mind.)

We have always been a composite of fear and courage, greed and generosity, doubt and hope. But even as we have approached the apogee of wealth and power it seems as if Americans’ expectations of each other have collapsed. Elite smugness and Know-Nothing anger collude to compel us into mutually disdainful division.

Consistency would help. But I think your title question gets closer to the fundamental problem. Too many are afraid. Too many are worried about what we are losing. Too many are trying to blame someone else for the loss.

Nations and people and sports-teams sometimes lose, even whole seasons, even whole decades. But at the core of the American experience has been an ability to move beyond these losses (think Civil War or Depression or Jim Crow) with hope, compassion, and commitment. I would argue it has been our happy ability to shed the past and enthusiastically embrace uncertain opportunity that has earned the admiration of Ugandans and many more.

When we, despite all our hypocrisy and failures, accept the opportunity to start-again, start-anew we are acting in the best American tradition. This is the source of our strength and what makes us the last best hope of earth.

Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just–a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

December 11, 2012 @ 8:07 am

Our nation’s leaders fail because they lack the courage to stand before their convictions. When there are those leaders who claim that America is an exceptional nation despite the failing education and health standards, despite a crumbling physical infrastructure and insufficient digital infrastructure, despite its massive deficit, no wonder the rest of the world laughs.

Again I point to Brian Jenkins’ book “Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?” and his great discussion on how Americans have a unique doomsday perspective that has clouded our perceptions and judgment. It would be nice to convince Americans that they don’t have to live in fear, that they don’t need a military force that outnumbers the rest of the world’s military combined, but it appears to be something deep within our culture.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

December 11, 2012 @ 9:10 am

I completely agree. Expectations are targets over the rainbow or targets on our backs, so to speak. I may be out on a limb here, but I think the fear you aptly amplify and its roots lie in the doubt we have in ourselves, our Nation and our Leaders.

I think history will show that we have always been a bit contrarian in terms of authority and leadership. When we begin to hold all things in contempt we become contemptuous. To a certain degree I think we’ve chosen to forget our past and the intricacies it provides. In many instances, the idea of America should not have worked but the ability to embrace uncertainty and look forward moved us through some significantly difficult times.

Our history is a wonderful story and should be told more often. It is riddled with failure and abhorrence but it also one of triumph, perseverance, and idealism.

We may be at a zenith of national disharmony. Or, we may not and look at what has been accomplished in the face of great adversity. And it seems ironic that we sound the clarion for accountability of our leadership but perhaps don’t wish to be held accountable.

“Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country.” Stephen Decatur may have simply been making a toast at an event, but removing even the slightest jingoism of the tone, the statement has merit, especially today. We are capable of great things if we choose to do them.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 11, 2012 @ 9:53 am

Thanks DAN for the post and those who commented including DAN!
My church youth group in my youth had periodic interfaces with young people in Pike County KY and that interface also an eyeopening experience. No need to travel to Uganda.
For those who have not flown over Eastern KY in the last 4-5 decades pictures of no-man’s land in WWI come to mind. Exploitation by the powers that be with open collusion by the politicians. That same formula now haunts the USA as many realize the levers of power have been permanentlyl seized short of revolution. tn

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 11, 2012 @ 9:59 am

Lincoln’s formula of “whether government from the people, by the people and for the people” has long been answered. Gerrymandering alone and the power of small STATE US Senators ensure that the answer is a devastating retort to Lincoln even in a season when a superb film reminds of how Lincoln had a vision sometimes beyond the ken of others.

And DAN unfortuantely,many politicians have no convictions with the result that they stand for little except incumbency.

And the MSM once guardians of liberty and freedom now
focused almost exclusively on the bottom line. Schools of Journalism and English now swallowed by Schools of Communications.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

December 11, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

I am often surprised by my personal contradiction of having no hope for politicians and idealistically naïve enough to think we can do better. Most days I hold Congress in utter contempt and then wonder if I would be any more or less effective. Then in that self-inquiry I wonder why would I want to. I find the whole apparatus insidious but not surprising. It is an obsequious battle and all together obnoxious as well.

Am I isolated by this conundrum or from others who feel the same way? The idea of America is as much myth, shaped by Frank Capra and John Steinbeck as it is a reality with Marines at Iwo Jima and Astronauts landing on the moon.

America is unkempt, active, and a perpetual display of trying to maintain a balance or equilibrium between our rhetoric and reality. How naïve we were to assume we could outlast and then defeat Britain? Or were we? If Washington does not escape Long Island that night what happens? It is hubristic and hypocritical with Jefferson’s lifting of Locke’s ideas into the Declaration of Independence all the while owning and purchasing slaves. And yet, his words and ideas endure. Where would we be without Madison’s paternal influence on the Constitution, words that today are fought over, quoted and misquoted and constantly under attack?

All of what makes us “us” is present today. The battles over civil rights, marriage rights, human rights, and individual rights are constantly waged and some days we are winners and other losers.

Does that mean our leaders are a reflection of us or are we a reflection of them?

Is the very idea of America cast in our ideals or our industry? Are we a lucky band of misfits that had isolation, invention, innovation, and natural resources at the right time or the worlds cast offs who banded together to make this land the city on the hill? We are very quick to forget our past unless of course there’s a storyline. We are also very quick to forgive and forget, unless it was too unforgivable and can never be forgotten.

I think Phil nailed it in his first sentence; “The unrealistic expectations that others have of America are a great burden and our best hope.” It is a tumultuous idea, riddled with incongruity and consequence. I often try to weigh my nationalism against the data… are we special or just next in line? I favor special. But to get a little “sappy” or poignant, I see the United States of America much like I do my mom… completely imperfect but still my mom, unequivocally loved but acutely aware of her foibles. That is America.

It’s complicated much like a kaleidoscope appears to be but most of the time it’s something pretty cool to see. We have work to do and there is accountability to be had, but I still see us as special and not just the next in line. Hence my contradiction of contempt and idealism.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 11, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

Well DAN your members of Congress will be happy to have a heart to heart after your check for $25,000 has cleared.

There has always been corruption and conflicts of interest. Given human personalities twill always be so. What was always of great interest to me is that the Founders understood this fact. Some of them corrupt and conflicted but hoped for better.

Several institutions have failed American besides politicians. RESEARCH Universities equal not independent research but applied research for someone who pays the bills, often the military/industrial complex. The Legal Profession with its twisting of the right of all to representation in their defense when accused of a crime into being a hired gun for whomever willing and can pay.
Perhaps altrusim can be found from time to time but definitely in short supply.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Am I vulnerable or am I threatened? Does it make a difference?

December 13, 2012 @ 12:12 am

[…] Tuesday Dan O’Connor asked, “Why are Americans so scared?” Well, if you’re predisposed to fretting there’s plenty of encouragement in the Global […]

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