How would Americans react to terror?

Posted: Apr 26, 2005 12:00 AM

During the worst of the Palestinian terror attacks on Israelis, I visited Israel and made a documentary ("Israel in a Time of Terror") about how Israelis regarded and lived with the murdering of their fellow men, women and children.

 I will forever regard the Israelis of that period as achieving a rare level of national greatness: They were able to go on living normal lives, returning the next day to the same cafes bombed the day before, riding on the same bus line that the day before had its passengers blown up, blinded, maimed and brain damaged.

 While making the documentary, I often wondered how we Americans would react if such terror came to our restaurants, malls and buses.

 I think the evidence is mixed. I wish I could be entirely optimistic that we would react as befits a nation whose national anthem describes itself as "The home of the brave," but there is too much evidence that suggests a less than strong response.

 I fear that unless a change in the American psyche and character takes place, car bombs as in Baghdad or terror as in Israel could unravel our society.


 Many Americans have become so afraid of danger, not to mention dying, that they will panic rather than go on with life, which is the only effective response to terror.

 Panic was the dominant reaction when the Unabomber threatened Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The city of Los Angeles shut down the airport after the then-mayor announced that while Angelenos were free to make their own decision as to whether to fly, he, the mayor would not fly. As a radio talk-show host based in Los Angeles, I recall condemning his remarks as being the opposite of leadership. He should have rushed to LAX and flown on any regularly scheduled flight.

 Panic has been induced by the fear of lawsuits. American courage has been profoundly compromised by frivolous lawsuits and the trial lawyers who bring them to court. Lawyers, sympathetic judges and the political party the trial lawyers govern would alone guarantee a cowardly reaction to domestic terror. You can be certain that most restaurants, stores, malls or bus lines bombed by terrorists would be sued. How many businesses would stay open after terror attacks, knowing that they could be sued for not providing enough security?

 Panic has been induced by trivial health threats. Most Americans really believe they will die if they breathe in the vicinity of someone smoking. A people afraid of secondhand smoke, a health threat so trivial that "lie" is not too strong a word to describe the dangers ascribed to it, is less likely to bravely confront terror. A country that raises its children to fear dodgeball, see-saws and monkey bars, and which bans peanut butter from schools where five children are highly allergic to peanuts, is not raising a generation prepared to confront terror.

 Fear of dying has increased as many of America's citizens and elite institutions have become increasingly irreligious, even anti-religious. One major consequence of secularism is fear of dying. After all, with no God and no religion, this life is all there is. It is no wonder that the secular are far more attracted to pacifism than the religious and far more likely than religious Americans to believe that American troops who have died liberating Iraq have wasted their lives.

 On the positive side, when Americans are attacked, they tend to get angry -- as we saw after Pearl Harbor and after 9-11 -- and concentrate their attention on destroying the enemy. As we did in Afghanistan and Iraq, we will muster the courage to fight terrorists here. At the same time, just as with the war in Iraq, there will be considerable opposition to that fight. The dominant news media, the universities and other elites would declare this war "racial profiling" (as if religious conviction constituted race). But Americans (including individual Muslims, though not much of their leadership) would largely unite to uncover and destroy Islamic terrorist cells here.

 That is why, in the final analysis, I continue to have faith in the American people  -- we did elect George W. Bush, after all, while the Iraq war was at its nadir. Still, the damage done to the American character by lawsuits, health scares and secularism has been considerable, so optimism has to be tempered. We therefore have a lot of work to do -- or we can defeat ourselves without any terror attacks against us.