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Lowering the Bar Puts American Society at Risk

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
PARIS -- Stupidity and obesity are now matters of U.S. national security. And it's only the tip of a more significant iceberg that threatens America from within.

An organization called Mission: Readiness comprised of more than 500 retired generals and military leaders routinely publishes reports -- including one just last month -- detailing how a significant number of American kids these days are either too fat to be effective fighters or too low-scoring in math, literacy and problem-solving to pass the basic military enlistment exam.

Granted, the way modern warfare is heading, future recruits might spend their days sitting at a desk and operating a joystick, directing missile fire from drones. Lockheed Martin and Teledyne Scientific & Imaging have developed a rifle system for the U.S. Department of Defense called "EXACTO" that allows amateurs to hit targets at extreme ranges, effectively democratizing sniper credentials. It's not merely a tool that makes expert snipers better; EXACTO could make it possible for a soldier to focus on brushing the desert sand off his Hostess Ding Dongs while racking up some "American Sniper"-style kill shots. Sounds like the U.S. military has a good jump on the potentially depressing future of warfare, using innovative technology to compensate for a generation of recruits too fat to fight.

Meanwhile, many commentators missed the point when Russian President Vladimir Putin recently called for the reinstitution of mandatory minimum fitness standards for Russian schoolkids by 2016. Britain's Telegraph newspaper called it "the revival of the Soviet-era physical evaluation programme." Apparently physical fitness standards promote communism. Maybe we can just declare all standards "communist" and do away with them completely.

I recall the similar "ParticipACTION" program while growing up in Canada. Intended to promote physical fitness and healthy living, the program taught me the importance of goal-setting, the value of uncompromising standards, and the relationship between effort and reward. Last I checked, those tenets represented the very foundation of excellence in a free society.

Conventional thinking in America these days dictates that if enough people aren't going to step up to attain high standards, then the standards will just have to get over themselves. People such as the Mission: Readiness generals who speak out in favor of raising the bar are often accused of being unrealistic. Imagine if the generation that survived the Great Depression and World War II had this mindset (or worse, if an adversary didn't).

Excuses are rampant in modern society, and any excuse will do: the bad economy, the lack of government intervention (or too much of it), the outsourcing of jobs or the depression of wages through globalization. Not to say that some of these factors aren't legitimate, but none should be accepted as valid excuses for complacency.

Demoralization is a weapon. A bummed-out citizenry is not only more vulnerable to external influence and propaganda, but also less likely to mobilize in its own interest on a day-to-day basis.

It could be argued that there are too many choices these days -- too much freedom and not enough personal accountability for individual choices. The "American dream" has gone from something that's earned to an assumed right. Any adverse consequences for bad choices are externalized. Someone or something else is always scapegoated. And when that transfer of accountability fails to satisfy, the end result is demoralization. When a citizenry experiences demoralization en masse, it becomes highly vulnerable.

Take the recent rioting in Baltimore. Rioting isn't an activity favored by rational people. It's a political tactic favored by the frustrated, impatient and hopeless. Riots appeal to the demoralized for whom the material destruction of one's community is little more than a means to an end. There's no point in arguing over whether rioters have a right to feel that way. They simply do.

Last weekend, two apparent converts to radical Islam showed up with guns outside a Prophet Muhammad cartoon exhibition in Garland, Texas, fired at a security guard and were subsequently shot to death by police. Regardless of how the two gunmen felt about the art or Islam, how disposable to do you have to consider your life in order to do something like this?

Experts are struggling to figure out ways to interrupt the self-radicalization process that some young Americans choose to undergo. It's the individual and the culture that need hardening.

In the U.S. and other free countries, the connection between choice and accountability has disintegrated and needs to be reinforced both in rhetoric and in policy. Freedom of choice doesn't mean freedom from accountability. Lack of accountability leads to the sort of demoralization that has become an insidious but growing threat to America. That's the pathway that needs to be interrupted.

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