THE LATE 1990s already seem like a kind of a dream, a moment when many people thought we had run out of Big Problems. Our greatest task, as touted by Bill Clinton, was to "build a bridge to the 21st century," presumably because there was nothing too interesting between here and there, and because that bridge would link us to a bright and shining future.
Instead, our Golden Gate construction is only part finished, and the footbridge we've managed to erect has led us to a seriously scary place. Whereas in the '90s some worried about whether worrying was obsolete, now we have real, immediate issues that terrify us: War, Peace, Democracy, Totalitarianism, Terrorism, Jobs, Morality.
These issues are charged by Fear. Culturally, we Americans are an apocalyptic people. Our country was founded by millenarians who came here to build God's city on the hill, while waiting for the End Times. We are so steeped in millennial thinking that it's become second nature. In the mainstream, our leaders tout a kind of exceptionalism that posits that America is the world's moral leaderthe lone and strongest force for good against evil. The pious say we are building God's kingdom on Earth, as the Bible instructs, though these ideas are oftenthough less oftenexpressed in secular terms.
But even our alternative culture is suffused with grandiose millennial ideas. The concept of the New Age is predicated on the idea that the world is about to experience a radical rebirth, an end to old institutions and a flowering of knowledge that will help us fulfill human potential. Since Renaissance times, there has been a fascination with the idea that this knowledge is already known, but hidden, merely waiting for the right time to re-emerge. The 17th-century philosopher Sir Francis Bacon called it the "Great Instauration," a time of radical renewal.
BUT OUR EXPERIENCE is that apocalypses, often predicted, rarely happen (the last one wiped out the dinosaurs). Wars, disasters, and holocausts do. But we're still waiting nervously for the Big One, especially Cold War kids suckled on nuclear nightmares.
And so we walk through the world, traumatized into a kind of timidity. Like walking through a minefield. Since 9/11, many of us have shared a kind of post-traumatic-stress sense that everything around us is about to breakor explode.
Granted, overexaggerating danger is often done for political effect: To predict a monetary, military, or Medicare meltdown mobilizes millennial militias. And it doesn't mean that we don't have extremely serious problems to fix.
But are we really so fragile?
The terrorism of 9/11 was horrific, and the collateral damage extensive. Thousands died, whole industries tanked, our leaders reacted and overreacted. But it wasn't the end of America. Nor civilization. It's a terrible wound, but a wound only.
Former U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks recently told an interviewer that we were essentially one terrorist incident away from unraveling the Constitution. Certainly, our rights are being eroded dramatically, but is our republic so delicate that it cannot sustain another blow? Franks' point was that people are afraid and that, after another mass-casualty event, fearful people will surrender their rights for the safety of military rule. But the notion that our institutions are so fragile is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
If We the People overreact in fear, we do damage the terrorists could only pray for. But even if we do go too far, it's good to remember that our republic is durable. It is filled with people who will fight to make things right again. The first Patriot Act was an outrage; its successor would be even worse. But there is hope: People have been mobilized to protect civil liberties. And even some of the original Patriot Act's authors have begun to think they went too far. Their second thoughts are part of our strength, and hope.
And then there is the current hysteria on the political right over gay marriage. With a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer overturning a Texas sodomy law and the recent Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling saying that it's OK for same-sex couples to get married, conservative Chicken Littles worry that the entire institution of marriage and family will come crashing down. Not only do we have to be concerned about Osama bin Laden, the courts have become a kind of terrorist cell to cultural conservatives. It's all predicated on fear: that our sacred institutions are tottering, that we're about to become a nation of pagan polygamists.
Realistically, these court rulings and others will change marriage as we know it, but slowly. Culturally, it's already changed; the law is just catching up to reality. But predictions of the complete collapse of marriage are belied by the religious traditions of the majority of Americans and the deep foundations that have been laid in the culture and the psyche. Not to mention that marriage is big business: Estimates put the money spent on weddings each year at between $40 billion and $70 billion.
TREATING AMERICA and our culture as fragile will only make things worse, by weakening what is already strong, by causing us to have to continually take corrective steps once we've realized we've overreacted. Franklin D. Roosevelt was right about having nothing to fear but fear itself.
Let others worry about the apocalypse. We've got our strong hands full with reality.