Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Love of Nations

All day long, Americans have been asking, "what will the reaction be in the UK?" In the aftermath of Spain's apparent capitulation to terrorists, the question is, I think, a fair one. I have been considering a different question today: "What will the reaction be in America?"

Generally, issues of love do not come into international politics. Political decisions are made on the basis of interest of the nation, and for the most part this is as it should be (any democratic government that does not rule in the interest of its constituents betrays them and sacrifices its own legitimacy). I would argue, however, that America has an irrational love of two countries that transcends interest: England and Canada.

Naturally, we have interests in those two countries, as well as an affinity for them because of cultural similarity and shared democratic principles. Our love for them moves beyond these interests and affinity, though. In many ways, Americans feel in the gut as if attacks on these two countries are oblique attacks on us -- or, to extend the metaphor, attacks on our lovers.

Consider other countries -- Australia, for example. Americans tend to think Australia is pretty neat. They speak English, they have a democracy, and apparently have some fetish for shrimp and barbeques. We would not like an attack on Australia, not one bit. If someone attacked Australia and they called on us for help, we would probably help out, but first our political leaders would have to make a case for it. Americans would tsk and say "what a shame," but our first reaction would be to send condolances or aid, not risk American blood. The same is true for many other strategic allies -- Japan, Korea, Israel, Taiwan, France (yes, even France), and any of the NATO allies.

England and Canada, for some reason, are different. We love them. Our affinity to these two countries is irrational (though I do not mean irrational in the negative sense) and transcends interests. Some might argue that we defend Canada because we have an interest in maintaining a long and essentially undefended border. Of course, we have that interest, but why do we not also have the same affinity for Mexico? If an openly-hostile government were to border us on the south, that line would be just as difficult to defend. I submit that even if the border with Canada were six inches long and guarded by a hair-trigger tactical nuclear weapon, we would still not hesitate to defend them.

Lovers squabble, it is true. Nevertheless, even if my wife and I were to be in the middle of a bitter dispute, if someone attacked her I would not make a decision to defend her; I just would do it. She would never wonder if I would defend her; she would depend on it as one depends on gravity.

Americans feel instantly the gut-churn of emotion as if a lover were attacked. When Spain was bombed, I think it fair to say that we sympathized in a more detached way. Even when terrorists essentially slaughtered a school full of children in Russia, we were shocked by the barbarity and inhumanity, but felt distant from the event. The bombings in London, with fewer fatalities, feel much closer to home. Americans will demand action, at least in the short term. Abroad, they will demand an even more aggressive posture toward terrorism, out of a desire for vengeance as much as defense. At home, disputes over the Patriot Act will be glossed over. The national debate over Gitmo will be replaced by criticisms of coddling terrorists. The Union Jack will suddenly appear in unexpected places. When a lover is harmed, you don't debate -- you react.

In the psychology of the nation, this is the first serious attack on American soil since 9/11. Sure, technically attacks on embassies abroad are attacks on American soil, but Americans don't feel them in the same way. Though the minds of Americans may understand that the attacks really took place abroad, our hearts feel the attacks at home.

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