Contemplating the situation of America at this point leads some Americans to conclude that the United States has entered into a descending glide path that will parallel that of other fallen empires.
There's evidence to support such a contention. But to some degree today's problems, while they may seem enormous, are peanuts. If they seem worse "compared to when I was a kid," well, this is a nonsensical comparison: The historical, economic and social contexts were different, even if one goes back only to the regime of George W. Bush, not to mention Grover Cleveland as I do.
What are the allegedly cataclysmic problems that America faces now?
The first is getting a grip on gun control. How do we keep crazed gun nuts from taking assault weapons and shooting down our first-graders and their caregivers in our schools? How do we keep drug dealers from waging their quarrels on our streets with deadly force, eliminating a significant portion of a generation of young American males in the process? How do we get a grip on gun control when an important segment of America's population is buffaloed by a gun industry that promotes its sales through members of our state and national legislatures that it has bought, and through twitchy spokespersons who preach to us that our personal safety depends on possession of assault weapons that we buy from the companies which finance the twitchy spokespersons?
This is a problem, but it is a problem that has been with America since its Founding Fathers first scribbled the Second Amendment in the 18th century. One of my great-uncles had a daughter who in the 1940s was killed by a drunken driver. It was a challenge to the family to keep him from getting his gun, going to the courthouse and shooting the driver, thus putting himself in prison for who knows how long.
I do think that the time is right to achieve progress on gun control, working from the total horror and disgust with which Americans view the slaughter of the first-graders in Newtown, Conn., and that we should seek that piece of progress toward a modern society now, working from President Barack Obama's proposals. At the same time, it remains the case that, as I always calculated when I lived in Beirut, Lebanon, and Mogadishu, Somalia, the chances of me and a bullet ending up in the same place at the same time are tiny.
The second problem that could be considered as a threat to the future of America is the hammerlock that the American military and its enablers, the military-industrial complex, has on the country's finances. They have achieved this fangs-in-the-jugular-vein relationship with the nation's revenues through an appeal to our fears. We went straight from World War II, with the threat from Germany and Japan having been real, to world communism, in the case of the Soviet Union clearly and probably deliberately overestimated, to post-9/11 Islam, which we have now made into a worse threat than it actually was through our widespread attention to it and our inattention to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian problem, their primary problem with us. What did al-Qaida amount to prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq? What multiple of that does it amount to 10 years later?
Still not much in the overall scale of things. If we left them alone what would they do to us? If we left them and the other foreign Muslims alone and made an honest, good-faith effort to achieve a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, what would be their attitude toward us? Would they still pose a threat to us at home, the only place where it really counts, particularly if we took the money saved by dropping all of our expensive overseas military adventures and beefed up our own infrastructure, including human infrastructure such as education? It is truly appalling to see not only China but European and Asian mini-states streaking ahead of us in that area, for want of our devoting resources to these fundamental functions.
Some would identify America's "real" problem at this point as its representatives. We do not have democracy, majority rule, in the Senate, for example. Because of senators' childish attachment to process, rather than to addressing the country's problems, the need for 60 votes, as opposed to 51 votes, to escape the self-imposed procedure of a filibuster and to act on proposed legislation has paralyzed the place. Most of the members are primarily interested in keeping their seats and slurping up the benefits and so they allow themselves to be controlled by the special interests which finance their electoral campaigns and beef up the funds they retire with when they suspend their campaigns if they think they are going to lose.
We are seeing now that when Congress is faced with real problems, such as the debt limit or sequestration, which could damage the economy, their paralysis is enhanced. The problem is that different members are owned by different, conflicting financial interests and few of them have the guts or integrity to say simply that they are going to act in the best interests of America, as opposed to Goldman Sachs or Smith & Wesson.
Now, hypothesize that they don't deal with the debt limit, or the automatic budget cuts that come with sequestration. Will that be the most awful thing that has ever happened to America over the past 237 years since independence? George Washington couldn't pay his troops. Several 19th century presidents issued funny money to save our credit. America had 25 percent unemployment during the Great Depression and survived. That isn't to say that the economic woes Americans have suffered in the wake of the currently receding recession are not serious. But no one would argue that the ship of state was close to sinking, or that the country's continued existence was in question.
So, don't worry so much. This, too, shall pass. Some of these people are clowns and many of them are unpatriotically greedy. But we will survive. The sun will come out tomorrow.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1976).