Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The sky is falling -- or is it?

Guest post by G. Scott Hulsey

Mr. Hulsey is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and resides in Atlanta, Georgia. 

(Ed. note: After a bit of a hiatus, we're back with more great posts from guest contributors affiliated with the Truman Project. If you missed Michael Chase's recent piece on China's military modernization, go here. Stay tuned for more. -- MJWS)


America is on the brink of collapse. Or so one would think, listening to today's pundits. According to the shrill voices comprising today's media, the United States is devolving into a socialist, God-hating country that is ruled by an alien imposter and hurtling toward its demise faster than grandma facing a Medicare "death panel." The media, of course, are merely echoing – and many times amplifying – the rhetoric of politicians who make these and other assertions to garner votes and power.

Call me crazy, but I'm not buying it. Having just returned from a year abroad in Bosnia, I am prepared to say that our country works pretty darn well. While Bosnians must frequently traverse single lane dirt roads, we in the U.S. have an extensive highway system, over which we can drive seamlessly from coast to coast. Whereas criminal justice in Bosnia is often slow or non-existent, we in the U.S. have a system that, by and large, puts the bad guys in jail and sets the innocent free. Public corruption, the norm in Bosnia, remains the exception in the U.S. In Bosnia, government office seemed inaccessible except to a limited few. Here, by contrast, anyone can run for office, irrespective of her fealty to party and officials. Bosnia is very poor and career opportunities are limited, while the U.S. remains the wealthiest nation in the world. Indeed, many of my acquaintances in Bosnia dreamed wistfully that their country would become a U.S. state or protectorate.

Many of the problems Bosnia faces are to be expected, as the country was embroiled in a brutal war only 15 years ago, a war waged among its three largest ethnic populations: Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. More than a hundred thousand died out of a population of four million, and the country's infrastructure and institutions were decimated. In fairness, the country has made substantial progress from where it was in 1996. Still, most of Bosnia's ills could be ameliorated through a better-functioning government. Ethnicity continues to divide government like a chasm, however, rendering it hopelessly dysfunctional.

Interestingly, many Bosnians seemed willing to forgive their former enemies and move forward in peace. Politicians, however, continue to play upon these divisions to retain power. Milorad Dodik, who leads the Serbian part of the country, routinely chastises the country's Bosniak sector for limiting the country's progress and issues calls for secession. Such expressions of ethnic division, not unique to Dodik, continually tear out the stitches in Bosnia’s wounds. A government so divided cannot accomplish even the most routine of functions.

One of my major takeaways from my Bosnian experience is that words matter. To be more precise, political speech has consequences. As I began to write this article, I could not have anticipated recent events, in which a United States representative was shot and several others in close proximity killed by a deranged gunman. Whether or not this crazed individual was influenced by today's political rhetoric, it is clear that political hyperbole is making it increasingly difficult for Americans, and the politicians who represent them, to find common ground.

Some people will claim that the problems facing America today are fundamental and that fiery language is needed to grab the attention of our citizens. While I acknowledge that America faces a host of difficult issues, we must remember that our country has successfully conquered slavery, Hitler, and the Great Depression, to name just a few monumental challenges. The problem today is that our political discourse not only is out of proportion to our problems, but, troublingly, bears little resemblance to the problems we face.

Inflammatory rhetoric used to smear the political opposition has little to do with solving issues and everything to do with playing upon societal divisions. In this regard, we are becoming more and more like the politicians of Bosnia, who are willing to incite societal division for the sake of power. And if we're not careful, our talk may begin to create real problems where none exist.

The reality is, America still works – and it works well. We can conquer the problems we face if we unite to resolve them, as we have always done. The current public discourse neither reflects the state of our country nor advances solutions. The sky is not falling. Let's stop listening to those who tell us otherwise.

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