Returning to America after a recent trip to Costa Rica, I could practically smell the fear in the Phoenix airport. Welcome to the Terrified States of America, folks. Kindly remove almost every item of clothing and check all common sense at the gate.
Actually, U.S. Customs and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel weren’t nearly that pleasant. Orders were barked at us travelers from several directions as we all hurried to catch connecting domestic flights, succeeding far better at adding more anxiety to an already-stressful situation than in clarifying just how much dignity we should expect to publicly surrender in the ensuing few minutes while being forced to impersonate two-legged cattle. The sheer absurdity of the “security” drama was epitomized by a disabled older lady (obviously a prime suspect for blowing up a plane mid-flight) who had to set aside her walking stick (coulda been a cane bomb, I guess) and then awkwardly limp her way through the gauntlet. (Thankfully, one of the TSA employees was at least kind enough to assist her.)
Such is life for Americans these days as we have been told incessantly since 9/11 by George W. Bush and his fellow jackals that a citizen’s utmost patriotic duty, other than shopping, is to be very, very afraid. Always. Because terrorists are, you know, everywhere, just itching to kill us. (Except at the malls, I guess.)
A thought emerged as I negotiated the metal detectors, conveyor belts and plastic trays, trying to retain everything I’d come with, including my composure: A week earlier, I’d essentially waltzed into Costa Rica upon arrival at Juan Santamaria International Airport near the capital city, San Jose. Re-entering the U.S. felt like being sandblasted with a paranoia machine. Yet, if memory served, I vaguely recalled the U.S. spends, on average, more on defense than Costa Rica; if true, then, of the two, shouldn’t the latter be the nation most concerned about being caught with its pantalones down at the borders by scary bad guys with evil intentions? Realizing I might have the numbers reversed, I double-checked:
Projected total military spending for U.S. fiscal year 2006: approximately $643,000,000,000, plus a debt of another $384,000,000,000 for veterans’ benefits and interest accrued on military outlays, equating to about $3472 per American.
Reported total military spending for Costa Rica in fiscal year 2004 (the last year for which I could find figures): $64,200,000, working out to approximately $16 per Costa Rican.
And it’s the U.S. by a nose.
So, here’s a crazy notion, but perhaps the secret to a nation’s security lies not in its defense spending or its efficacy in humiliating travelers, but more in how its policies affect others on the planet who seek simply to live their lives without fear of having them cut short by insane imperialists bent on stealing as many of their resources as (in)humanly possible.
Nah, that’s not it, says Dubya, oblivious water boy for the nutcase neocons who really run the show, as he obediently insists that, really, “terrorists hate us for our freedoms,” thereby requiring America to shovel tons of cash to weapons manufacturers to thwart suicide bombers who target us solely because our liberties are, by their nature, provocative.
Hmm. I guess it follows, then, that terrorists would hate others for their freedoms, too, meaning it’s only a matter of time before these ubiquitous evil-doers overrun a place like, oh, say, Costa Rica, since they could hardly find an easier target than this rustic Central American country with no standing military (abolished in 1949 by its constitution), and terrorize folks throughout the undefended campo till the exploding cows come home. (If these guys can make deadly canes, bovine bombs can’t be far behind.)
Unless, of course, U.S. and Costa Rica freedoms aren’t comparable. Let’s take a look:
Perhaps Bush is speaking of the kind of freedom only good health care can offer. Funny, but even though the U.S. Constitution guarantees that our government will “promote the general Welfare,” which a reasonable person just might interpret as including the populace’s physical and mental well-being, well over 40 million Americans had better stay well, for they have no health insurance. Every Costa Rican, per that country’s constitution, has full medical coverage. So I guess that’s not the freedom Dubya claims terrorists loathe.
OK, then, what about freedom of the press? Maybe Bush means we Americans must forever fear a 9/11-like repeat because U.S. journalists are just so damn unfettered, thereby driving media-worshiping terrorists bonkers. But -- what’s this? According to the 2005 Reporters Without Borders world press freedom rankings, Costa Rica’s reporters are freer to inform than their counterparts in Italy, Macedonia (Macedonia?) and, yep, the good ol’ U.S. of A., so that must not be it, either.
Maybe it’s our free elections that get the bad guys’ pet goat. Except, in America, there’s proof aplenty our major elections are now rigged whereas Costa Rica’s are regarded as legit. Can’t be that one, then.
How about freedom from ignorance? The National Institute for Literacy reports that, per results of the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey, between 89 and 94 million American adults (around half of the U.S. adult population) “lack a sufficient foundation of basic [literacy] skills to function successfully in our society.” Costa Rica's literacy rate is widely reported to be greater than 90 percent.
Freedom from violence? Stats show homicide rates in the U.S. and Costa Rica are just about, um, dead even. Freedom from death? Other than notable exceptions (I speak of the undead like Dick Cheney), when ya gotta go, ya gotta go, no matter where you live (before you die, that is). The Population Reference Bureau reports that, in 2004, estimated U.S. life expectancy at birth was 77 years; Costa Rica’s, 79.
Just these few examples expose as hogwash Bush’s contention the U.S. is a prime terrorism target because of its (disappearing) liberties. But then, you already knew that because you think critically and don’t let fear rule your life. In other words, you’re not a typical American. (That’s a good thing.)
Because if you were, you’d be, essentially, scared of everything, no matter how far off the ground your big-ass truck sat. (General formula: the higher the tires, the deeper the fear.) Next to obsessive consumerism and mindless face-stuffing, blustering (false) bravado is the Great American Pastime, transparently covering what truly underpins this nation’s psyche: illogical, unexamined, corrosive fear.
Fear of: owning less useless crap than one’s neighbors; being smote by God for anything from failing to praise Jesus to challenging authority (though supporting an immoral, unprovoked war is OK); being perceived as weak, wrong, in the minority, or unpatriotic; polysyllabic speech; any new album by Jennifer Lopez (some fears are founded); dark pigmentation; the latest bogeyman (bird flu, anyone?); ring around the collar; whatever. Oh, and yes, the fear of being victimized by a terrorist attack, which, according to my own calculations on which I spent at least four seconds, is statistically much less likely to occur than a CAT scan revealing anything inside Dubya's skull, demonstrating just how remote this possibility is.
The fear card, then, has always been the neocons’ winning ace, unfailingly resulting in Pavlovian Americans folding their hands (and brains). However, in light of polls showing practically the only ones left in America supporting the neocons’ insane Iraq imbroglio these days are mushrooms (the slower varieties) and Cheney’s mad scientist creator, the vile veep, in a desperate effort to keep the fear fanned, grimly lectures that questioning the war is “reprehensible,” reminding me of “prehensile,” reminding me of tales, reminding me of what immoral monkey-brained maniacs like Mr. Sneer and His Pet Chimp (with apologies to primates everywhere) have forever flung our way.
A final thought: Some may ask, “All right, Mr. Smarty Pants: If anti-terrorism precautions you so flippantly dismiss are useless, then why haven’t we been hit since 9/11?”
For the record, I prefer “Mr. Intelligent Pants,” but I shall, nonetheless, take the high road and respond thusly: I really don’t know the answer, Mr. Stupid Shorts, but perhaps 9/11’s real perpetrators (or enablers) have been busy elsewhere, maybe in some oil-laden country somewhere killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of people with depleted uranium shells, cluster bombs and white phosphorus while also proudly spreading that brand spankin’ (and slappin’ and punchin’ and kickin’ and beatin’) new American value for The New American Century: torture.
Just a thought.
At any rate, one can only hope the dwindling support for the war will translate into a measurable reduction of the fear that cripples this country; we’ll see. I’m visiting Costa Rica again in three months and upon my re-entry into America, I’ll give the Phoenix airport another smell test.
However, I won’t be holding my breath that, after a whiff, I won’t be holding my nose.
Mark Drolette is a political satirist/commentator who lives in Sacramento, California. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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