02/13/2008 12:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Americans Are Such Nervous Nellies

Americans are internationally famous for being fearful -- afraid of terrorists, afraid of communists, afraid of each other. When Europeans have terrorist attacks they apprehend the perpetrators and go about their business -- they don't flip out and give up their freedoms. Americans seem willing to chuck the Bill of Rights and jettison our democracy if only Big Daddy will protect us from Bad Guys.

Our 'Defense' budget is larger than all the rest of the world combined, yet Americans are so hysterical they're willing and even eager to increase it. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars on elaborate and unworkable missile defense systems to 'protect' us against individual suicide bombers. And every few years we bomb or invade some little Third World country that doesn't have the wherewithal to get here, let alone invade us, on the grounds that they constitute a military threat. Ronald Reagan even said we should fear the tiny island of Grenada -- a country so small it would disappear if dropped in Lake Tahoe.

We're even afraid of our own people. One-fourth of all the prisoners on the planet are in American jails, 80% of them non-violent, at a cost greater than if we sent them all to college. We hide behind gated communities, on the principle that if you can't see them, they won't sneak under your bed.

One reason Americans are so easily frightened is TV. As the crime rate during the past two decades was falling in reality, on TV it was rising, and the attention given to bloody crimes on the news is still absurdly disproportionate to their importance to the average American. Especially compared to the almost total absence of attention given to the thousands of constructive and creative social actions going on all over the country.

The overwhelming dominance of crime shows and crime news on TV exists because the media have a vested interest in persuading you that the world is a dangerous place full of dangerous people, and that you'd be better off spending your time hiding behind your expensive entertainment center. The ideal viewer is agoraphobic. Fear is also good for advertisers: Anxiety sells prescription drugs, and studies show that depressed people buy more junk -- preferably online.

Another reason Americans are hysterical is that the Republican leadership has a vested interest in terrifying us. Bush and Cheney scream continually about 9/11 and terrorism for the same reason that Hitler screamed about Jews and Communists: to make people willing to give him dictatorial powers--the same powers that Bush has increasingly arrogated to himself as a 'wartime president'. A country of Nervous Nellies is a country ripe for dictatorship, which is why today we have the most authoritarian, secretive, non-accountable administration in American history--an administration that considers itself above the law.

When an army autopsy report revealed that 44 prisoners from Afghanistan and Iraq had been tortured to death, few people objected--they were, after all, foreigners, not like us. When American citizens are put on 'no-fly' lists or 'potential threat' lists because they have publicly disagreed with Bush-Cheney policies, few people object -- they are, after all, public figures, not like us. When American citizens are detained in airports, interrogated for hours, their laptops and cell phones seized, and material copied or erased, and told they have no rights, few people object -- they have, after all, funny names, not like us.'

Maybe the reason Americans are so easily frightened is because, unlike most of the rest of the world, we've never had to experience war on our own soil during the last 150 years. We haven't been bombed, invaded, occupied by a foreign power, subjected to 'pacification' and 'collateral damage'. We've been dishing it out all over the globe, but we haven't had to take it. The English, in World War II, suffered the equivalent of 9/11 on an almost daily basis, yet they didn't give up their freedoms. In fact they sacked Winston Churchill, their admired wartime leader, the minute the war was over.

We Americans were so horrified to discover we were vulnerable to terrorist attacks that we were willing to give dictatorial powers to the first mediocrity who asked for them.

When FDR became president, he said: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." It's still true.