Americans have grown accustomed to talking about this nation as the world’s superpower. We glory in the notion that we are the top dog in the international pack. It’s a very dangerous conceit.

A list of the empires that thought they ruled the world should be enough to make the warning clear: the Persian, Greek and Roman empires were all humiliated when they stood astride large portions of the earth. The Chinese, Spanish, French and Germans all once thought they were the center of the earth. And not so long ago “the sun never set[] on the British Empire.” The Ottoman Turks were heir to a large portion of the old Roman Empire but they were destroyed, not unlike the Roman, from both inside and out.

Being top gun means being everyone’s target. It can be lonely and dangerous at the top.

We Americans like to celebrate ourselves as if our stature were somehow automatic and too many of us like to pit our virtues against any effort to improve, as if virtue exists outside the will to weed our flaws and improve our strengths.

This celebration of ourselves seems patriotic until it becomes obvious that we have been hiding our mistakes, covering our sins, and protecting ourselves from needed housecleaning. Like the corporations that become resistant to change, and the countries that allow politicians to entrench themselves as two bit dictators, countries that resist self-criticism and self-improvement are doomed to failure and destruction.

Basking in our sense of glory we are defending what we call American interests the world over, and fighting two wars against enemies that replicate themselves across the world. We have poured billions into defense against the last tactic of the terrorists. Like the French Maginot line after World War I that the Germans simply bypassed in 1939, we spend billions on airline security despite evidence that much smaller expenditures could give us virtually as much security and despite evidence that there are much more likely threats to more vulnerable facilities that remain unprotected. We are still fighting the last attack instead of thinking strategically about the next. We are providing the public with the mirage of security for political PR rather than actually protecting the public from much more realistic dangers. Self-congratulations and politicians who govern by pollsters are dangerous.

We comfort ourselves in anti-immigrant measures despite evidence that we have a surfeit of home-grown terrorists. Worse we have political movements that are bound and determined to undermine America’s ability to govern itself and thereby to protect itself.

This country is suffering from an auto-immune disease, condemning government generally as if we could defend ourselves without it, and condemning as too expensive everything but the military that might make Americans safer. This country is unprepared for emergencies.

I find myself censoring the details, not wanting to put it out there, but people should begin demanding meetings with safety services officials and with the political leadership of our states and communities and start asking questions about what they are doing to deal with different kinds of possible attacks – chemical, biological, water, utilities, radioactive, the list goes on. I think you would be horrified. But we must begin to demand, not that government spend less, but that government protect us, not by assuming that we are invincible, but by taking the steps necessary to prevent real catastrophe.

Self-congratulation is a path to humiliation, defeat and destruction. I’m tired of self-congratulations and want honest self-criticism and constructive change – the only safe path to protect ourselves and our children.

This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 19, 2010.

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