Too many Americans oppose and prevent serious efforts to head off problems until they become a crisis. They think we can postpone dealing with global warming, abuses in criminal trials, predictable shortages of fuel, food or water, threats to our health, and the backlash from our military adventures in the Middle East, among others.
It could be called denial. Or maybe it’s just a part of a can-do attitude, the attitude that built America. It worked for us for years, so why start worrying now? But that can also be like re-fighting the last war. The French built the Maginot Line to prevent the Germans from repeating their World War I invasion. It was useless in World War II. The world changes. That can-do spirit can invite disaster if it leads people away from grappling with the reality of the present.
Until the 1960s, we overwhelmed everything in our path – France, England, Indians, Mexico, Spain, and the Axis Powers. But if it made us arrogant, history taught us the wrong lesson.
We’re no longer an unchallenged superpower. We cannot always shoot our way out of everything – except in movies or cartoons. Military advances spawn counter strategies. Our powerful arms are not as good against guerillas, terrorists, and suicide bombers. The world has changed. In this world, we need the maturity that some once great powers have already learned – that they can no longer beat up anyone they choose, and can’t unilaterally make the rules. Nostalgia is not a strategy.
Science too shows us new risks. There are more of us now, using more electricity, oil, gas, and nuclear power, not just the fireplaces, windmills and water wheels that once dotted the landscape. We have to respect the impact of numbers – now that more people use more fuel we affect each other much more, collectivity heat the globe, not just ourselves, and must act on global warming now before our world exacts maximum revenge.
There are also new risks to law. Guantanamo brought us face to face with torture, no matter what some government officials called it. Tyrants around the globe have used and are using torture to terrify their people. Some Americans didn’t worry because we did it to other people. When Americans were tortured or killed by drones, some here didn’t worry because it was always someone else.
But the crucial fact about our law is that it is cumulative. What happened on Guantanamo is now precedent that has changed the meaning of the Bill of Rights, so it may not help us when we need it. Law is not a changeless block of granite, or Rock of Gibraltar. Law has to be nurtured, cared for and protected. We wanted to be tough on terrorists. But the damage we did may have been to ourselves.
Failing to deal with serious problems now can be suicidal for ourselves, our children, our country, and our civilization. A can-do spirit is great, but it needs to be applied to solving problems, not ignoring them. The physical environment and our legal environment are our patrimony. They will last only if we take care of them.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 28, 2013.