America's response to the awful events of Sept. 11 has highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of the nation. Ironically, some of its greatest strengths are also potentially great weaknesses.
Let's consider a few examples.
The economy: an Achilles' heel
America's economic system has been a great strength for most of its history. Except for a few hiccups—most notably the Great Depression of the 1930s—the free- enterprise system has served America well, making it the world's most successful economy. But its very success and sophistication also make it vulnerable. The economy is built on many things, chief among them confidence.
Confidence was waning even before Sept. 11. The dot-com bubble had burst, and the stock market was wobbling even before George W. Bush entered the White House. The warning signs of impending trouble were already there.
All Sept. 11 did was accelerate America's economic decline. Telecommunications meltdowns and corporate scandals added to U.S. woes, compounded by a general lack of confidence around the world. Even in the United States, opinion polls that had shown two thirds believing America was winning the war on terrorism back in January showed this was halved to one third by late June.
Uncertain about America's future, by mid-July the euro had nearly overtaken the dollar in value, a significant psychological boost that showed increased confidence in Europe's future even as the world doubted America's.
"Out of many, one," the translation of the Latin motto on America's seal and currency, has been a constant reminder of how a country that started out as a loose association of 13 former British colonies became the world's most powerful nation, composed of peoples from every nation.
Here is another great strength that is suddenly an incurable weakness.
Much has been written about Sept. 11, but one fact is certain: America's immigration policies contributed to the problem.
Before 1965 immigrants to the United States came primarily from Europe. Accepting immigrants from the Old World had given America its reputation as a melting pot, a tolerant nation able to successfully absorb peoples from different cultures. However, changes to the immigration laws in 1965 led to a massive influx of peoples from the so-called third world, making assimilation much more challenging.
Religious and cultural differences have meant that many of these people have not been absorbed. The melting pot today looks more like a salad plate, with different cultures living separately, rarely coming into direct contact with each other. Many feel left out and blame the United States for their ills. In such an environment, many Americans are in fact virulently anti-American. Some, perhaps a sizable number, are willing to resort to violence to change things.
Religious tolerance can backfire
Freedom of religion is a complicating factor here. Again, once a great strength, this now has a negative side. Two centuries ago Americans were overwhelmingly Protestant Christians. Each denomination had its own interpretation of the Bible, but they all generally believed the Bible was the Word of God and that everyone should live by it. Separation of church and state meant the church was to be protected from state interference. "No establishment of religion" meant that no one church should have a special, privileged position as in England.
Today the freedoms cherished by our ancestors are being abused. A very different (and, as practiced by some, a highly intolerant) religion, Islam, was a major contributing factor to the events of Sept. 11. Taking advantage of America's freedom of religion, radical religious leaders are free to recruit followers, some to be suicide bombers.
The result? Government leaders openly warn that it's only a matter of time before another deadly wave of killers blows itself up in an effort to bring down the United States. GN