Jean Barker

Why are Americans Paranoid?

2013-04-05 07:54

Jean Barker

I often used to get annoyed at Americans for being so obsessively nervous of international attacks. But I grew up in South Africa. Since 1994 at least, I've lived in a country that nobody really wants to bomb.
I'm not saying South Africa is safe from attack because it's perfect, or because people love us. It's probably just everybody knows that we're more of a danger to one another than anyone is to us. Hell, if anybody wanted to topple South Africa, all they'd need to do is give us a national holiday and some free booze, and we'd probably all kill each other on the roads. No problem, china.

Americans, unlike most South Africans, are so cosseted and overprotected in day to day life that you'd think none of them were adults. Signs warn that fires are hot, that coffee is not actually full of vitamins, that the air may be polluted, that gas is flammable and that swimming pools present drowning hazards. Toilets come with covers, trollies with wipes, and almost everybody stops at traffic lights. "Dangerous" parts of New York seemed pretty tame to me - compared to Hillbrow, anyhow.

The rest of the world must seem terrifying by comparison to America. Except that Americans, who only do their fighting in other countries, live in terror of someone else doing their fighting in America. I understood this fear when North Korea (or "Evil Korea" as one friend calls it) issued a new threat - of nuclear war against the USA. I was driving around a lot, so I listened to the radio.

Complicated spat

North Korea and the US had been getting on better until about a year ago. Now things are bad again. Behind all this is a very complicated international sandbox spat too long to summarise in which both countries behaved abysmally over the course of a few hundred years.

This is of course exactly the kind of history that makes both parties and their citizens believe they're in the right, and fight and fight.

While nobody seems to believe (despite a ridiculous new song, insane YouTube videos of New York in flames, and plenty of noise from Kim Jong-Un), that North Korea is actually capable of successfully bombing Washington, his latest vague but threatening outburst is another in a series of threats that have rapidly become more strident. Is North Korea's new leadership keen to prove their muscle? And, more importantly, Americans wonder: who would side with them if they did attack?

America has made a few enemies in its quest for oil and financial leadership of the globe. I don't think many people in the Middle East entirely appreciate the wars waged on false grounds, or the USA's blind support of Israel, or America's so called "immorality". African countries that have been the dumping grounds for toxic trash aren't all fond of the western power's politics. While Africa tends to pointlessly blame "the west" for the continent's problems, that doesn't make the anger less real.

But for a moment, logic didn't matter, as I drove along a road in America with my groceries in the back of my car. All I could think about was: Am I safe? Will I die? Will it hurt a lot?

Understanding how Americans think

My momentary dark fantasy of being bombed to death by North Korea helped me understand America's obsession with its military. I couldn't think of a safe place to run if America is attacked. America is too big to run away from. And because there's nowhere to run, I couldn't help hoping that the American military has plenty of defences in place to blow up any missiles before they hit me. I couldn't help being nervous that they wouldn't catch the threat in time. I can't help starting to understand how Americans think.

Just now, the fireworks at Disneyland went off. Boom Boom Boom. And I got kind of spooked until I looked out the window and realised what they were.

With 9/11, Americans got pushed into a succession of pointless wars and turned into a hotbed of right wing conspiracy by a couple of hung-over extremists armed with box cutters. All it takes is one good reason, a history of violence, and a stupid enough president to start a war. And this...well this should make everyone paranoid.

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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