Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The pioneer spirit

David Brooks once again puts his finger on the cultural pulse (read his column in this week’s Nugget, page 2).
Brooks examines the nation’s reaction to the foiled attempt to set off explosives on a transatlantic flight over Christmas.

Brooks notes that we’ve plowed a lot of money and technology into preventing terrorist attacks, and it seems to have worked. But we want perfection and that just ain’t possible.

... the system is bound to fail sometimes.... Brooks writes.
Resilient societies have a levelheaded understanding of the risks inherent in this kind of warfare.
“But, of course, this is not how the country has reacted over the past week. There have been outraged calls for Secretary Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security to resign, as if changing the leader of the bureaucracy would fix the flaws inherent in the bureaucracy. There have been demands for systemic reform — for more protocols, more layers and more review systems.
In a mature nation, President Barack Obama could go on TV and say, “Listen, we’re doing the best we can, but some terrorists are bound to get through.” But this is apparently a country that must be spoken to in childish ways. The original line out of the White House was that the system worked. Don’t worry, little Johnny.
When that didn’t work the official line went to the other extreme. “I consider that totally unacceptable,” Obama said.
I’m really mad, Johnny. But don’t worry, I’ll make it all better.
Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration has to be seen doing something, so it added another layer to its stage play, “Security Theater” — more baggage regulations, more in-flight restrictions.
At some point, it’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t the centralized system that stopped terrorism in this instance. As with the shoe bomber, as with the plane that went down in Shanksville, PA., it was decentralized citizen action. The plot was foiled by nonexpert civilians who had the advantage of the concrete information right in front of them — and the spirit to take the initiative.
That last bit is a critical point. I’ve just started rereading Allan W. Eckert’s “That Dark and Bloody River,” a chronicle of the half century of savage warfare that won the Ohio Valley for the new United States.

The people who struggled to make homes in that watershed lived lives of constant insecurity. Just making a living was dangerous enough — you might fell a tree on yourself, get kicked in the head by a horse or succumb to the myriad diseases for which there was nothing but folk remedies.

Add to that the militant hostility of the region’s native peoples — some of the most formidable wilderness fighters ever bred, fighting to preserve their way of life. Any day could bring terror down on a settler or a hunter and his family.

The government wasn’t much help. It was weak, distant and distracted by other things, like trying to win independence from Great Britain and then forge some kind of union. Formal military expeditions against the Ohio tribes tended to end in farce or disaster.

It was independent ranging companies led by the likes of Captain Samuel Brady or Simon Kenton that secured the frontier. That and countless unheralded individual acts of courage and fortitude.

Brooks, wordsmith that he is, calls it “decentralized citizen action.” Those frontiersmen would have likely called it gumption. Gumption might not get you through, but you sure as hell weren’t going to make it without it.

The world is a hell of a lot more complex than it was in the 1780s, and maybe that complexity — and a life of heretofore unimaginable wealth, convenience and ease — has leached a lot of the gumption out of the American bloodline. But not all of it.

There’s still plenty of room for “nonexpert civilians” with “the spirit to take the initiative” to make good things happen and to stop bad things from happening.

We see it a lot in Sisters, actually. We built our own elementary school classrooms, we help our neighbors, we band together to weather storms both physical and economic.

That’s gratifying evidence that the pioneer spirit is still alive. Let’s hope we never lose it.

Jim Cornelius, Editor

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