America Joins the Real World

April 26, 1995|By WALTER T. ANDERSON

Disasters, tragedies and other front-page dramas come and go, but the Oklahoma City bombing has the feel of an event from which there is no turning back. America will never be the same. The country has become a part of the real world -- a little less special, and a little less safe. It may also become a lot less pleasant.

Isolationism is our oldest, most fundamental tradition, and it dies hard because it is fundamentally psychological rather than political. It has to do with a deep yearning to be somehow apart from the disorder, corruption and danger of the world outside, to be safe within our superior institutions and our spacious continent.

For decades people have proclaimed the end of it, and this time, finally, it may be true. No matter which of the various things we fear had turned out to be responsible for the bombing -- cults, foreign terrorists, international drug dealers -- our belief in our invulnerability has been destroyed for good.

Shattering false illusions can sometimes be a good thing. But historical experience indicates that whenever America takes a step forward into the world, it also takes a step backward into paranoia.

That was certainly the case in the post-World War II years when it was universally agreed that the isolationist days were over, that the United States was going to stride forth decisively onto the global stage. It did that even as the country plunged into a period of insane fear of enemies within -- the heyday of Joseph McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the loyalty oath, the anti-Communist witch hunts.

I think something of that sort may happen again. But this time we'll see a lot more hardware. We will become more visibly armed and guarded.

When I heard the news from Oklahoma City, my first thought was of Central America -- of the many guns I had seen in places like Guatemala City and San Salvador, the armed soldiers in the streets, the armed guards in front of banks, the piles of sandbags and machine-gun emplacements in front of public buildings.

After a while I became weary of gun barrels pointing in all directions, bristling constantly in the midst of everyday life, and I appreciated life in America in a way I had not appreciated it before. The absence of armed public spaces can be beautiful, when you develop an eye for it.

I strongly suspect that an aftermath of Oklahoma City, the most visible reminder of how we have changed will be an increase of public domestic armament -- ironically, just when we have scaled down our defense establishment and are lobbying hard for nuclear non-proliferation. We are no longer so armed against the outside world because in a way we are realizing there is no longer a world outside.

Globalization is now the overwhelming reality of our time, the globalizing forces -- economic, cultural, political, even biological -- relentlessly obscuring boundaries, making connections, drawing us all together in new ways whether we like it or not.

But, like all great historical processes, it is complex and even paradoxical. The world is both coming together and spinning apart. Every new lunge into global togetherness seems to produce equal and opposite lunges into separateness.

You can see this everywhere in the world -- attempts to pull back into some more familiar, clearly bordered existence. You can see it in England's resistance to getting too deep into the European Union.

You see it in young Muslims tearing down TV antennas in Algeria to prevent people seeing the corrupting broadcasts from outside. You see it in Serbs enforcing ''ethnic cleansing'' or when a new Hindu fundamentalist government in Bombay proclaims ''globalization is out'' and considers banning English in public life. The fear of globalization is a global phenomenon.

The fear is basically an urge to keep life predictable within known boundaries and with one's own kind. But no boundaries are secure now, and we all live in increasingly pluralistic societies where as the British sociologist Anthony Giddens notes, ''there are many others but also there are no others.''

We don't know precisely whom or what to fear, but we fear with better reasons than before. Even as we coast along the global information superhighway, we put more locks on doors, hire more guards and break out the guns.

Walter Truett Anderson, a political scientist whose most recent book is ''Reality Isn't What It Used To Be,'' directs the Meridian Institute on global governance. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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