American exceptionalism being tested by real-world crises

October 10, 2005|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- It sounds like the plot of countless plague movies, but it is, instead, an unsettling reality: In a laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, scientists have reconstituted the influenza strain that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide in 1918. They hope study of the virus will help them avert another deadly pandemic.

Perhaps they can. Perhaps our faith in science and technology will pay off once again as researchers find ways to fend off disaster. Perhaps our luck will hold; American exceptionalism, after all, is the core of our national mythology.

Or perhaps not. Welcome to the Age of Uncertainty, when we can no longer depend on things we have long taken for granted - friendly weather, cheap gas, subdued enemies.

The threat of a deadly avian flu plague increasingly has drawn the attention of scientists and physicians, who have worried about the strains of bird flus that have emerged in Asia in recent years. While the viruses have killed entire flocks of fowl, illness among humans has been mostly limited to those who came in direct contact with the birds. However, scientists worry that the strains could mutate, becoming infectious among people.

The White House believes the threat is serious enough that the Pentagon and the CDC are already working on an emergency response. Bush administration officials say they will soon release a pandemic flu plan. Democrats, meanwhile, work up their own plans. Unfortunately, official planning offers little reassurance.

The nation's psyche has been bruised by a series of recent events that have challenged our self-image of power and dominance. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 showed us we were vulnerable. The pitfalls of our misadventure in Iraq have reminded us of the limits of military might. And Hurricane Katrina exposed a host of frailties - the pathologies of a permanent underclass, the continuing fractures of race and massive government incompetence. As many commentators noted, Katrina taught us that authorities are woefully unprepared for any disaster, natural or man-made.

Shall we now prepare for a plague of biblical proportions?

If we have a national religion, it is a faith in our exceptionalism, a belief that America, "shining city on a hill," is exempted from the tides of history. Rome may fall. Europe may decline. But America's good fortune has no limits.

Among the tenets of our faith are these: Though we are but 5 percent of the world's population, we may freely use 25 percent of its energy resources; we may build on beaches and in marshes, on fragile hillsides and on top of tectonic fault lines with no consequences; each generation will be materially better off than the last. Oh, yes, one more: If any of our ambitions for comfort and convenience creates problems, our technology will solve them. There is always an answer.

Going back to Alexis de Tocqueville, outside observers have attributed our faith in ourselves to our unique heritage as a nation of immigrants, people who, by their very nature, are boundless optimists who believe they can master their physical environments and create a better world for themselves and their children. Indeed, that self-reliance has served us well over some 230 years.

Our sense of ourselves as separate and apart - superior not only to other nations in our own time but also unique in human history - was fueled by the victory over fascism and the collapse of communism. The end of the 20th century saw this nation rise to become the only remaining superpower, unequaled in military might and in material comfort. Where else does the average middle-class family expect two or three cars, three or four bedrooms, several TVs, cell phones and computers?

But as empires go, America is still quite young, and our optimism might be a bit adolescent. We are no more invincible than the teenager hurtling down the road in a fast car, heedless of speed limits - no more exceptional than the last powerful empire.

That's a hard thing for us to hear. Americans have little patience for any suggestion of limits. The Age of Uncertainty will test our understanding of ourselves.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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