George Lucas’s “Star Wars” has spawned a multi-billion dollar industry, including sequels, prequels and a limitless array of paraphernalia. It’s a juggernaut that shows no sign of abating. Few ideas have captured the popular imagination quite the way it has. National missile defense, dubbed “Star Wars” back in the 1980’s, when President Reagan first floated the idea, is one of them. In capturing the imagination, it leaves clear thinking in its wake.
Despite much-publicized and highly embarrassing failures of exorbitant preliminary tests that suggest that hundreds of billions of dollars more would have to be spent even to determine what is called its “possible feasibility,” missile defense has a momentum all its own. Bankrupting the nation out of paranoia sounds like a sin for which the United States criticizes North Korea—ironically the “rogue” nation most frequently cited as a reason for pursuing missile defense in the first place.
The whole idea of a national missile defense is supremely consistent with the two major strains of the American spirit. The optimist says, We can do anything we set our minds to. The moralist says, We should do everything we have a mind to. That such a concept is even conceivable hinges on several facets of our national character: unrestrained enthusiasm for perfection, virtually limitless expectations of technology and the desire for security. This last is most potent of all, but what happens when we question the equation between security and defense? Is it possible that the concept of national security might be rediscovered through pouring ourselves and our resources into local, national and global concerns that do not depend on the reckless manufacture of weapons and suspicion?
As understood within the context of missile defense debate, national security is the big lie. But many Americans buy into it, as blithely as we buy into the trappings of the original “Star Wars,” because it comes packaged in the language and gravitas of what used to be called the military-industrial complex. No psychologist understands better than the Defense Department brass that fear and security are mutually interdependent; hence the term “national security” rarely occurs without the preface “threat to.” Oddly, this seems almost truer now than at the height of the cold war. The unpredictable action of a “rogue state” conjures a kind of insecurity that surpasses the darkly familiar specter of the “Evil Empire.”
What threatens us, and what makes us secure? Such questions are so elemental that they bear revisiting. And here’s a notion so obvious that it hardly needs to be said: national missile defense is a trap, just as adequate military preparedness is an illusion. Missile defense proponents speak passionately about shadowy, hypothetical enemies and rhapsodize over fantastical means to repel them. Have we so lost our way that we consent to make these people our prophets? Obsessing over security chains us to our fears, robbing us of any security at all. While duly maintaining reasonable national safety, fewer resources should be spent imagining impenetrable shields and preparing for highly dubious perceived threats and rogue states and more energy spent refocusing our ability to envision genuine freedom: less time throwing money at our fear, more time liberating ourselves from it.
I realize this kind of thinking is “outside the box,” but maybe it’s really more “outside the Beltway.” From where I sit, taking what would be trillion-dollar measures in hopes of rebuffing an imagined threat is foolishness at its most extravagant. With visible, tangible threats to our citizenry in no short supply, there is no need to concoct a nightmare scenario. Real rogues and nightmares are among us aplenty.
The irony—if not sheer idiocy—is that far from calming fears, calls for a national missile defense generate not only more fear, but also threats. President Putin of Russia, who controls thousands of nuclear warheads, has expressed deep concern over the American idea and threatened to freeze arms cuts. He has held high-profile meetings with Chinese and North Korean leaders in response to plans of an American missile defense shield. Rather than provoking potential threats, the United States ought to concentrate on managing its relations with Russia and the new Asian power brokers, India and China.
With President Clinton’s announcement at the beginning of this month that he would not begin construction of a missile site in Alaska, the issue is not put to rest, just put off. For the utopian dream of a national missile defense is an extension of the American desire to have it all. But the shield mentality only leaves us more exposed and suggests just how unfulfilled and insecure we are. We want the world at our fingertips, yet we want to keep it at bay. We feverishly break down barriers between ourselves and the wider world through supersonic and virtual travel, and we celebrate the collapse of the Wall and the advent of a new world order, yet we clamor to erect a shield around ourselves. Maybe there’s no irony after all: it’s perfectly consistent to want everything.