Negative items (weaknesses and threats) first.
Overconcentration of political belief systems by geography and especially by vocation, notably in journalism; the corresponding threat is misdiagnosis of motivation and identity of perpetrators.
This was on full display over the past week, and although the most prominent examples were instances of the amazingly robust narrative about a supposed right-wing fundamentalist Christian underground, the persistence of which reveals a great deal about the mindset of the “liberal” bien-pensant, they’re not the only ones who have this problem. Claiming that people in Boston are cowering under their beds and wishing they had AR-15s, or casually accusing various (and singularly unimpressive) American politicians of being Communists, isn’t much better than fantasizing about entirely nonexistent WASP terrorists. And there has already been at least one wild-goose chase in recent years, the nationwide Federal investigation to find the co-conspirators of Scott Roeder in the assassination of George Tiller. He didn’t have any, and was known very early on to have acted alone. Your tax dollars nonetheless went to work; see also “memetic parasitism,” below.
Public susceptibility to emotional paralysis in response to reportage of events; the corresponding threat is deliberate induction of such paralysis by an opponent attempting to cause long-term economic and/or military weakness.
We seem unpleasantly vulnerable to becoming transfixed, tens of millions at a time, by the words and especially images of a Ballardian ontology of violence and disaster: explosions, crashes, smoldering wreckage, fleeing spectators, hideously maimed victims, and swarms of first responders. God knows there are perfectly good evolutionary-psychological reasons for this, but with modern communication technologies, not only a city but the work of an entire country can slow to a crawl for hours or even days as a result.
A sufficiently cunning enemy may be able to deliberately exploit this phenomenon. It was a plot device in Oliver Lange’s alternate-history SF novel Vandenberg, in which a Soviet invasion of the US in the early 1970s succeeds largely by planting news bulletins in such a way as to shock the American populace into complete passivity, an emotional state of waiting for orders from above. The difference, of course, is that the Soviets wanted our wealth relatively intact; as defector Arkady Shevchenko once remarked, they were predatory, but they were not insane. An enemy who merely wishes to weaken us economically irrespective of other consequences could play a much longer game. The gross metropolitan area product of Boston is well over $300 billion per year, so the cost of last week’s events seems likely to have reached ten figures, even if it only represented one full day of lost productivity. Should this become a selling point among jihadists, very tough times are ahead.
Of course, a closely related phenomenon was the official reaction of placing several entire municipalities on a kind of lockdown for many hours of patrolling by armored vehicles and heavily-armed police and Federal agents. The direct cost of such an operation aside, the daily routines of something on the order of a million people were significantly disrupted by the actions of a single-digit (and probably a low single-digit) number of perpetrators. Note the nonlinearity.
Memetic parasitism – conspiracy theorizing, “critical race theory,” advocacy of opportunistic legislation; the corresponding threats are fifth-column activity in support of terrorists and diversion of public resources to pork-barrel projects and/or ineffectual agencies and programs (which has many of the practical effects of fifth-column activity).
These people should be publicly mocked on every possible occasion. If you are – to name the first few examples that come to mind – a Birther, a Truther, a fashionably postmodernist academic, or (rare as these must be) a supporter of the TSA, you are a parasite, and I deeply regret that my tax dollars are helping protect your life, liberty, and pursuit of (twisted) happiness. As was often the case, Heinlein nailed it: “… why are the people of the United States and their government always the villains in the eyes of the revisionists? Why can’t our enemies – such as the king of Spain, and the kaiser, and Hitler, and Geronimo, and Villa, and Sandino, and Mao Tse-Tung, and Jefferson Davis – why can’t these each take a turn in the pillory? Why is it always our turn?” (from chapter 5 of To Sail Beyond the Sunset)
At some point, we have to recognize that “the revisionists” are simply on the other side.
Absence of survivors of last “secular crisis” (Depression/WW2); the youngest members of the Silent Generation are over 70. Baby boomers, in particular – of whom I am one – display a remarkable readiness to believe the worst about their fellow citizens. And the alignment of generational temperaments in the early portion of a crisis era (per Strauss & Howe, this one will reach a crescendo around 2020) has a way of ensuring that pretty much every development, even otherwise positive ones, helps foment the “secular crisis.”
So the disabling of a horrendously cruel regime in Iran that has sponsored terrorism in several other countries will merely clear the way for Saudi-inspired terrorists to slaughter innocents in far greater numbers all over the world. Greatly improved extraction technologies leading to an order-of-magnitude drop in the price of natural gas will make petrochemicals and plastics far cheaper and enable massive conversion of gasoline-burning engines to CNG – and fill the streets of the Arabian Peninsula with the unemployed. Ubiquitous Arduino-controlled quadcopters will make fun toys for every kid in the neighborhood, until somebody starts putting them through the windshields of semis on the highways. Made-to-order DNA looks to be great for drug delivery, but soon you can order up a batch of variola major virus and have it mailed to you.
OK, that will do. Time to accentuate the positive (strengths and opportunities). The above list wasn’t exhaustive, I’m sure, but this one isn’t either. No polity in human history has had greater assets than the United States in the early 21st century. I am deliberately sketching these at a high level and encourage commenters to both fill in details and nominate more items.
Heterogeneity at many scales. The red/blue, right/left divide is only the lowest-resolution rendering, and thereby a deeply misleading one – adopting the political terminology of the French Revolution was never all that good an idea, anyway. For significantly greater detail, even though the number of subcultures only increases from two to four, see Albion’s Seed. For temperament patterns by era of birth, see Generations. Progressive elaboration of vocations and avocations has created a vast number of specialties with immense potential for constructive repurposing of techniques. This sets the stage for …
Networked, spontaneous self-organization; to quote myself, “‘mobilization’ in the 21st century should not be confused with that of the early- and mid-20th; we now have An Army of Davids and ought to think creatively when calling upon the resources and expertise of 300 million Americans. See Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter: From Doobie Brother To Top Missile Defense Adviser for an apparently unusual example that could undoubtedly be multiplied with a bit of foresight and the employment of suitable means of communication, which are already available.”
Wealth – not to overlook the obvious, a $15 trillion GDP ought to be good for something. If nothing else, “be assured, my young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” (Adam Smith)
Israel, by way of also not overlooking the obvious, may be thought of as a kind of testbed for how to survive these kinds of attacks – and how to survive them with our values intact.
So next time, when you see the news, watch or read or listen for just long enough to get the basics, pray if you are the praying sort, then head-down on that code fix or schedule update or machine tool or package delivery or status report or patient or student. The bad guys want you distracted, but you want to win.
“You’ll be smarter than they are. You can whip them.” – Larry Niven, Protector