It’s understandable if it appears to you as if America is under siege from all sides. From outside our country, Russian hackers and “bots” constantly attack our political system, seeking to sow chaos and confusion in the American electorate. From inside, we are too often under lethal assault from deranged individuals aiming to kill innocent people and undermine our domestic tranquility. And underlying all of this is an unsettling sense that the country is heading into turbulent times that will test our resolve and further erode national stability.
To repel attacks from outside, there must be a united American defense of our democratic institutions. It’s clear now that Russian operatives launched an unprecedented attack on our national elections in 2016, and will attempt to continue these assaults this year and beyond. Russian cyberwar is rekindling the worst of the old cold war conflict, making Americans more wary than ever of Russia’s intentions and motives.
But as was the case during the cold war, Russia’s heavy-handed attempts to undercut American security will have the opposite effect. During this perilous time in world affairs, when Russia and the U.S. should be working collaboratively to promote stability around the globe, we are instead embroiled in a contest of wills that saps any chance of cooperation.
All of this is worse for Russia than for America. Russia is a second-rate economic power with third-rate leadership. Its autocratic president, Vladimir Putin, and his crony oligarchs are holding Russia back, not leading it forward. They are the ones who are most vulnerable to a determined coalition of democracies. That’s why the U.S. and its allies must impose more punishing sanctions on Russia, hitting Putin and his cronies in the place where it will hurt them most: their pocketbooks.
On the domestic front, America’s peace is threatened by a handful of miscreants who have shattered schools, concerts and nightclubs in hails of bullets. Unfortunately, all it takes is a few mentally ill or ideologically motivated individuals with modern weapons to carry out mass killings. Given the fact that there are already 80 guns for every 100 Americans, it’s unlikely that these attacks can be stopped altogether.
Yet some reasonable safety measures can and should be taken, including better background checks to prevent the mentally ill from getting guns, and better coordination among law enforcement agencies to make sure that information to help prevent attacks doesn’t fall through bureaucratic cracks, like it did with the FBI’s failure to pass along tips to state and local law enforcement authorities about the Florida school shooter. And restricting devices like the bump stocks that turn rifles into machine guns makes sense, too, along with raising the age at which certain guns can be purchased from 18 to 21.
Finally, Congress should revisit the question of banning certain types of assault weapons favored by mass shooters. This last one won’t be easy, given the strong views on both sides of the gun control issue, but it’s a debate that each new attack with assault weapons makes more urgent.
Even if and when these attacks from within and without abate, there are other insidious threats to America’s future requiring our national attention. We still face a long-term erosion of our economic foundation with the potential of throwing the country into financial turmoil that would also seriously undercut our well-being. I’m talking about the ticking time bomb of unchecked federal deficits, burgeoning entitlement costs and the general drift toward a financial day of reckoning that might well trigger deep social unrest and civil disorder.
Here, too, we need to have a candid national debate about how much government taxing and spending we can afford. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, when there are proposals for modest Social Security or Medicare reforms, or “workfare” requirements for Medicaid and welfare benefits, or changes to the nation’s food stamp program that might actually get healthier grocery items to recipients, they are derided by the status-quo naysayers.
The threat to our country doesn’t just come from enemies abroad undermining elections, or a few deranged killers within taking lives. It also comes from neglecting dangers we see but fail to confront, and which can threaten our democracy, too.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.