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Can we still claim to be the 'home of the brave'?

One of the most difficult tasks we face as human beings is to see ourselves as we truly are. We play a variety of roles in our lives and are accustomed to trying to appear as we would like to be seen. On the simplest level this deceit is harmless as we invest in products and services to change our physical appearance. As a society we spend billions on plastic surgery and cosmetics in our ceaseless attempts to combat time and look younger. We attempt to disguise certain activities — such as tax avoidance and drug use — to avoid embarrassment or prosecution. In this way none of us is free from the stain of hypocrisy.

It is when we convince ourselves that one of the dishonest versions of ourselves is true that we are likely to lose our way. In a societal sense we are given to telling each other stories about who we are that may not comport with the available evidence. Embedded in our national anthem is the concept that we live in "the home of the brave." This point of pride, with its implication that other nations are, by comparison, less courageous, deserves an examination in the light of our behavior so far in the 21st Century.

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The terrorist attacks of 2001 were met with a lot of patriotic chest-beating and calls for vengeance. The immediate aftereffects of these events were that people sold their stocks and refused to fly. The stock market crashed, and airlines went out of business. Gun sales, that most sensitive indicator of American fears, skyrocketed. We were, in short, well and fully terrorized. Not long afterward the people of Washington were thrown into a panic by the D.C. snipers. Against the statistical unlikelihood that any one person would become a target, people were zig-zagging across parking lots and crouching while they pumped gas. Our trifecta of terror was complete with the anthrax attacks that had many avoiding their mail boxes and stocking up on Cipro. Then, of course, we initiated two trillion-dollar wars in South Asia, which have not made us feel notably safer. That these wars were fought by a thin sliver of youthful volunteers while the rest of us sacrificed nothing did not do much for the heroic credentials of the larger society.

Skipping forward to the present day, we are caught up in twin threats to life as we know it: Ebola and the Islamic State. Of the former, in spite of public health reassurance that it is hard to catch and poses little probability of an outbreak in the U.S., it seems that we are only a couple of more cases away from mass hysteria and a banning of flights from West Africa. An American nurse (and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health graduate), Kaci Hickox, returning from treating Ebola patients was quarantined in New Jersey for three days in spite of having no symptoms and a negative blood test for Ebola. She threatened to sue, was released and returned to her home in Maine, where steps were taken to forcibly quarantine her as well, until a court intervened to restore her freedom. At her home town hospital, people are canceling elective surgical procedures even though she does not work there and has no intention of going there. One resident describes the situation as "completely terrifying."

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As for ISIS, we oppose them and their beheadings as a national priority but only if we can continue to bomb them without risking American casualties. Like all our enemies since Vietnam, ISIS is portrayed as a proximate threat to our lives and freedoms.

There have been instances in history of societies reacting calmly to serious threats — the English during the German Blitz for example. Our country reacted with determination and sacrifice to the peril posed by the Axis nations in World War II. Francis Scott Key's words about our bravery might rightfully have applied then. Perhaps our sense of perspective has become distorted by the politicians and media who profit from our fears. We have clearly been worn down by the ill-begotten wars of the last 60 years. Maybe it's time for a rebirth of courage — or a new national anthem.

Gordon Livingston is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia. His most recent book is "The thing you think you cannot do: thirty truths about fear and courage." His email is gslcvk@aol.com

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