The great recession destroyed my life.
Over just a few weeks in late 2008, the small business that I’d worked for years to build was crushed and forced to close. My full-time job in telecommunications was gutted and my salary was cut in half.
Bills were going late, collections agents were calling. I gained 30 pounds thanks to stress and entered a deep depression. It was as if the whole world I’d built for myself and my wife for over a decade had been swept away in less than a month.
And then came the fear. Paralyzing, crushing fear.
How will I pay my bills? How will I pay the mortgage? What about food? How did this happen to me? Why? Am I a bad person? Do I deserve this somehow? Questions became anger, anger became fear, fear became self-hate.
Somehow, through the grace of God, I got through it all. I went back to school, finished my undergraduate degree, and was lucky to be accepted to graduate school. I completed six internships in the course of two years. I wrote as many op-eds as I could. People were incredibly kind to me. As I type these words, tears roll down my cheeks thinking about those who opened doors. I will forever be grateful I had the chance to prove that at 30 years old I could remake my life through hard work, luck, and grit.
But none of that happened until I got over the fear. And in the eye of the storm that is the coronavirus, fear is all we see. Fear is seeping into many Americans’ thoughts as the coronavirus moves from being a health crisis to an economic recession—or perhaps a depression.
The reasons are obvious. How does an economy function when no one is physically in many of the places where commerce is conducted? What is the economic impact in its totality when countless restaurants, bars, retail outlets, and other businesses don’t open? That makes the Great Recession look like a bad dream.
And it can only mean one thing: fear and panic will increase. Depression, anger, and frustration will also increase. American society will be tested in a way that it hasn’t been since World War II. And while we won’t be sending our boys to fight in the Pacific or in Europe to take down fascism anytime soon—and thankfully this virus will pass in time—the repercussions will be felt for months, if not years.
How we tackle this crisis will define our nation for at least a generation. American society will have to recalibrate itself to a new, more threatening reality. That will take time, as we must understand that the privileged geographic position that America enjoys and the advantages it provides are now slipping away.
Think of our nation for a moment as an island of calm. We have Canada to the north and Mexico to the south, with the Atlantic and Pacific to our east and west respectively. America is a superpower, in many respects, due to the luck of geography. We only face the threats we want to face, when we want to face them—thousands of miles away.
Yet that geographic safety blanket is getting thinner and thinner by the day. Military technology diffusing around the world means even fourth-world nations like North Korea can build missiles that can hit the U.S. with nuclear weapons. Want to know why we panicked so much in 2017 when Pyongyang tested such missiles? It was because for the first time in decades we were reminded that geography won’t save us or protect us—a 21st century sputnik moment.
Today, we face an enemy that will terrify Americans even more. North Korean or Russian or even Chinese missiles we can see, we can analyze, we can make educated guesses as to the carnage they can bring. We can’t do that just yet with the coronavirus. All we know is that the incredibly safe and secure bubble that America hid in for centuries is slowly but surely popping. We are, in many respects, becoming a normal nation, unprotected by our geography.
The funny thing is we should have learned this lesson already. Recent historical events such as 9/11 and the Great Recession—along with World War II—should have taught us that our homeland isn’t inviolate economically or militarily. However, the large gaps in years between events and a world that seems to value what is happening only in the current news cycle have made our historical perspective much shorter. That can only mean that times of national crisis serve as an awful reminder that our geopolitical paradise was lost long ago.
If we are going to combat the coronavirus in a way that will restore the life we knew before, we must handle the public health emergency and the economic damage it will create. But if we truly want to tackle this issue in a comprehensive manner, our leaders must first combat the deep-rooted fear Americans are feeling. That will take true leadership, constant interaction with the public in every possible setting and reassurance on every level that we will overcome and defeat this threat. Yet those leaders must also acknowledge that our place on the map can’t protect us any longer.
Harry J. Kazianis serves as a senior director at the Center for The National Interest, a public policy think tank founded by President Richard M. Nixon.