A year and a half since Donald Trump crash-landed an escalator into the presidential race, I’m still struck by how superlatively apocalyptic some of his supporters are. America has never been worse off. We’re less safe than ever before. The threat from Islamic terror looms larger than at any point in our history. Hillary’s election will herald the end of our republic. The sense of eschatological urgency was enhanced this past weekend by a string of terrorist attacks in New York and New Jersey, inept—not a single person was killed, thank God—though still unsettling.
But the notion that America has tripped into an unprecedented gutter simply isn’t true, especially when it comes to public safety. A recent installment of CNN’s documentary series “The Seventies” (other than Anthony Bourdain, the only good thing on that network these days) makes plain that the America of 30 years ago was a far more perilous place than it is today. There was no Islamic State, no al-Qaeda, and the menace of Islamic jihad was still nascent, but terrorism had nevertheless spiraled out of control. As Brian Michael Jenkins noted at The Hill last year, during the 1970s there were 1,470 incidents of terrorism on American soil, killing 184. Between 2002 and 2013, there was barely one seventh that number, killing 61.
Those older than me will recall the dark shadow cast by this terror. Palestinian activists took 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage at the 1972 Olympics, and ultimately slaughtered all of them. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an Air France flight and took it to Uganda, where 106 were held hostage until being rescued by Israeli special forces. The Palestinians also took command of four flights and diverted them to Dawson’s Field in Jordan, where 310 hostages were held for several days. At home, Weather Underground bombs sheared through dozens of targets, including the Pentagon and the Capitol building. The Symbionese Liberation Front murdered a school superintendent in Oakland. They later kidnapped Patty Hearst and brainwashed her; she was soon videotaped toting a gun during one of the group’s bank robberies. President Gerald Ford was nearly assassinated twice within three weeks, first by Squeaky Fromme and later by Sara Jane Moore.
Crime also began to surge during the 1970s, for reasons that still remain unclear. In 1979, there were more violent crimes in the United States than there were in 2014, despite there being almost 100 million fewer Americans. Murders, rapes, and robberies would continue to escalate into the 1980s. High-profile crimes were splattered across news headlines, from the Zodiac Killer’s bloodshed to Dean Corll’s torture murders to Ted Bundy’s magnetic sadism.
The 1970s were a period of violent spasm, as the counterculture went into a tailspin and Richard Nixon’s alternative proved criminally tainted. No one really knew what was going to come next. Yet the denizens of that decade didn’t capitulate to fear; their backlash wasn’t a corrosive one. Instead, exhausted after the 1970s, the country sought refuge in the sunny rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and embraced the idea, after decades of communist routs, that they could outlast the Soviet Union. Turns out they could. Nostalgic conservatives and presidency cultists sometimes go overboard with the beatification of Reagan, but the man really did provide an optimistic respite at a time when it was sorely needed.
There’s a lesson to be learned here. Today, we are far safer and more secure than we were 30 years ago, though certainly we could use a little revitalization. Yet we’re reacting like this is the 1970s shot even further into hell, and rather than doubling down on our inheritance, as Reagan did, we’re falling for a charlatan who seeks only his own advancement. What a contrast to the refreshing course chosen by the 1980 electorate. This isn’t a conservative remedy; it’s a radical one, and it will only beget more radicalism.