What would you do if America came under attack? Not from an isolated terror incident, but from an invasion. Armed forces crossing our border, shooting at us and bombing our buildings.
Would you stay and fight? Or would you seek out safety for you and your family, even if it meant leaving the country?
This was a question posed by a recent Quinnipiac poll on how Americans felt about the war in Ukraine. The answers were stunning.
Now, I am often skeptical of polls that ask hypothetical questions, because, frankly, it’s so easy to lie.
Q: “Would you choose to buy yourself a dream car or give the money to charity?”
There. All you had to do was pick the virtuous answer and you feel good. Doesn’t mean you’d actually do it, but you feel good.
Which is why I was so surprised at the results of the Quinnipiac poll. It would have been easy for respondents to boast patriotism — “Of course I’d stay and fight! What kind of question is that?”
But that’s not what happened.
O’er the land of the free …
Instead, only 55% of Americans said they would remain here and defend the country. When broken down by political parties, 68% of Republicans said they weren’t going anywhere, but only 40% of Democrats did.
And 52% of Democrats — a majority — said they would flee.
This prompted some predictable outrage.
“What in the hell happened to this country?” the Wall Street Journal wrote. “We aren’t talking about women and children, or even some cadre of pacifists and conscientious objectors. This is most Democrats saying they’d rather leave America than defend it.”
In addition, amongst young people ages 18-34, traditionally the group that does most of the fighting, a majority (48% to 45%) said they would rather bolt than battle, according to the poll. And that’s regardless of their political affiliation.
Just think. If this information is right, a foreign enemy contemplating an attack on America can count on about half the U.S. population heading for the hills.
That should cause us some sleepless nights.
Where did our patriotism go? It’s impossible to imagine the World War II generation responding this way. In fact, we know it wouldn’t. Waves of volunteers flooded induction centers the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Young men lied about their age to get the chance to fight.
Even Vietnam, as divisive a war as we’ve ever had, only saw 2% of those eligible for the draft avoid it, as the Journal pointed out. And that was half a world away, not on our very shores.
… and the home of the brave
I’m trying to find a defense for the Quinnipiac data. Perhaps it reflects people protecting their children and loved ones at all costs. More than 2 million Ukrainians have done that, many flooding into Poland and Romania.
But, at least anecdotally, many of these families appear split, with the men staying behind to fight. And the courage and patriotism already shown by outmatched Ukrainians wielding Molotov cocktails against Russian tanks cannot be questioned.
In fact, the fierce survival instinct of the Ukrainians is leaving many Americans quietly envious. And wondering if we’d be up to a similar challenge.
The Quinnipiac poll suggests not. Why? Is it because we have become so used to attacking America’s history of racial and class issues that we are no longer inspired to defend it?
Do we think so much of ourselves that our own survival — the gift of ourselves to the world — is more important than the society that nurtured us?
Or have we just become so damn comfortable with neighbors like Canada and Mexico, that we can’t even imagine what a real threat feels like?
I’d like to think that, heaven forbid, if a true attack reached our shores more than 50% of us would rise to the challenge. Certainly, the attacks on 9/11 inspired some to go fight. In the 12 months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, some 181,510 Americans enlisted, more than any other year since.
But the fact is, the Ukrainians are doing what they’re doing because they know the precious gift of freedom. Many of them remember what it was like under the old Soviet Union, which only collapsed 31 years ago. They love their young democracy, as fraught as it has been with troubles. They don’t want to go back.
We Americans take democracy for granted. Worse, we are so busy attacking each other’s “privileges” that we forget what a privilege it is to even have those arguments, to be free to express ourselves, free to criticize government, free to go wherever we want, all things that Ukrainians and now Russians are losing.
Thurgood Marshall, who endured plenty en route to becoming the first Black jurist on the Supreme Court, said, “This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”
You can’t do the first and third without doing the second. If we learn anything from this awful new war, let it be how much a free nation like the one we are blessed to live in is worth defending.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.