Dear America, Stop Overreacting!

America has a history of overreacting in times of crisis, leading to illogical and discriminatory measures.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

My U.S. History teacher proposed an interesting question the other day: “Do Americans have a tendency to overreact during times of crisis?” We were discussing the First Red Scare that accompanied the rise of ideologies such as socialism and anarchism during the 1920s, a period filled with public hysteria regarding leftist ideologies and Soviet influence pervading society. A lot of the discrimination and hatred that brewed from the panic was directed at immigrants who oftentimes picked up these ideologies due to being disadvantaged under a largely pro-business government. This nativism—a political policy of protecting the interests of “native-born” Americans—combined with the concerning rise of anti-government ideologies led to unfortunate overreactions.

In class, we focused on Sacco and Vanzetti—Italian immigrants convicted of a 1921 Massachusetts robbery-murder amid allegations of prejudice due to their anarchist beliefs and heritage. Despite insufficient evidence and international outcry, they were sentenced to death and electrocuted in 1927. Their case symbolizes injustice and political persecution, highlighting America’s struggle during tense periods. The Second Red Scare—also known as McCarthyism—was another time period filled with heightened political repression against left-wing individuals. In the 1950s, the McCarthy trials—a series of hearings led by Senator Joseph McCarthy—aimed to expose supposed Communist infiltration in the U.S. government and society. McCarthy accused many individuals of being Communists or sympathizers without substantial evidence, leading to widespread fear, blacklisting, and damage to reputations. Repeated unsubstantiated accusations against unwanted ideologies show the government’s tendency to react in an exaggerated manner. 

Leo Edwards—a leading historian of American conservatism—describes America as a country “born out of crisis.” In a short commentary published in the Daily Signal in 2020 regarding the pandemic, he also describes all the crises of American history as overcome through resilience and strong leadership. One of the examples he provides is America leading the Allies to victory in World War II. Yet, the relocation and incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps demonstrates otherwise about how well the U.S. handled the global conflict. This overreaction was a response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which led to a spike in fear about national security. While America played a profound role in turning the tide of WWII and ultimately ending it, interning and discriminating against Japanese who had previously immigrated to America tainted how well both the people and the government of the U.S. reacted in a time of supreme hatred. 

Another example Edwards provides is Americans “[rising] to the challenge and a wave of patriotism not seen since World War II [sweeping] the country” when dealing with the attacks of September 11th. However, not only did this lead to a mass spike in Islamophobia that continues today, it also led to the government installing surveillance laws that breached Americans’ privacy. The Patriot Act of 2001 gave the government authority to monitor electronic communications and collect information on innocent Americans, including their bank details and activities on the Internet. Another more ridiculous response to the 9/11 attacks was the Homeland Security Advisory System. This was a color-coded terror level scale ranging from “Severe Risk of Terrorist Attacks” to “General Risk of Terrorist Attacks.” The problem with this was that there were no published criteria or accurate ways of actually putting the risk of terror attacks on a flat scale. If anything, it heightened tensions as the scale was enforced in places like airports. While having heightened security in places at risk of terrorist attacks is completely reasonable, the scale itself became deeply mistrusted by the public as it did not provide enough information about the factors involved. Finally, another result of the terrorist attacks was President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 to stop its alleged construction of weapons of mass destruction—there turned out to be none—and due to its support for terrorist groups. Simply put, it was unnecessary and an overstep by the government.

There seems to be a pattern in American history of the government discriminating against a group and taking illogical measures when dealing with an external threat. Some other contemporary examples include the actions of former President Donald Trump. His proposed solution to illegal immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border was to build a wall along the length of it. Even though it never became reality, 86% of Republicans—a significant portion of our population—supported the idea. This otherizng showed up again during the pandemic when everything was in pandemonium. Trump's frequent practice of calling COVID-19 the “China Virus” was him pointing fingers during a time that required diligence. It led to a rise in discrimination against Asian-Americans and escalated public hate crimes against them. 

It’s not solely an American thing to make irrational decisions during times of panic—it’s common in many governments throughout history. Emotions—specifically fear and terror—can derail proper response. However, there seem to be measures taken over and over again to single out a particular group connected to the issue at hand rather than attempting to solve the problem. The most recent example of this is TikTok. The House of Representatives has voted to ban the popular social media app unless the Chinese parent company—ByteDance—sells the app to the U.S. government. The supposed reasoning behind this bill is that the Chinese Communist Party is stealing and surveilling American users’ data through the app. Although there”s no evidence for this, and TikTok ensures the protection of its users’ privacy, the government insists on going through with the bill. Even President Biden has said he will pass it if it gets through the Senate. It’s completely groundless to push for a TikTok ban when the reasoning behind it is suspicion. It only deepens the rift between the US and Chinese governments. 

 Overreaction tends to escalate and create new problems rather than address the existing ones. America should be setting examples of how to face problems without pointing fingers and brewing internal discrimination, yet we’ve failed to do so on multiple occasions throughout history. This could possibly be due to disparate reactions and solutions between local, state, and federal authority, but it is the people’s responsibility on how they react to the reactions of the government. The majority of overreactions are rooted in fear and hysteria in times of pressure and stress and government actions are oftentimes taken rashly. It’s important to both question the decisions of our government and not give in to the hysteria surrounding us.​​ Measures taken based on misinformation and lack of evidence create immense discrimination and injustices, and while each case-to-case situation is different, we as citizens can do our best to be informed of the realities of both American and world conflicts.