On the week of a holiday that used to stir patriotic emotions — the Fourth of July — it has been painful to see examples of how little remains of that glue that holds a society together.
Perhaps the worst of these signs of national disintegration was the New York Times' recent revealing to the whole world the covert methods by which the American government has been tracking the money that finances international terrorism.
The usual excuses about "the public's right to know" ring even more hollow than usual in this case. The public was not dying to know the methods by which their lives were being safeguarded. Only the terrorists were helped by these revelations.
Americans may, in fact, be dying literally now because of what the terrorists have been told — and ultimately because a jerk inherited the New York Times. As usual, the mainstream media circled the wagons around one of their own. The media spin is that the terrorists were already bound to know that we were monitoring their international transfers of money. The Times says terrorists had to "suspect" this.
This is an all-or-nothing argument. There are vast numbers of terrorists around the world and not all of them are affiliated with the same organizations. Nor is there any reason to believe that they all have the same level of knowledge or sophisti- cation.
Whatever knowledge or suspicions some of the terrorist leaders may have had about American surveillance of the money transfers that finance their operations, that does not mean that all the terrorists knew about all the methods or about all the countries that were cooperating to track them down by their money trails.
After all, so many of these terrorists would not have been captured or killed if they were infallible.
The media may not publicize the casualties we inflict on the terrorists, but they are vastly greater than the casualties that terrorists inflict on Americans, even though too many in the media focus almost exclusively on the latter.
Not only do the terrorists now know how they are being tracked, some of the countries that have secretly helped in that tracking may now back off from helping, now that the New York Times' revelations can create internal political problems or fear of terrorist retaliation in those countries.
The all-or-nothing idea that secrets are either secret from everybody or secret from nobody will not stand up under scrutiny. Back during World War II, the Chicago Tribune made the devastating revelation that the United States had broken the Japanese code and could read their military plans in advance.
This was an enormously important secret, especially during the early days of the war, when Japan had overwhelming naval superiority in the Pacific and was seeking to destroy the remnants of the American Pacific fleet that had not already been destroyed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Fortunately for this country, the Japanese did not read the Chicago Tribune or did not believe it. In other words, the secret was out, but it was not out very far. There are degrees of secrecy, as with everything else.
The New York Times has spread the secret of American financial surveillance of terrorists around the world, undermining or destroying this method of tracking them, as well as undermining the cooperation that can be expected in the future from countries fearful of political or terrorist repercussions.
Patriotism is not chic in the circles of those who assume the role of citizens of the world, whether they are discussing immigration or giving aid and comfort to the enemy in wartime.
The decline and fall of the Roman Empire was as much due to the internal disintegration of the ties that bind a society together as to the assaults of the Romans' external enemies.
The pride of being a Roman citizen was destroyed by cheapening that citizenship by giving it to too many other people. The sense of duty and loyalty eroded among both the elites and the masses.
Without such things, there could be no Roman Empire. Ultimately, without such things, there can be no United States of America. In neither case have tangible wealth and power been enough to save a country or a civilization, for the tangibles do not work without the intangibles.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.