Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Us or Them

October 11, 2004

At my local Borders recently, I spotted Ann Coulter’s new book: “How to Talk to a Liberal.” I know little about Coulter’s arguments and the facts she chooses to support them. I know she is a conservative, with great contempt for liberals.

Seeing the book triggered afresh the feeling of alienation brewing ever since President Bush declared there were only two ways to react to September 11: “either with us, or with the terrorists.” He set a tone, and split humanity into mutually enraged factions labeled good and evil, right and wrong.

It’s election season, and although I’m young, my elders confirm they’ve never seen Americans so bitterly divided. Brother against sister, parent against child, husband against wife, neighbor against neighbor: few people look upon those who disagree with them, tolerate the differences and celebrate the similarities. Instead, to many Kerry supporters, anyone who even considers voting for Bush is profoundly ignorant and certifiably insane. To many Bush supporters, anyone planning to vote for Kerry is unforgivably naïve. We live in a terrible world of mistrust and fear, of people plotting to attack us again, and of each other. We have no faith in the basic goodwill of our wildly lively and diverse fellow citizens.

Both major candidates claim they will keep us safe, but the truth is, no one really can. Closed or open, any society in which weapons are available, and fear and hatred are fed by neglect and abuse, is vulnerable to violent eruptions of human despair. We are in danger from automatic weapons in fast-food restaurants, Stinger missiles fired at passenger planes, nuclear bombs smuggled into container ships, and so are the people of every country. Those who plan and carry out such attacks are sometimes members of radical Islamic sects, and sometimes white supremacists; they come in all colors and ideologies.

So when evaluating the relative credibility of the two tickets, it’s worth remembering that no candidate has yet courageously stated the overarching truth of our universal human vulnerability.

There will be a morning after November 2. Riven as we are, the winners will stalk triumphant and relieved; the losers will struggle to accept the result, convinced it’s a colossal collective mistake.

One man will face both contingents, and his job will be made harder by the “us or them” context. With luck, his first days in office will include a genuine effort to heal the split, to acknowledge in word and demonstrate in deed the importance of tolerating reasonable differences of opinion about how our nation and our species can best move on in time.

There will also be a morning after war, when the futile effort to prove might makes right will have been abandoned. Our souls already live there; our bodies do not.

It won’t arrive soon, yet it remains an inevitable evolution. When faced with complex problems, we’ve learned to break them into small, manageable steps. But with war and peace, we seem paralyzed, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the distance between them. We may want to “love our enemies,” but it’s too hard to even love ourselves and those closest to us. Forget loving killers.

Perhaps the job of our human generation is not to love our enemies, nor even to like each other. We need not perfectly emulate Christ’s infinite patience, tolerance and generosity. For us, toddlers of human history stuck in the global tantrums of our terrible twos, the task may be to learn one lesson: No hitting.

Not all or nothing, just an increment: baby steps. It will be hard enough, and enough of an achievement.


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