How many more tragedies do we need before we'll learn?
Posted June 15
On Wednesday, both the best and the worst of America was on display. The heroism and commitment of the Capitol Police, the selflessness of those who cared for the wounded, and the outpouring of unity among our political elite seems -- at least for the moment -- to have drowned out the voices of those trying to politicize the event and the darker side of the American story represented by the shooter who attacked members of Congress as they practiced for a charity baseball game.
It would be nice to believe that the horrific attack on the republican congressional baseball team would provide the catalyst to transform our dysfunctional and polarized politics into something more functional and courteous. But as we work toward that goal it's critical that we do so without any illusion about how hard it's going to be.
We've been here before
There are moments -- even in our polarized and atomized political culture -- that can bring people together and offer the promise of positive transformation. In the wake of 9/11, there was an outpouring of unity, selflessness and comity as Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol and sang "God Bless America." There were no Rs or Ds that day -- just Americans.
But the spirit of 9/11 would fade as would the traumatic impact and national resonance of so many other violent events such as Sandy Hook, the shooting of Gabby Giffords, and the killings in Charleston. These events would have their redemptive moments as individuals heroically struggled to overcome grief and communities came together.
The impact on the nation was less sustained. It's a big country, with little sense of shared narrative or a common set of national obligations. National traumas and triumphs are fleeting as the nation is pulled in many different directions. And an impatient media is as quick to move on to another story as we are to change the channel.
Moreover, the issue of gun violence -- a common thread in many of these traumas -- is a deeply divisive one. The horror of a Sandy Hook -- however unspeakable -- ultimately became just a headline rather than a trend line auguring momentum for sensible gun control measures or mental health treatment reforms. And one can easily conclude that if the murders of 26 children and teachers in what one would have thought to be America's safest space -- an elementary school -- couldn't create momentum for change, what event possibly could?
Can we really transform?
The precise motives of the shooter, who was a former Bernie Sanders volunteer and was vocally anti-Trump on social media, in the Alexandria tragedy may never be fully known -- any more than those of the shooter in the Orlando terror attack. Still one might argue that yesterday's attack was driven by a witches' brew of objective circumstances -- easy access to automatic weapons by unstable emotionally disturbed individuals with a history of violence; and triggered by hateful partisanship perhaps empowered by social media.
If that theory is at all credible, then addressing these challenges will neither be quick nor easy. These are systemic problems. And while Americans love declaring war on big issues -- drugs, crime, mental illness, poverty, and lately terror -- our system is hardly set up to identify, let alone impose, comprehensive solutions.
We may be the fix-it people. But after decades of effort and despite all the progress made, we are hardly on the cusp of overcoming them. Indeed, the very notion of government generated comprehensive solutions to anything seems to run counter to the independent and anti -authority values, the nature of our political system and how things change in America. We aren't Canada or Sweden and we will never be.
Reinhold Niebuhr had it right. The American story is more consistent with one of proximate solutions to insoluble problems. It's a transactional not a transformational one. Having now been the victim (again) of gun violence by an angry, probably mentally unstable individual, Congress has the power to begin a different kind of conversation aimed at building a consensus on the challenges we face. But will it?
Civility is more than politeness
The definition of civility -- a term that's become quite fashionable more by omission in today's politics -- seems much misunderstood. The formal definition is courteousness or politeness in behavior or speech. But the essence of the notion must go well beyond that if it's going to be truly relevant to our current partisanship and polarization. The Institute of Civility in Government (yes there is such a thing) opines that civility is "about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one's preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements."
And there lies the real challenge. Civility is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. But even if you create an environment that would change the tone, and replace personal attacks with politeness, you are still left with Grand Canyon-like policy differences that divide us on issues from immigration to health care to entitlements to climate change. It will take more than polite dialogue to bridge those. What is required to bridge those divides is a genuine recognition that neither party has the answers and that in our system legitimizing change over time requires bipartisan support.
Having worked, and voted, for Democrats, Independents and Republicans all my life, I've come to believe that none of our political parties have a monopoly on how to fix what ails the republic, let alone on the truth. And while it's easier to be nonpartisan in foreign policy, it's always seemed to me that the dividing line for the country shouldn't be between left and right, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat instead it should be between dumb and smart policy approaches. And the only question that matters is what side of the line do you want America to be on. And being on the smart side requires a deep commitment to a currency of bipartisanship, and non-tribalism that is simply marginalized now in our politics.
The calmer tone sounded in the wake of Wednesday's attack won't and cannot last without sustained commitment by the President, the Congress, and the media to exercise greater care in the tone they set; and of course by the rest of us too. We must find a way to turn the "m" in the word "me" upside down so it becomes a "w" in the word "we"; and to exercise our collective responsibilities as citizens.
I'm hoping that a country that survived, at great cost, the far more horrific challenge of blue and gray can find a way to manage blue and red too. The American experiment retains its promise. The only question that remains to be answered is how many more disasters will it take before we begin to realize it.