The first of those gunshots rang out across a baseball field in Virginia. According to one representative, Rodney Davis from Illinois, it sounded like a metal pipe being dropped at a nearby construction site. That loud crack of exploding gunpowder declared our collective entrance into a more violent era. With each following shot, the civil society we believe in was eroded.
I was working last Saturday at a picnic outside Chicago, talking politics with a colleague, when he told me if he could assassinate Trump, he would. How profound those words seem now, how telling. Trying to murder politicians is no longer a matter of jest. A Congressman lays in a hospital in serious condition, a few others injured, more still traumatized. A nation, shocked, and afraid at what looks back at it when it gazes into the mirror.
Politics, especially in a pluralistic, democratic society, is meant to be an exercise in compromise. It is meant to be collective decision making, good negotiating, where neither side feels they got what they wanted, but at least most people get something. But that is changing. Our politics is no longer about compromise, but crushing the enemy. Every issue is a battleground where no inch can be given, and all must be taken. We are convinced we are engaged in a basic philosophical struggle, a battle between good and evil. And if all sides see it that way, can anyone be right?
Eric Trump says that he does not look at those who criticize his father as human. This failure to recognize our common humanity, our common heritage, our common goal for a better country is our country’s epidemic. Without a cure, there is no way forward. Seeing the other as less than human breaks the psychological barrier that would prevent us from resorting to their demise. To understand those different than us in a shallow way, to imagine them as something other than a member of our species, is to say I could end your life without a qualm. I could shake off your death with the shrug of my shoulders.
This is a frightening time. The shooting in Alexandria should worry us to our core. This is the country we are becoming. Our news is filled with a circus parade rather than reasonable and responsible leadership. And people would rather shout than listen, rather silence than engage. There is no will to understand one another. The camps are no longer ideological, they exist in alternate realities. We watch one news channel and say the other news is fake. There are now facts and alternative facts, acceptable ideas and unacceptable ones. The most basic common ground, a shared country, is no longer valid. We are edging closer and closer to a national struggle.
What kind of country do we want to be? What values and ideals, what myths and sense of nationhood do we want to accept? Forced to ask ourselves these questions, which can only be solved as a single set of united states, Americans finds there neighbors no longer live in their world. And in policy debates, lives are on the line, the cries from the pundits that “People will die”. And we are a country built by political violence, uprising etched into our bedrock. Why do we have more guns than people? To overthrow tyranny. And, nowadays, everyone is a tyrant in someone’s eyes.
The anti-fascists are shutting down free speech and burning college campuses. And then a man in Portland stabs three people on a train that stand up for the Muslim women he was harassing; on trial he screams free speech or death. Wealth inequality is growing, the liberals have lost their way and the conservatives pander to the poor while giving to the rich. And so a man who volunteered on the campaign of an independent democratic socialist goes to a baseball field and guns down Republicans. Black people are killed by law enforcement and officers go free, and then in Dallas and Baton Rouge, madmen kill cops
The more radical elements of American society are proclaiming give me liberty, or give me your life.
Freedom is an American birthright, so when politics becomes so vile, when polarization so wide, we see the other as an existential threat. The progressives say “Not my president” when of course he is your president, that is what it means to live in a democracy. The same rights that allow you to resist are the same reason you must accept his victory. And others feel so neglected by the system they believe that only through demolishing our society can their problems be fixed.
This shooting is the moment when the person across the table says something so horrible that, no matter how profusely they take it back, no matter how sincerely they apologize, nothing can repair the relationship. Something is forever altered. So here we stand, a country faced with our demons of today.
What is so worrying about this act of violence is not the violence itself. There doesn’t appear to be any imminent threat of civil conflict that will erupt from this shooting. What is worrying is just how far we are drifting from one another. It has come to the point where we do not fear absolute power in the hands of a leader or weakened institutions as much as we fear one another.
We allow the President to assume imperial powers, as long as it’s our man in office, and we recoil and march when someone we dislike ascends to that position, those powers waiting for them at the desk. We call for our Congressmen to obstruct the process of government, and then in turn rage when the other side follows suit. As our politics continues to turn into a war of attrition, as we fear our fellow Americans more than we fear despotism, more than we fear the crippling blows dealt to our democratic institutions, we open ourselves up to oppression. We no longer fear the coalescence of power into any single group or single pair of hands. Instead we cherish it when our group holds it, and the moment it slips from our grasp, we refuse and de-legitimize any expression of power until our hungry clawing for it returns it to our clutches.
If we continue down this path, one day we will gaze upon the relics that were our Constitution, our democracy, and wonder how it all fell apart so suddenly, not realizing the collapse began long ago.
What will it take for us to turn around and walk away from the precipice? What will keep us from tumbling down, down into the chasm?