Uncharted Waters Ahead

As I sit here in the quiet of the evening, with nothing but my keyboard and a blank page on my computer monitor, I’m reflecting on what has been one of the most tumultuous weeks in recent American history, and what I’m thinking about is pretty sobering. Witnessing how we as Americans responded to the terrorist bombing in Boston and the manhunt which successfully concluded Friday night, and the failure of the president’s gun control agenda in the Senate, I’m reminded of several points I’ve made in the past, and nothing this week has changed my mind about them. If anything, they were reinforced.

We are more divided as a nation than we have been in decades.

We no longer have a common American point of reference.

Politics, particularly at the federal level, is utterly incapable of solving any of our problems going forward.

When I was with the Department of Homeland Security, we would often discuss the likelihood of the next major terrorist attack on American soil, and my thoughts would always go to how Americans would respond to it. Would we rally together and set aside our differences to present a united front to those who would do us harm, as we did after 9/11, if only briefly?

When my colleagues and I spoke of this a decade ago, I predicted that the next attack would not bring about a show of unity, and that instead we would be looking for someone to blame.


At the time, I felt that 9/11 was a surprise attack, on the order of Pearl Harbor, and no one imagined terrorists turning passenger airplanes into guided missiles to strike at our nation’s financial, military and political landmarks. The next attack, I surmised, would be greeted with recriminations by an American public that would expect its government to be more vigilant now that we know our enemy and what they are capable of doing.

I was right about us looking for someone to blame the next time. I didn’t anticipate, however, that the reason would be because we’ve grown to hate each other.

Yes, we hate each other. And it’s not the kind of hate that lives on the fringes of the political spectrum, either. It’s hate gone mainstream.

Why, in the immediate aftermath of the bombing in Boston, were people in the media, people who have been blessed with a platform, the power to shape opinions, and the responsibility as stewards of the national trust, wishing that the perpetrators of the bombing were white, right-wing, members of the Tea Party, or some combination thereof?

What could possibly have motivated that kind of thinking in the midst of tragedy?

Is their contempt for people who do not believe as they do so great that they couldn’t even show the victims of the bombing the dignity of restraint while they lay on the asphalt of Boylston Street, dead or maimed from the blast?

And my conservative friends don’t get a pass, either. Many of us wanted the terrorists to be Middle Eastern or Muslim so we could denigrate our political opponents as appeasers and anti-American.

I didn’t speculate because, in this broken world in which we live, either of these wished-for scenarios were plausible. If that was the level of thinking at which they were speculating, that would have been one thing, but that’s not why they were proffering their opinions. Each faction hates the other so much that they believe their opposites are truly capable of such evil, and they hoped the discovery of the suspects would validate their hatred.

The fight over gun control, which has been raging since the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, is also reflective of the hate between us.

Implicit, and sometimes not so implicit, in the criticism of those who believe the Second Amendment to be a civil right, not to be infringed upon by the government, is the notion that they don’t care about the children who were murdered that day, which is a grave insult.

Gun rights advocates counter that their opponents’ sudden desire to defend children doesn’t extend to the inner city or the abortion clinic, and they have no qualms about dismissing the lives of children of color and the unborn.

When the background check legislation failed in the U.S. Senate last week, one would expect the president to be frustrated with the outcome, but he could have said that, although he had not argued persuasively enough to win the day this time, he would redouble his efforts to persuade the people and their representatives of the goodness of his proposals, and the work would begin immediately.

Instead, he excoriated those who voted against the proposal, including some in his own party. It’s as if the thought never occurred to him that someone could disagree with him on principle – no, there must be some nefarious reason for this! – or that the process of change is a marathon, not a sprint, requiring the accumulation and preservation of political capital.

At its core, our hatred of one another stems from a lack of common beliefs or the presumption of goodwill. Without those two things, we will be a nation defined solely by name and political geography.

And if we are to find our unanimity as a nation again, it won’t be through the political process which, in my opinion, is irredeemably divisive and corrupt. We are allowing what’s happening in Washington to poison how we deal with each other in the real world.

We must begin in our own backyards, getting to know each other as human beings, and not caricatures which are easy to dismiss and demean.

We must occasionally disconnect from social media, which insulates us from having to acknowledge the humanity of those with whom we disagree, and discover once again what we have in common – our dreams, our jobs, our families, our friends, our communities, the things that matter to us every day.

We must learn once again that we agree on more than we disagree, and when we differ on the means to accomplishing those things upon which we agree, we must work through those differences like adults. We need to restore our sense of community and connectedness, not the contrived “community” of political correctness, conformity or externally imposed values, but community which springs from the ground up, and is based on a genuine regard for our neighbors and our local community.

If we don’t do this, we’re sailing into a storm for which we are not prepared. My faith in Jesus Christ gives me peace regardless of what lies ahead, but I believe there will be a reckoning in our lifetimes, and it will not be pleasant. I am convinced of this only because we have not been responsive to words of warning, and like coastal residents who choose to hold hurricane parties rather than evacuate ahead of the storm, it may take a catastrophic event to wake us up.