It’s happened again: Another shooting. In Orlando this time, 49 victims plus wounded.
And in the aftermath we fight. Among friends, countrymen, the arguments begin. It didn’t take a day — 2 a.m. shooting, lines drawn by sunrise — that is America.
We are a nation trapped by ourselves.
Omar Mateen was an American Muslim, a U.S. citizen of Afghani roots inspired by foreign extremists to buy guns legally and turn them on gay nightclub goers. In one hateful rampage Mateen put himself into the center of multiple American tinderboxes — immigration, religion, guns, foreign wars, terrorism, homosexuality. If his attack was an act of terrorism it was one well-aimed — these issues we willingly tear ourselves apart over. His spark hit its mark, and it was more than enough to ignite an explosion.
But that is where America is today: Ever ready to draw swords. Fight-or-flight is now our political status quo, and over and over again, America’s choice is to fight, especially among ourselves.
But where does that get us? What kind of country is left when every debate turns brutal? That is our habit, but how do you govern from a never ending cage match?
Take guns, for example, that tinderbox among tinderboxes. What is the appropriate gun policy? Is the current level of regulation enough? Too much? What does the Second Amendment really mean? How does “a well regulated Militia” play into “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” a right that “shall not be infringed”? How does that fit in the era of the Glock and the AR-15? Is it still relevant?
These are reasonable, basic questions, the sort of conversations that should be raised in the halls of Congress after such an incident as Sunday’s attack. Any modern state would consider such questions foundational to finding a balance between the rights of citizens to own guns and the rights of citizens not to be killed by them.
But we have no such discourse. Opponents of guns declare there is no legitimate use for an assault rifle. Ardent defenders return to the “cold dead hands” refrain. Instead of an articulate conversation on gun policy we are fed campaign slogans. The conversation inevitably goes nowhere.
Two hundred and thirty years ago, the Founding Fathers banded together “in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” This sort of squabbling is not what they meant.
But in America today conversations go nowhere. The greatest country in the world, we can’t talk about our problems. We can’t discuss what is killing our citizens. We need a frank discussion on guns, gun rights and the appropriate balance between individual rights and collective security, but all we get are shouting matches and campaign slogans.
This is one issue. There are more: immigration, terrorism, religion. Mateen touched on many of them. But there are still more: abortion, economic stratification, race, gender equality. These are the tinderboxes that tear America apart, and they are also the issues too tender to address directly and with grace.
They are issues close to our hearts, ones we have stared at too closely for too long, and now all we can do is fight over the details. We measure our progress in battles but have forgotten the point of the war.
And what is the point? “To form a more perfect Union.” To “insure domestic Tranquility” and “provide for the common defense.” To “promote the general Welfare,” to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.”
But what good is liberty when Muslim Americans are killing gay Americans in American streets, and no one is willing to talk about it?
Shout about it? Sure. But not talk.
We are a nation populated by rugged individualists grown too independent to govern ourselves. The general welfare and the common defense are concepts alien to us. We are left with 330 million different burning visions for America that struggle against each other.
Maybe it was always this way. Maybe we have always shouted past each other. Maybe the common defense was never that common, the general welfare never that general. Maybe when the Framers who wrote the Constitution 230 years ago did it it was with a smirk and crossed fingers. Maybe those opening words were window dressing.
But men who conjure a country from thin air aren’t the sort to shy away from tough conversations. Our Founding Fathers knew the importance of discourse, of disagreeing agreeably. They fought, but they did so with a shared goal: “in order to form a more perfect Union.”
Where has that spirit gone? Where is the sense that America is the sum of its parts, and those parts are myriad. This country needs room for ideas, room for discussion, and debate and disagreement safe from being declared tantamount to treason. The problems facing us are global, and in an interconnected world, damage is never isolated. A shooting in Florida sparks fear everywhere. The tinder will light. No one is immune.
Yet we stand by our individualism as it kills us. And all the fires Mateen so efficiently set around immigration, religion, guns, foreign wars, terrorism and homosexuality, they remain burning. To be defused and extinguished will require thoughtful consideration, citizens and legislators working together to hammer out compromises that navigate a sea of conflicting tensions: security versus freedom, security versus privacy, individual rights versus collective rights, religious freedom versus personal freedom. All in an evolving world, where terrorism is the new communism and the new terrorism is only a matter of time.
To do that we have to start talking, we need to be willing to ask hard questions. Of each other. Of all of us.
This piece appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.