March 24, 2012
This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about several different stories that seem to have little or nothing in common. But, you already know that when I say something like that, it’s because I think I’ve found a commonality and I’m going to point it out to you, don’t you?
The first story, of course, is that of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager killed by a man who had volunteered to patrol his gated community and who plead self–defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
The second story was of two black youths in Kansas City who set fire to a white youth on his porch, telling him he deserved this “because you’re white.”
The third involves the increasing number of cities who are putting restrictions on people feeding the homeless.
The forth was the passage of H.R. 347, the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act, which tightens restrictions on where protests may occur.
The fifth is the ongoing argument, in print and across the net, over the NDAA and President Obama’s National Defense Resources Preparedness Executive Order of March 16. The argument is about whether these mean we are headed for martial law, arrest and unlawful detention of American citizens anytime, anywhere and confiscation of pretty much anything, or whether they simply reflect the government’s cautious preparations for future emergencies in light of peak oil, climate change, financial collapse or terrorism.
The thing that struck me about all these stories, as disparate as they seem to be, is that they all seem symptomatic of the increasing fracturing of our society at its various levels. A society going from one in which we see our fellow Americans simply as another citizen to one in which, from the individual level to that of the government, we see and are seen – by someone – as the other.
Whatever motivated Mr. Zimmerman to kill Trayvon Martin, it’s clear he didn’t see him as just another person walking through the community, but as a dangerous other. The same is true about the two young blacks in Kansas City toward their white schoolmate.
And it is certainly difficult to see those cities that are increasingly making it more difficult for ordinary people to provide food for the homeless as anything other than a transition of the homeless from another to other – now, somehow dangerous in the eyes of those city officials. Especially in the “great recession” where millions of ordinary American families lost jobs and homes.
Nor is it difficult to see, in the increasing legal restrictions on protests and the use of more violent police tactics to remove protesters, a decreasing perception of protesters as another group of citizens exercising their rights and an increasing perception of protesters as others – dangerously bordering on terrorists – by our own governments.
But it’s that last group of stories that worries growing numbers of Americans. For they seem to reflect, to many of us, a subtle change in status for all citizens from another to other in the eyes of the federal government. They imply that our government increasingly sees the United States as a new “battlefield” (as some senators have put it) in the war on “terrorism” with ordinary Americans as the enemy. We see them as making preparations for this battle without much reflection on the accuracy of those perceptions or concern about the rights of the ordinary Americans they are supposed to represent in the process. And as those perceptions change on the part of the government, our perceptions of the government as the other only become more mainstream.
We humans evolved as social and, yes, moral animals. We would not have survived as a species if we had seen one another only as the other. We won’t survive the things we face now by doing that, either.
Governments around the world – including our own – face natural, economic and political events that could take them down almost overnight. The economic recession, aggravated by climate change and diminishing resources, sent tremors through those governments around the world and put extraordinary pressure on citizens and leaders, alike. It is not going to get much better and our governments are not handling that fact well. Increasingly, our government treats nations around the world as dangerous others, trying to assure their own safety. And, in doing so, they’ve only divided us more thoroughly and brought the Empire they seek to save closer to its own collapse.
I think our collective anger over these and similar stories is a good thing, a sign that we do instinctively struggle with the fear that seizes us, that draw us away from seeing another instead of an other.
I honestly don’t know if our government can change anymore. I do know that unless we individual Americans can let go of that fear of other and see ourselves as part of a larger another, it won’t much matter.