Friday, July 08, 2016

Our response to tragedy

Three weeks ago I came back the the US for the first time after nearly two years in Lebanon. I spent the first two weeks with my immediate family, but now I'm on a somewhat spontaneous zigzag across the country to reconnect with extended family and old friends. As I'm introduced to new people along the way, the subject of where I spent the last 22 month inevitably comes up. When it's not greeted by blank stares, it's usually responded to by something like: "Well thank God you made it back here safe!" I always taste a little bit of irony on the air whenever I hear that, but last night, it was especially strong.

I was sitting on a sagging overstuffed couch in the dimly lit interior of an eclectically antique-themed establishment in an eclectically antique-themed town in north Texas. I was with some old friends who moved there years ago, catching up on life.

At some point, the conversation was broken when my friend started getting local news alerts that there had been a mass shooting of police officers 30 miles south in Dallas. While the details were still fuzzy, it was clear within the next couple of hours that close to a dozen policemen had been shot by sniper[s] at a Black Lives Matter event.

I'd been vaguely aware of the several police shootings over the previous 24 hours (not to mention years) that had triggered the event. These, taken together with meeting several people at my previous stop in Orlando last week who had lost friends at the Pulse night club shooting, made the recent wave of "glad you're back safe" sentiments seem especially ridiculous to me. So I took to that post-modern acropolis of public discourse known as Facebook with the following words:

Pretty sure more people were shot in the last hour here than in the whole two years I was in Beirut. Thank goodness I made it back to America safe.

Like most things things I write when I've been drinking, it was not entirely accurate—but at the same time scratched at the surface of something deeper that I've been feeling but wouldn't have otherwise ever talked about.

Lebanon is a violent place in its own way—even if the violence looks and happens differently than it does here. And in many ways it's a socially and racially fractured society that rivals or surpasses even the most divided parts of the US. There wasn't a functioning government during the entire time that I spent there, and mounds a garbage were piling up on the streets and sidewalks—making it difficult for the powers-that-be to park their Range Rovers and Ferraris, and creating a massive health hazard for everyone who had to walk. There were over a million refugee's in the country from the war in Syria without work, and a permanent underclass of African and south Asians who were brought in to do the jobs no one else would do and then became stuck there without any legal rights or protection from basic crime and abuse.

The first year that I was there, I occasionally got overwhelmed by it all and wondered how people couldn't just stop everything they were doing and cry. But somehow no matter how dysfunctional things continued to get, everyone just went about their business as usual with the same goals, the same seemingly petty quarrels and the same contentment with the same theories to explain the way things were. People stuck to the same political parties and leaders that were developed during the war in the 80s even though they were doing nothing to address the issues facing the country now. Perhaps that's a kind of resilience that lets people survive bad situations that refuse to change, but I think it's also the blindness that keeps them from changing.

As I've said before though, it wasn't my country, and I didn't think it was my place to judge or even to be one of the people calling for a reevaluation of things.

But America is my country—I care about it—and over these past three weeks, I've started to have the same feeling here. That's what really hit me last night.

We are getting hit again and again and again by ever worsening violence. Events small and large that should cause our communities and country to be overwhelmed with grief. That should cause us to look inside ourselves and ask how we have been part of creating a society where these things happen. That should cause us to reevaluate everything that we think.

But instead, the opposite is happening. Instead of grief, our first response is defensiveness. Instead of introspection, we are drawing battle lines. Instead of reevaluating what we think, we are just clinging harder and harder to the beliefs, parties and leaders that are obviously failing to address the problems that we face in this country today. You can hear it on the news. You can see it in the mindless demagogues that we've selected for the next election. You can feel it and taste it in how people relate to each other in public.

This place is going to hell just as fast as any scary far away place you see on TV. I can say that with certainty, not because I understand the issues that it's facing, but because I can fully and totally understand our response to them. And the response is ultimately what determines where we go from here.

So I'm asking today: Are we really so sure of our beliefs that we are willing to let others die before we reconsider them? Do we really care so little for each other that we can go about our business as usual as things slide further and further out of control? Can we really not set aside our opinions long enough to even recognize the pain of a tragedy and cry about it?

I think our future depends quite a bit on our answers to those questions.

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