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Collateral Damage

November 7, 2013

It is the time of year when politics rises to the surface, emerging from the fetid swamps of D.C. demanding the attention of the collective consciousness. It is election time.

It is a difficult time of year for me. I am a recovering political junkie. I’ve never been involved in politics other than casting my vote, but I am fascinated with it to the point of obsession. I read books about it. I read articles about it. I watch documentaries. I argue endlessly with friends, family and co-workers. There is something about politics, the way it reduces all of life to a game. It is appealing and repellent all at the same time. It is easy to become absorbed by the endless machinations and sorties and lose sight of the larger war being fought, of which politics plays a small but important role. Which is why I have been trying to step back and reassess.

Our government, and the professional politicians that people it, is a reflection of our national identity. In theory, these are the people we have chosen to represent us. This is the system of laws we would like to live under. While there are many checks and balances in place to prohibit any one interest from seizing power, the people will always have the ability to amend and change laws as well as the people that make them. Of course, by summing it up in a single sentence, I have it made it sound like simple procedure. Change can be made but it is never made quickly. By design, changes in legislation and personnel are sluggish, allowing time for deliberation and compromise, and ensuring, in theory, mutual satisfaction for most if not all parties involved.

One of the drawbacks of this slow-moving system is that once a path has been chosen, it is very difficult to change course without the aid of some national catastrophe or awakening. The savvy politician understands this and the true believer knows that change in the American system is a long-term investment. You must recognize when opportunity arrives and you must seize it before anyone else knows it’s there. You must plan. You have to plant seeds for the following generation to harvest. Nothing in politics at any level, from class elections to the national level, nothing is instantaneous. Because politics is a reflection of life. You may ascend to the presidency in record time, but you still have to be born first.

The current state of our government should not be a surprise to anyone. It is merely the result of what preceded it. You can trace today’s gridlocked insanities back several decades and find the roots appearing as tiny seeds in the past. It follows the evolution of the American character as our nation approaches middle age and settles into the cynicism of adulthood. The ideals of our forefathers seem quaint and naïve, an innocent picture of our younger self. They spoke of high-minded notions like liberty and self-determination. They championed equality and respect. But growing up forces you to realize that the world doesn’t care what you expect from it. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and you’d better take what you can. To hell with what happens to anyone else. Protect you and yours. Never mind what you have to do in order to keep them safe and comfortable. The ideals of honor and human dignity do not supercede the need for safety and comfort.

Somewhere along the line, we agreed as a nation, dating perhaps all the way back to Monroe, that we would sacrifice honor for comfort and compromise morals for safety. As long as the blood and responsibility was kept away from the doorstep and stained as few hands as possible, the American people would tacitly accept that innocent foreign lives would be sacrificed to preserve our own.

It is an unsustainable philosophy and that has begun to become very clear over the last ten years or so. The cynicism and detachment required to sustain such a disregard for human life has infected our national identity. We have become a people that glories in war. Just look at any random sampling of movies or video games. And we are a nation that values guns over lives. Our sympathy extends only as far as our borders. But, of course, once a person accepts that the sacrifice of some people is an acceptable price of self-preservation, it becomes easier to accept that anyone is acceptable collateral damage, even your fellow countrymen and now the border only extends as far as the edges of your yard. While one may not be willing to openly advocate for the loss of a life, there is no obligation to take an interest in quality of life. If they die penniless in a gutter, so much the better. One less person sponging off the system. You are beholden to no one but yourself.

While I would like to dismiss this approach as utter stupidity, I can’t do so without acknowledging that this is the defining characteristic of the American identity. Morality comes second to safety. Comfort comes before empathy. God comes second to greed. While this way of thinking may have rewards in the short-term, it is completely pig-headed and utterly ridiculous. Government is comprised of people working together. If they all pursue their own interests, the system collapses. People need people. It is why we have families. It is why we are compelled to make friends. It is why we form communities. We need each other to survive. Sure a person might be able to eke out survival alone, but surviving and living are two different things. Our existence as a species requires that we get along, that we try to forge relationships that are more than just making enemies. Anyone that has ever been in a relationship with anyone else, whether it’s being someone’s child or lover or co-worker or boss or whatever, anyone who has been in a relationship knows that one of the main components is trust. In a world without trust, the bonds that hold society together crumble away and chaos reigns.

But the problem with trust is that it is scary. It requires openness. It demands honesty. And it leaves you vulnerable. But without trust, without faith in the inherent capability for good in humanity, you have no choice but to become inhuman. Everyone becomes a potential enemy and therefore not worthy of empathy or respect. The absence of trust is fear. Fear is the ultimate hallucinogen, clouding your judgment and obscuring the truth. It alters your perception. It tears families apart. It breaks up friends. It destroys careers and it takes away lives. Fear eats away trust and leaves a cold heart.

We are a nation (among many) that has been manipulated by fear for decades if not centuries. If it is not the government propagandizing, it is yellow journalism. If not them, it is special interest groups with deep pockets or political parties acting in their stead. Like it or not, fear has become a huge part of our national identity. It is what has motivated the actions of our government for many years. Fear of terrorism. Fear of immigrants. Fear of communism. Fear of liberals. Fear of conservatives. Fear of weapons of mass destruction. Fear of change. Fear of fear.

For most of our short history the fear that moves us has mostly manifested as a sort of economic imperialism with the government sending our military throughout the globe to protect our interests and maintain our safety. The fear has now metastasized. We are eating away at ourselves now. The ferocity that masks our fear has turned inward. The sniping and obstinacy has weakened us, like a person eating their own body to satisfy the tongue. We have become a house divided by fear. There is no longer anyone willing to step from the shadows of fear into the bright light of trust. No one is willing to make himself or herself vulnerable in order to help someone else.

It is a particularly galling state of affairs for a nation that never stops claiming to be guided by Judeo/Christian principles. The behavior of most politicians that cite Jesus as a major influence is at odds with the tenets of their faith. The New Testament is littered with commands to forgive and to empathize. Jesus himself said the two greatest commandments were to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. In Luke 6 verses 27 to 42, he goes on at length about forgiveness and mercy exhorting the faithful to “be merciful even as your Father is merciful.” He states clearly that if someone strikes you, you should offer up your other cheek.

Can a nation that constantly claims to be guided and blessed by the God of the Bible be telling the truth about their influences when they in fact spend much of their time killing and spying on innocents abroad and accusing each other of destroying the nation God has supposedly blessed? Where is the forgiveness? Where is the mercy that God has commanded? Where is the love for your enemies?

In the end the two American political parties want the same thing. They want peace, comfort and security. One side says the government plays no role in this, and that people left to their own devices quite capable of taking care of themselves. The other side says people should be able to take care of themselves, but recognizes that this isn’t always possible and that makes government necessary to the happiness and well being of the nation. On paper, both sides are well intentioned, both claiming to be champions of the forgotten little person. In practice, they are both slow-moving behemoths dragged down by the weight of their own hubris and obstinacy. They have become so absorbed in the tactics and gamesmanship that they have forgotten their role as public servants choosing instead to believe in their own exceptionalism and dismissing the suffering caused by their own arrogance as acceptable collateral damage. Never mind who you have to hobble, maim or kill as you struggle to do the right thing.

It is unsustainable, illogical and sooner or later what has been sown in blood will one day be harvested. Until our actions reflect our words, I’m afraid America will find that being subjected to our own methods will be quite unpleasant. And while once we had the strength and cohesion to take on the entire world, our disregard for the other person has weakened us irrevocably.

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