The tragedy in Orlando will undoubtedly divide our nation even further, as the loudest voices shout their political opinions about gun control, immigration and Islamic radicalism, pitting Americans against each other and further exploiting our anger and fear. As American society sinks further and further into this angry, polarized society, I fear not for the economic collapse of our country, nor for defeat at the hands of terrorists or enemies. I fear for the implosion of our country at the hands of our own citizens, who have become so embittered, and so divided, that they hate their neighbors more than they love their nation.
The notion of having an in-depth discussion about political and social differences with a suspected foreign terrorist or anti-Western cleric gives me less heartburn than the idea of discussing hot-button issues with my fellow American on the far right or left. I’ve done both, and the latter leaves me far more angry and embittered almost every time.
I consider myself open-minded, analytic, able to see multiple sides of most arguments, and most important, willing to consider new or different viewpoints. I have had tea with outspoken, anti-Western clerics, talked with accused terrorists and shared meals with shrouded women who before meeting me thought Jews had horns under their hats. Yes, I was a U.S. government official and therefore could be perceived as being in a position of power. Regardless, in my own pursuit of global understanding, as well as my official role of “winning hearts and minds” in our country’s global counterterrorism efforts, I have had scores of civil discussions with people who have fundamentally different opinions about some of the most core values I hold dear; all without raising my voice or my blood pressure.
And yet, I shudder at the idea of discussing the second amendment, abortion, LGBT rights, the role of the federal government, Barack Obama, race or religion with Americans who don’t share my views. I would rather sit across from a sworn enemy of the United States and talk about the history of our foreign policy than discuss a woman’s right to choose with a steadfast anti-abortion rights advocate next door.
The rise of Donald Trump has slapped many of us in the face with the reality that our divisions are more ominous than we want to admit. We can claim we’ll move to Canada, or make other outlandish statements about the end of our great American dream. As someone who self-identifies as a global citizen, I too itch to flee, to bury my head in the sand, to distance myself from a country that I have defended but no longer recognize. But shouldn’t I be focused on how I can help fix this, instead of how I can run away from it?
In many parts of the world, people aren’t self-selecting into communities of like-minded individuals; they are merely born into communities that are more homogenous or less exposed to other viewpoints. In the U.S., where we have the greatest ability to explore diverse views, to surround ourselves by a variety of colors, religions, political and socioeconomic backgrounds, we have intentionally self-segregated. While social media provides us unlimited opportunities to expand our knowledge and exposure to new and different realities, it also makes it ever easier to select our circles by politics, religion, race, etc., or to even have these circles selected for us. Yet even for Americans who are raised in a more closed environment, or with fewer resources, there is still far more opportunity to learn and to question than in many parts of the world.
Talking with someone who has the world at his disposal but chooses to cling to certain viewpoints is so much more difficult than sharing ideas with someone who has had limited or no exposure to my world. With the latter, I know there is a very real possibility that we will learn from each other, even if we continue to disagree. With the former, that doesn’t even feel within my reach. And this is exactly why it is so much more critical, for the future of everything I hold dear.
Through the Obama years, as a large portion of Congress made clear its intent to ensure that the President fail, and segments of American society spewed vitriol unseen in my lifetime, I repeatedly said that when you hate the man in the White House more than you love your country, and you would rather see the country fail than give him a single victory, you are ensuring the end of American superpower status. When compromise is a non-starter, what can be accomplished by those who are elected, and entrusted, to serve us? And it will only worsen if that is the attitude toward either Hillary Clinton or Trump, once one of them moves into the White House.
As the 2016 elections play out across America, it has become impossible to ignore just how fractured our country has become. Regardless of who wins the election, I fear we have gone too far down the road of anger and hate to heal as a nation, without some form of severe intervention or collective awakening.
What if we could establish a National Reconciliation Task Force? We could repurpose some of the same “hearts and minds” types of campaigns that we wage in war zones, deploy people to towns and cities across the country to host engagement sessions. Unfortunately, that would require government action, a departure point that is already laden with so much distrust that it would be impossible to convince much of the country to participate or believe in the intentions.
So that leaves it to us, private citizens. It is up to us to push ourselves to engage in open dialogue, to bring people together in discussion groups, around dinner tables, on television, in movies. While the cable news networks may continue to seek profit over the greater good , I am certain there are enough private citizens, philanthropists and activists who care as much as I do about this issue to start a movement, however small, to start healing this nation.
The tech industry, in particular, could play a pivotal role. And imagine if movies started showing more diversity of political, religious and social viewpoints in characters that also manage to get along. What if reality TV shows introduced us to a wider variety of our fellow Americans and brought people together to discuss true hot-button issues, without throwing things at each other? What if public universities encouraged all viewpoints, instead of creating “safe spaces” ?
I am not suggesting that we all go have dinner parties with leaders of Neo Nazi groups and Westboro Baptist Church members. I have no desire to try to find mutual understanding with someone who advocates violence, just as I never had a burning desire to shake hands and chat with an ISIS or al-Qaeda leader.
But what about the rest of America? Put aside the outliers who preach violence, the fringe who are the most extreme form of bigots. What about everyone else: the millions of people in our country who are disillusioned, angry, or just confused about what the best solutions are for our country? Why shouldn’t my former Texas neighbors (who were a huge part of my ability to open my mind to gun-owning Republicans), my most liberal New York friends and I share a meal and a beer and talk about why we each believe what we do, or why we each support certain policies or candidates? I have no doubt that the conversation would come from a place of respect, even if nobody’s political views are changed.
With millions of Americans so deeply entrenched, and the political rhetoric and media complacency appearing past the point of no return, these ideas may sound futile. But the alternative is to just give up, to let the extreme voices become the mainstream, and to toss our ideals to the wind. Throwing in the towel is not the American way. It's time for the reasonable voices to stand up and take back our country.