Thursday, November 26, 2015
In fiction, the protagonists are largely defined by their adversaries. So it is in reality. Our real-life enemies define us as a people. In how we react to their trespasses against us, and in how we compare ourselves to them.
In a bygone era, our identity as a nation was largely defined by the struggle between western democracy and communism. Today, our defining enemy is militant extremist Islamic fundamentalism. (Not as easy to say as communism, so we've come up with a few catch phrases over the years, like Islamofascism, but you get the idea.) In the devastating attacks of this foreign ideology upon western civilization and western values, we are forced, and perhaps welcome the opportunity to define ourselves in stark contrast to this current enemy. They are fundamentalist while we are pluralist. They are ruled by clerics while we are ruled by elected leaders. They do not value life. We do. (Up to a point. We've been killing thousands for over a decade now with predator drones, but we do our best to miss hospitals. Fortunes of war.) Above all, we are free and they are not.
Of course, how we define freedom is largely determined by our enemies, as well. Whether the government taps our phones or monitors or emails is something we decide based on the enemy clawing at our gates. Or, is it? When Al Quaeda hits us on 9/11 or when ISIS hits France, our leaders (in particular, our right-wing leaders) immediately consider cracking down harder on civil liberties, giving the national security agencies more authority to watch every move we make, compile our messages and perhaps even profile us based on our religion or ideologies. Republican national candidates start toying with the idea of registering American Muslims. (How far is that from internment camps, one wonders.) Not surprising, on the face of it. Someone attacks you, and it's instinctive, and only human to react accordingly.
But, strangely enough, such reactions appear rather selective. When Timothy McVeigh blew up a government office building in Oklahoma City, conservatives automatically assumed at the outset it was foreign Muslim elements who'd done the job. We were longing to strike back, to kill as many of them as we could; it was war. When we found out it was home-grown right-wing militia types who'd done the deed, then it was just a matter of criminal prosecution. A bit of national soul-searching over capital punishment, then the lethal injection, and life goes on. No one started profiling white racist good ol' boys with confederate flags on their pick-ups. No one started advocating all-out national internment or relocation for conservative white Christians critical of big government, race-mixing or over-taxation. When some white supremacist punk shoots up a church, everybody blames his parents for not being strict enough, but nobody sounds the war cry against white supremacism as the "true enemy." Goons can cry out "white power" or tell an Hispanic reporter to "get out of my country" at a political event, and no one seems to care. Least of all the candidate. And, random mass shootings may well become a monthly event, but no one seriously or passionately reacts by advocating tougher gun control laws. "Stuff happens," is the strongest reaction our conservative leaders can or will muster. (So much for our love of life.)
Senseless death is senseless death, yet our society is indeed very selective in its reactions to it, as in its choice of enemies. Yes, our enemies define us. We want them to. We want them to reinforce that which we value most in ourselves. We're a gun-toting nation, and we love it. If increasingly familiar tragic death and mayhem in schools and churches is the price we pay, so be it. We hate big government, though we're not opposed in the least to big government spying on our next-door neighbor if he looks or prays differently than the rest of us. When the attack comes from outside, from someone different, our knee-jerk reaction is war against all the attacker's kind. That's easy. When the attack comes from inside, from one of us, we don't consider it a wake-up call for self-improvement. That's too hard. Rather, it's just an excuse to gather outside a death house with placards, waiting for that hearse to roll out.
If we ever happen to run out of external enemies, I imagine we'll find a way to make more, or focus on convenient minorities within our borders. After all, without external enemies to occupy our attention, we might actually have to take a long hard look at ourselves. And, at the enemy inside our own skins.