An era of violence at the doorstep of America

An era of violence at the doorstep of America
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America appears to be reaching a tipping point towards national crisis. The recent discovery of pipe bombs proves that identity politics has pushed some in society to the threshold. Belligerent rhetoric and resurging protests to mobilize supporters and confront the other side are escalating to dangerous levels. Such behavior foments an increasing disregard for respectful, peaceful dialogue, while America regresses into an era of civil unrest, political chaos and violence.

Over a decade ago, I returned from one of a few combat tours in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. I remember sitting in my parents’ home and telling my father, a Vietnam War veteran, that this country was simmering with political and ethnic cleavages. The anger from 9/11 and its effects among different races, genders, religions and creeds was not just limited to combat operations overseas. I saw and felt the same fervor in our communities, whether through casual conversations with people, family time at the dinner table, or in the media.

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Identity politics has crept back into the mainstream and revitalized political, social, economic and racial divisions. Some believe this strife is nowhere near the past eras of discontent, such as the 1960s or 1850s, but in today’s digital world, it takes only one flashpoint. America’s history shows that violence and extremism emerge when leadership and moderation across the breadth and depth of issues fail, and opportunities for solutions disappear. This is when violence takes root in society and becomes hard to stop.

The United States stands at a point of grave concern because of polarization among Americans.  The American experience in democracy, however, has withstood challenging eras in the past, most of which were tied to racism or extreme identity politics. But the current environment presents a foreboding challenge. The erosion of trust in the government, its institutions and leaders, added to the polarization, gives rise to a recipe for violence. Such violence originates out of fear and desire to control outcomes, because people see the government failing to deliver solutions with respect to their views.

All three branches of government and the media have contributed to the state of affairs. The executive branch challenges political norms with rhetoric that focuses on identity politics and their political base. Congress and former administration leaders direct their supporters to harass political opponents, or tell their party members to go low and “take them out the knees.” The Supreme Court nomination process became extraordinarily partisan at the expense of people’s well-being. The media have a penchant for exploiting a market space for partisan politics, which results in shaping news for voters versus voters being shaped by news. And we must not forget the American citizen who bears the responsibility to behave within the laws and norms of society as a peaceful member of the community.  

Today, our own citizens attack each other with mass shootings at schools, nightclubs and congressional baseball games; mail pipe bombs and other biological threats; physically assault each other on campuses and at protests; ambush and kill first-responders; and engage in many other malicious physical and emotional assaults, including through media. It is a vicious cycle that no one seems to be able to control. If violence is the common thread to deal with polarization and lack of trust in American institutions, then leadership must be the way to repair this unraveling.

It starts with setting the tone that no decision is deliberately meant to hurt another group of people. Americans respect decisions that remain within the values of the Constitution. Decisions never should be taken from a win-lose perspective, unless the nation is at war based on the survival of its values. Win-lose approaches, outside of war, only polarize identity politics further, which, if not led with moderation and maturity, likely will lead to violence.  

Leaders seem to focus on problems, not solutions. This perspective lends itself to construing compromise as a weakness, which simply enables the other party to challenge more at the negotiating table. This tactic is inherently flawed, because the focus is not on finding solutions. As a result, the approach leads to a win-lose methodology and further polarization. The time has come for leaders to find solutions and repair relationships damaged by polarizing politics.

The Nov. 6 midterm elections, regardless of the outcome, indicate a deepening retrenchment of identity politics. Negotiating solutions to American society’s many long-neglected, deep-rooted issues is a daunting task. Hardening alliances, bellicosity in all directions and changing versions of “the truth” exploit these conditions. Unfortunately, our leadership is allowing moderation and positive solutions to take a back seat to political gain.

The United States must begin reconciliation. The current polarization goes back a few decades and is not the fault of just one administration. Democracy is messy, but dignity and respect should be enduring in both word and deed. And, trust has no identity; it applies to all Americans. Failure to bring about an attitude that builds trust, and sustains dignity and respect, risks condemning American society to an era of violence. This leadership responsibility rests on the doorstep of this generation of leaders and the current government.

Daniel S. Morgan, an active duty Army infantry colonel, is retiring in December. His career spanned 25 years of public service serving in the Clinton White House from 1998-2001 supporting the U.S. National Drug Control Strategy, and commanding infantry and airborne units in multiple combat and peacekeeping operations across the world. He most recently served as the 2017-2018 Army’s senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army War College, the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.]