Opinion: Plowing past a bitter harvest

The hate crimes of recent days should shock decent Americans and lead us to rebuild ties that used to link, rather than divide, us.

Americans of goodwill are mourning the 11 people murdered Oct. 27 at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The anti-Semitic hatred that authorities say motivated the accused killer is being rightly condemned by many.

Bringing the suspected gunman through the justice system, while fully appropriate, cannot heal the surrounding problem of the corrosive spirit now running largely unchecked across America. Anger has become a national energy food. Vitriol and verbal sniping threatens to supplant “good mornings” or other simple social pleasantries. Polite society seems to be on the endangered species list.

We routinely shout past each other, freely hurl invective, are quick to curl fingers into offensive gestures and make an energetic study of ignoring, if not denigrating, each other’s beliefs and viewpoints. And this is among the more-civilized of us.

Tossed to the curb too often are the once-common human interactions that create community, build and deepen relationships and, as a result, help make our society and government functional. We’re losing the realization that simple things like a casual conversation over a shared meal at work can bridge boundaries if we simply listen as much as we talk.

There is danger, individually and collectively, in normalizing the frighteningly hostile environment that is America today. A status quo of intolerance and rigidly drawn lines of “us” versus “them” can, at worst, help loosen the last mental or moral restraints that may keep isolated madmen from acting on violent urges, we believe.

Consider what we’ve endured in recent days. The killings at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. A gunman murdering two people in Kentucky because of their skin color. Explosive devices mailed to past presidents, other government leaders, CNN and the home of a Jewish philanthropist widely reviled by some on the Right.

Words have immense influence that can be swung toward constructive or destructive ends. That is especially applicable to those in power who use speech as a blunt-force cudgel or with a wink and a nod in encouraging uncivil, if not violent, behavior.

America’s leaders should be better than this. A president of the United States should not make a routine of tossing out hostile quips best uttered ineffectually in dark corners of seedy barrooms.

Much of the rest of our political discourse is little better. Hyperbole, bitter accusations and name-calling have stretched well beyond the normal verbal wrestling that has long helped Americans choose among political candidates. Both dominant parties now play this game.

Partly as a result, the once-revered concept of the loyal opposition has been battered into submission. It had long helped government function by enabling elected leaders to work in bipartisan fashion at times. Our Republic has suffered in its absence.

The likely end point of this dark track will be a less-stable, Disunited States of America. And, as Abraham Lincoln and the Good Book both warned centuries ago, a house divided cannot stand. That should be an unacceptable outcome for a nation fond of citing “We the people.” That either includes all of us — or none of us.

Mid-term elections loom next Tuesday, too, as the nation chooses its next round of leaders. Georgia is in the national eye, given the close race for governor. There is legitimate reason to worry about how the winners can, and will, govern a divided Georgia and U.S.

Once the people have chosen, we urge the victors to act for the benefit of all, and not just those whose votes put them into office. We also hope citizens will make it known they expect precisely that from our politicians. And all should recognize that incessant campaigning is not actual governing.

The midterm results alone won’t fix the current problems. America must begin to walk back from this precipice. Who will lead us there? Too many of our elected leaders sadly show no sign of doing so.

Our best hope, perhaps, lies in a concept etched deep into this nation’s birth certificate – that governmental power is wielded only with the consent of the governed. The responsibility to make America What It Should Be thus rests with all of us. If we wait for poll-driven, discord-fanning politicians to lead us there, it won’t happen.

An open mind can also go a long way toward rapprochement. Hunkering down in self-selected echo chambers often does the opposite, hardening divisions and closing minds.

Acknowledging that good ideas and good intentions aren’t confined to any one group will help too. Our ancestors knew that intuitively. And it let the likes of the late Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill get things done across the partisan aisle.

And we are lost as a people if politicians are our only leading voices. Where are the faith leaders who will preach that the long nightmare of self-absorbed seething must end? Who will challenge us all, rather than merely cast blame toward a bogeyman “other.”

We must begin practicing what we piously profess – all of us. Where are those who will begin loving thy neighbor as thyself – no matter their political beliefs, or lifestyle? Who will begin to see their co-workers, neighbors or fellow travelers through this life primarily as people deserving of respect and common decency, no matter their political leanings? All of us should do so.

There is nothing new – or easy — in this audacious ideal. Especially not for an Atlanta that produced and nurtured Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Old Testament book of Job has offered for millennia this wise, simple counsel: “As long as my breath is in me, And the breath of God in my nostrils, My lips will not speak wickedness, Nor my tongue utter deceit.”

All decent Americans of any faith should see the profound decency in that assertion as essential to our way of life. Behaving otherwise has reaped the bitterly poison harvest that has spread across this great land.

Americans and Georgians should be far better than this. It is past time for all of us to start acting like it. One decent deed at a time, we can get there.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

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