There’s a neighborhood bar not far from where I live. I drop by often enough that the bartenders know me and automatically get me my beer of choice. It’s a friendly place and easy to make conversation.
Back in mid-December the coverage of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was almost wall-to-wall. One evening it was silently unfolding on one of the bar’s muted televisions. I noticed a Hispanic man watching the images, his eyes wet with tears. A short time later we began talking and I found out why.
The man–I’ll call him Fernando–was thirty-eight years old and had grown up in El Salvador during its long civil war (1979-1992). The conflict was between the right-wing government, with its death squads, and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMNLF), an umbrella term for several left-wing guerrilla groups. Fernando’s parents were afraid of both sides. For them it was simply a matter of los hombres armados: the men with guns.
When Fernando was a little boy, he told me, his parents would sometimes take him from their house and spend the night hiding in the woods, with a hand cupped over Fernando’s mouth to keep him from crying out. We think of school shootings and civil wars as worlds apart. But for Fernando, the former was irresistibly reminiscent of the latter.
I have since talked to Fernando on several other occasions. We never speak of the civil war but it plainly haunts him. At some point–I have never asked how–he acquired an M-16, perhaps because he eventually joined one side or the other. Although he left the weapon behind him in El Salvador, he once told me he has never felt comfortable without it, and he alternates between having thoughts of violence and thoughts of running away. He becomes tearful easily and indeed, never seems far away from weeping. Although his case is undiagnosed, he almost certainly suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
As a military historian, I have never quite known what to make of Fernando’s equation of the Sandy Hook murders with his own childhood. But it is the same equation that others make who have to live with the threat or reality of mass killing. For military veterans present at the recent Boston Marathon Bombing, the scene resembled the aftermath of an IED blast. People residing in neighborhoods wracked with gang violence must know the same fear that Fernando’s parents did. Fernando is a reminder, I suppose, that although we define the boundaries of our field as centrally concerned with political violence, the lived experience of people caught up in violence is essentially the same.
Last evening I had another encounter at that same neighborhood bar. I was having a conversation with Steve, a dj who's worked at this bar--the Crazee Mule Saloon, whose patrons call it simply the Mule--for as long as I've been going to the Mule, which is at this point is going on four years now.
In addition to his job as a dj, Steve is a very serious conservative political commentator. You'll find his Twitter feed, called Oracle of Ohio, here. It, in turn, will lead you to Steve's blog, The Future of the Republic. You have to examine the blog pretty closely to discern that Steve publishes it, but you can do it, hence my decision to use his real first name rather than a pseudonym.
Steve describes himself thus: "writer/political scientist, capitalist business owner, Reagan republican.
Publisher, The Future of the Republic, American." His Twitter feed and blog form a good example of the dominant form of political discourse in America today--and for that matter the past decade and beyond. That is to say, it's intensely partisan and demonizes the political Left.
I've no intention of picking on Steve or his form of political engagement. We have contrasting views on practically everything, but Steve represents the substantial segment of Americans who are politically engaged, which is what the Founders wanted, expected, and believed the republic required if their political experiment would succeed. And needless to add, there are plenty of Left-leaning Twitter feeds and blogs just like it.
Nevertheless, I find this form of engagement disquieting, because it exemplifies the kind of political engagement that the Founders termed the "spirit of faction," which paradoxically they regarded as supremely dangerous to the republican experiment. I would much prefer the kind of political engagement that is in active dialogue with politically engaged Americans who hold different views. In this I am not alone. Increasingly on Facebook I see status updates like one published today by a friend of mine:
Facebook used to be a great way to keep up with what fun things your far-flung friends and family were doing, and to keep them in the loop on your doings as well. It made the world a little smaller and better by keeping us connected.
But now Facebook posts are increasingly about political opinions. This has made it more difficult for us to listen to each other; to acknowledge our differences but remain friends with those whose opinions differ from our own. We're separating ourselves into echo chamber camps of like-thinkers, and that makes us all intellectually poorer. How can we understand each other if we won't listen to each other?
What happened to politeness? Does the wider audience that Facebook reaches cause us to shout louder? Is it the relative anonymity of pronouncing from behind a keyboard that makes us more boldly coarse with our opinions?
I've been as guilty as anyone on this issue, so I have to either walk the talk or curtail my use of Facebook. The jury is out.
My friend's misgivings--I'll call him Bill--are echoed by many Americans, but not enough. There's little platform for a form of political engagement built to answer Bill's key question: "How can we understand each other if we won't listen to each other?"
As many of you know, my area of specialization concerns a period in American history that was also characterized by polarizing political engagement: the American Civil War and the 15 years or so of toxic political discourse that helped give rise to it.
So anyway, Steve was on a break. I bought him a drink and we settled into a discussion of the imminent nomination of Republican candidate Donald Trump, whom Steve believes, for several reasons, will become the 45th president of the United States. Steve's approach to political discussion is a barrage of political talking points, which are interesting albeit a little hard to convey with any subtlety in a bar that's pretty loud thanks to the blaring music and the cacophony of other patrons. Still, we were managing pretty well. My technique, in such situations, is to stake out few political positions of my own, but rather to ask questions about the second- and third-order effects of his preferred policy choices were they to be implemented.
After a while I noticed a second man--I'll call him Jack--who was standing nearby, listening in on our conversation. Eventually I turned to him, giving him an open to participate in our discussion. Because of all the ambient noise, I had trouble at first following what he had to say. What finaly broke through the noise was a question: "Do you own an AR-15?"
"I own an AK-47," replied.
Reduced to essentials, he took the position that we ought to keep our weapons well-oiled and our ammunition closely at hand, because sooner rather than later, we were going to need them. Jack regarded President Obama's executive activism as an unconstitutional overreach. And if Hillary Clinton were elected to she would simply trample the Constitution altogether,making armed resistance necessary. I asked what he thought the American military would do in such an instance. He believed that because Clinton would be shredding the Constitution, a substantial portion of the military--he implied all of it--would refuse to obey her "unlawful orders," and therefore would either join the resistance or else remain on the sidelines. He believed that in any event, American soldiers would not fire upon American citizens, even if they were armed and intent on toppling the elected American president. Having once studied the Kent State shootings of May 1970, when a contingent of National Guardsmen had fired upon students, killing four and wounding nine, simply for protesting (and in the case of two of the dead, simply en route to their next class, I doubted that the American military would hesitate to shoot armed insurgents. (He balked at the term "insurgents," but that is precisely the role they would be playing under the scenario he described.)
Fueled by both passion and alcohol, Jack got a little to close too me and more than a little "in your face." Eventually I asked him to get his hand of my shoulder and back away a bit. Steve by this time had stepped in the de-escalate the rhetoric, and presently Jack went away.
I doubt that the scenario Jack described was likely to arise. I doubted even more whether he had thought through the implications of what he was saying. Even in the unlikely event that the military remained on the sidelines, there are a lot of Left-leaning Americans who are also armed. The logical extension of his argument was that Americans would construct their own version of the El Salvadoran civil war. The men with guns would now be American men with guns. I have a 4-year old daughter. The bare suggestion that she might share the same experience as Fernando was, well, intolerable.
Now Jack's an extreme example of the depths to which political discourse in this country has descended. But his convictions, his prophecies, and his passion had to come from somewhere, and a few bottles of Bud Light was not, of course, the source. The source is screamingly obvious.
Though Jack may be a lost cause, I have higher hopes for Steve, who, whatever his political point of view, is both capable and willing to have a conversation more or less along lines that would answer Bill's cri de coueur. Such conversations are vital. Because if enough Americans are unwilling to have them, Jack's scenario may not be so unrealistic after all.