As Americans we like to think that we are “the city on the hill,” the beacon of light in the world, the country that comes to the rescue of those in peril. For generations these are the qualities that have defined America. Indeed, they are the very essence of what has attracted “the poor and the huddled masses” memorialized by the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. At least in theory, we have greeted these poor and huddled masses with open arms and given them the opportunity to live a life of comfort and dignity.
Of course, the reality has fallen far short of this ideal on many occasions. We are also the country that lynched blacks and minorities, dropped the atom bomb, interned Japanese and Italians during World War II and committed atrocities like My Lai in Vietnam. Today atrocities are committed by terrorists from the right and from the left. Indeed, the killing has become virtually commonplace—if such a thing can be possible—and we have become inured to its horror. We are daily bombarded with bad news, lies and deceit, and we no longer know how to react to it all. I’m ashamed to say that when I open my news page in the morning I almost expect to see another shooting or another terrorist attack, and my only question is: where will it be today? How close will it be to me and my loved ones? In short, we are suffering from severe shock exhaustion.
In America we are living through a sort of bloodless (for now) civil war where families are being torn apart by their loyalties; just about everyone has taken a position to be either for Trump or anti-Trump and the political poles are moving ever farther apart. The hallmark of his campaign and subsequent presidency has been to demonize and divide: Mexicans are rapists and murderers, Muslims are terrorists, immigrants are taking our jobs, caravans are invading us from the south. This is an example of the politics of fear-mongering and division at its best.
His presidential campaign set the model: attack everything that is sacred to Americans, the military, its institutions, even its Constitution. In the aftermath of the events at Charlottesville he confirmed this model, expressing a moral equivalency between the right and left, between good and evil, where white supremacists marched, chanting Nazi slogans. In Trump’s mind, “There were some fine people on both sides.” We are currently led by a man who cannot relinquish his feud even against a dead opponent and cannot keep from spouting self-indulgent condemnations of McCain—even when it clearly goes against his own personal and political interests. Trump simply can’t help himself.
Let’s think instead about what good leadership looks like. In the wake of the mosque shooting in New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did not pay lip service to banalities, she expressed sincere sorrow, called for the unity of her people, and immediately took action that imprinted the seal of truth on her words. Unlike the bitter anti-immigrant rhetoric that is dividing the US, where it’s a relentless campaign of pitting “Americans” against “immigrants,” Ardern underscored their humanity and commonality, “Many of those affected will be members of our migrant communities — New Zealand is their home — they are us.”
Practically immediately after the shooting in the mosque at Christchurch, she was already asking some crucial questions about the government, its policies, its practices, and what could have been done to prevent the tragedy. By contrast, in the aftermath of each shooting in the US, “ Instead of asking questions or resolving to take action…we have come to accept as inevitable that large numbers of people will be killed every year by madmen with guns.”
Just two days after Christchurch, Ardern announced a ban on semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles, the kinds of arms the suspect used in the attack and the kind that have been used in multiple shootings in this country, including the ones at the Las Vegas concert, the Orlando nightclub, at the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school, the Texas church and at the Parkland, Florida High School. And yet we still do nothing about it despite the protests of organized student groups and concerned citizens.
What is the purpose of a leader? A population, by its very nature of numbers and diversity, needs to be molded, shown the way to “the city on the hill” if it is to fulfill the promise inherent in humanity, to become the best of itself. That is the leader’s job. I’m sure that there really were some very fine people in Nazi Germany as well, but their leader was a sub-human monster without a moral compass who brought out not the best, but the worst in them. The Holocaust was the fruit of that failure to lead humanely and morally. Today we are experiencing the same crisis in leadership in the US and some very fine people are not rising to the challenge. Repeated calls for the GOP to exercise their moral obligation and call out the lies, deceit and shameful behavior of the President go unheard.
Leadership looks like Jacinda Ardern who, by her example, united the country in grief and compassion. “As if following the lead of the prime minister, New Zealanders publicly consoled one another, will stand for two minutes of silence on Friday, and will broadcast the Islamic call to prayer across the nation.” What else needs to be said?