The bullying, the assaults, the crude graffiti, and vile social media posts of the past few days feel all too familiar. The waters being tested, the boundaries probed.
“Maybe there is a beast,” said Simon, in William Golding’s classic exploration of the savagery that underlies even the most civilized human beings, “…maybe it’s only us.”
I first witnessed the gruesome evidence of man’s potential for inhumanity in what is now called the Republic of the Congo, deep in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Bloated bodies of French and Belgian men, women and children littered the streets, many half-eaten by the dogs who had been their pets just days before, slaughtered by rebels who had invaded their mining outpost.
In Lebanon, I watched as flares lit the night sky over the Sabra and Shatila slums of south Beirut, where Christian militiamen spent the night massacring upwards of 3,500 Palestinian and Shiite civilians, mostly women, children and the elderly, who had been left behind when the PLO was forced to evacuate in the face of an Israeli siege.
In the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, I drove through village after village that had been looted and flattened by rival Christian Armenian and Muslim Azeri armies and militias, killing scores and eventually displacing upwards of one million people.
And in Indonesia, site of the murder of at least 400,000 people in 1965-66, the so-called Year of Living Dangerously, in 1998 I saw rioting crowds beating and killing ethnic Chinese in riots that engulfed parts of Jakarta during the Reformasi revolt that overthrew dictator Suharto.
Let’s be clear: We the people of the United States have not descended into such savagery. Thank God.
A Muslim high school girl being accosted by boys in a parking lot is an act of intolerance. A gay boy finding swastikas painted on his car is a crude homophobic deed. Hispanic children being taunted by other kids telling them their parents are going to be locked up behind The Wall, is a case of bigotry.
Those are three of the incidents I’ve heard about here the Pacific Northwest, where the red/blue divide runs down the spine of the Cascade Mountain range. But journalist Shaun King, who has been tracking such hate crimes on his twitter feed, said Saturday he had received more than 10,000 such reports from across the nation.
That’s called a pattern.
Resentment. Othering. Name-calling. Bullying. Violence. History shows us that is the slippery slope to inhumanity. Nazi Germany. Rwanda. Cambodia.
“The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away.”
A friend in a liberal college town in Western Massachusetts posted a picture of what had been a bucolic rural overlook. In the last few days, the rocks have been painted with crude graffiti: “Kill all Niggers.” “Fuck the Jews.”
There is a steady and deeply troubling drip, drip, drip of such stories. The men’s room fliers at Texas State University calling for vigilante squads to “go arrest & torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all the Diversity Garbage.” Blacks being told by whites that they will soon own them. “Whites only” signs on drinking foundations and bathrooms. Swastikas on walls, cars and middle school boys’ bathrooms. And countless shouts of “go home” to anyone who somehow looks different.
“The desire to squeeze and hurt was over-mastering.”
“Not politically-correct.” That was Trump’s election mantra. It’s code for not giving a shit what “polite” society thinks. The bully can do whatever he wants—and sneer about it.
“Bollocks to the rules! We’re strong—we hunt! If there’s a beast, we’ll hunt it down! We’ll close in and beat and beat and beat—!”
For 18 long months, Trump’s rallies have echoed with chants of “Lock her up!” and much worse, as the candidate quietly nodded and smiled.
At last the words of the chant floated up to them… “Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Spill her blood.”
Asked by the Wall Street Journal if he thought his election rhetoric had gone too far, Trump responded flatly, “No, I won.”
The lesson has not been lost on a small, aggrieved sub-set of his supporters. Every crude thought can now be given voice; every improper impulse can now be acted on. To Hell with civilization. Time for the vigilantes to mount up.
Meanwhile, the president-elect stands silent and allows the frenzy of the crowd to take over.
“You were outside. Outside the circle. You never really came in. Didn’t you see what we—what they did?”
Trump has spoken of the need to heal America’s wounds, but the signals he is sending to his followers say something completely different: No room for dissent.
“Watching white nationalists celebrate while innocent Americans cry tears of fear does not feel like America,” Sen. Harry Reid said Friday, calling the president-elect “a sexual predator who lost the popular vote and fueled his campaign with bigotry and hate.” The Trump team’s response: Reid should “be very careful.”
The breakdown of convention is not limited to the right. In Portland, Oakland, and other cities, anti-Trump demonstrators have broken shop windows and set fires in the streets. A GOP office in Virginia was damaged, an innocent man beaten in Chicago. “Kill Trump” graffiti has appeared. Trump’s opponents, too, feel the frisson of violence in the air.
Context is important. Most of what has unfolded has involved psychological or physical bullying. No one has been killed. No one has been lynched. But the line is easily crossed, accidentally or with will and forethought.
It is incumbent on every American to now find a way to bridge the chasm. But only one man is about to don the mantle of “leader of the free world.” Only one man has declared himself president of all Americans.
Only one man has torn asunder the conventions of civility through pronouncements that were both incendiary and demeaning to large swaths of the American public; only one man can now calm the excesses of his followers and assuage the fears of those who voted against him.
If he is serious about wanting to “bind the wounds of division.”
“All this I meant to say. Now I’ve said it. You voted me for chief. Now you do what I say.”
There is a certain liberation in chaos. It’s the reason some soldiers and reporters become addicted to war. The rules don’t apply to us. The violent sub-set of Trump supporters, clad in their “Trump that Bitch” t-shirts and “Drain the Swamp” hats, are experiencing that emotional high.
“They understood only too well the liberation into savagery that the concealing paint brought.”
But 21st-century America is not the Congo or Beirut. We do not conduct pogroms or persecutions. We can only hope the excesses of the past days are a post-election purge never to be repeated; that the new president will speak up before things get out of hand.
If he does not, we could end up like Golding’s protagonist Ralph, looking back and weeping “for the end of innocence, the darkness of a man’s heart.”