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Voices / Viewpoint

Bin Laden’s strategy of disunity

We need to engage our neighbors in an empathetic and genuine way if we are to be able to figure out how to bridge the chasm that is now destroying our country

Dan DeWalt, one of the founders of this newspaper, is a woodworker and teacher at Leland & Gray Union High School. He is a longtime activist for social justice, clean energy, and peace.

Newfane

Osama Bin Laden is sleeping with the fishes, but his dreams may be coming true.

Bin Laden thought that the U.S. is a corrupted shell of a nation. He thought that the Sept. 11 attacks would expose a vulnerable underbelly, crumble our resolve, and disunite us.

He may have been wrong about our resolve, but nearly 20 years later, our unity is now crumbling like our neglected bridges.

Immediately following the September attacks, President George W. Bush admirably spoke about unity and peace at a Washington D.C. mosque, vowing to not let the attacks divide us.

But at the same time, government surveillance of mosques increased, the world (and Americans) were told that “you’re either with us or against us,” and America’s current series of wars against the Muslim world began.

Despite the president’s protestations, it became acceptable to vilify Islam and its adherents. Spying on Americans became commonplace, and a large portion of the populace began to feel alienated by the lies of their government and from those Americans who supported it in spite of those lies.

* * *

The Bush/Cheney administration’s reaction to the attacks was to “turn to the dark side,” as Vice President Dick Cheney notoriously said.

The bulk of the country supported the military action in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al Queda, but Cheney’s move to the dark side created a significant fissure in our body politic.

Prior to 9/11, the vast majority of Americans and the political establishment would have renounced and condemned torture anytime, anywhere. But after the attacks, as a result of administration propaganda and rhetoric, a significant number became willing to accept torture (as long as it was called “extreme interrogation”) and to acquiesce to the new norm.

With its tortured legal reasoning, Bush and Cheney did their best to legitimize torture, broadening the divide between traditional non-torture loving Americans and the new “git-’er-done-and-don’t-worry-about-how-you-do-it” Cheney-neocon Americans.

* * *

Whatever tortured reasons Bush and Cheney and their administration had for going to war in Iraq, they gave Bin Laden a two-fer: not only did we alienate and antagonize the entire Arab world by our illegal invasion, we also — and more significantly — began to inculcate an anti-Arab/anti-Muslim attitude in a new generation of our military culture, as well as to a percentage of the public at large.

War crimes like random assassinations and torture became commonplace. This was possible only when those perpetrating and accepting the crimes had thoroughly dehumanized the “other” upon whom these atrocities were visited.

These attitudes festered and spread like mold when those who had engaged in these crimes returned home from that disastrous war.

After eight years of feckless leadership, during seven of which we were at war, America tired of Bush/Cheney. (Bush himself even tired of Cheney.) The nation turned to Barack Obama to change the dismal trajectory upon which the country found itself.

But the fissure in our body politic was not to heal itself. The poisonous anti-Muslim attitudes had taken hold and were not to be cleansed away easily.

Obama tried to make amends with the Muslim world, but rather than acting as an antidote to Islamophobia in the United States, his attempts instead sparked and fueled intense levels of racism against the first black president. How dare he question the wisdom of our country’s past errors?

With a black man at the helm, it was all too easy for the poison of hate to bring to the surface our latent racism, which has always existed but had been kept in the shadows due to public opprobrium.

White supremacists, whether latent and tentative or outspoken and on the internet, were incensed that their mythic — in every sense of the word — American values were being questioned or, worse, debunked.

Rabble rousers like Donald Trump tried their best to other-ise Obama, claiming that he was a Muslim and a foreigner.

The virus of fear, panic, and loathing replicated and finally erupted fully formed in the person of candidate — now president — Trump.

At first, most of us thought that Trump was so alien to our (also mythic) American values that he could never get any traction. But we didn’t reckon on the extent of the festering fear and hate.

Surface norms, which so many trusted to keep us “civilized,” failed to contain the sickness. Greed, selfishness, racism, sexism, Islamophobia — all crawled to the surface and started to grow in the open.

Hate, bigotry, and mean-spiritedness mainstreamed by Trump have also been fueled by the slow-dawning realization that, no matter our prejudices, the United States is slowly but surely turning brown.

The current onslaught of overt racism as well as sexism is a last-stage attempt to hold on to an outdated and discredited way of being which no longer works.

Unfortunately, it could still be many years before our body politic rids itself of this disease, and we could be facing terrible strife, violence, and disunity in the coming years.

There is no guarantee the U.S. will emerge unscathed — or even emerge as a whole nation at all.

* * *

As long as we rely on old beliefs about American ideals being noble and thinking that “we are better than this” to heal our national disintegration, we will simply be witnesses to our demise.

If we do believe that Americans value every other American, that everyone deserves a chance to succeed, that we do care about the world’s hungry and poor and those yearning to breathe free, then we will have to act differently.

We have to be willing to honestly examine our own biases, implicit and explicit, and not only about race, gender, or religion.

Historically oppressed classes of people are not the only ones who have been downtrodden and have seen the American dream grow further out of reach with each passing year.

Almost 63 million people in this country voted for Trump, and plenty of them are not racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, or fools.

Those of us who despise Trump and his policies cannot simply write off all of his supporters because we can’t understand their reasoning. They are not failed citizens — we are failing to do the hard work of understanding them because of our own biases and disinterest in getting to the bottom of our national dilemma.

We need to engage our neighbors (more than 95,000 Vermonters voted for Trump) in an empathetic and genuine way if we are to be able to figure out how to bridge the chasm that is now destroying our country.

Doing so will not only give us insight on why people do what they do, it also will give those who were willing to embrace Trump the opportunity to learn that we are not the snobby elite who don’t give a damn about them and their grievances.

Because up to now, they have no reason not to think that this is the case.

Do we really want to give Bin Laden the legacy of having initiated the downfall of our democracy, imperfect as it is?

I don’t think so.

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