It feels like the country is coming apart

2016 brings back memories of 1968

By the middle of the morning after five police officers were murdered in Dallas, I had already had six conversations with people who said the same thing in different words: They felt despondent, that this is an awful moment, that things are falling apart, that the killings in Baton Rouge, then St. Paul, then Dallas are more than tragic news stories, they’re darker than that, a breaking point.

This trinity of violence feels brutally tragic because it is. It also came after a long stretch of unsettling and destabilizing events -- from Donald Trump to Brexit, from San Bernardino to Orlando, from Paris to Istanbul to Baghdad and on and on.

I can remember feeling this way only once before. It wasn’t after 9/11, probably because I felt connected to a spirit of solidarity and shared mourning after such an enormous tragedy and terror.

It came when I was much younger, when I was 10. I remember waking up in June near the end of the school year. My parents were watching television, something they never did in the morning. I instantly felt worry. Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated during the night.

Americans in 1968 witnessed a series of searing events that became iconic moments in American history: race riots, the war in Vietnam, the war protests here, the Democratic National Convention and the presidential campaigns of George Wallace and Richard Nixon. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and then Bobby Kennedy sprang from that and towered over the chaos, tragedies of a different scale and depth. The world was coming apart and even a 10-year-old felt it.

The murders in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas feel like those political assassinations. It feels impossible that in this political and global climate any good could come from anything, that any resolve or unity can spring from tragedy and mourning.

Witnessing in 2016 is not like witnessing in 1968.

Today, following the news is emotional water-boarding. The supply of explicit, raw video of the worst things in the world is immediate, global and endless. You cannot watch the video of Alton Sterling getting shot in the chest by a police officer as he’s pinned to the ground and be unscarred. You can’t watch Diamond Reynolds’ livestream after her boyfriend, Philando Castile, was shot by a policeman and be untouched. You can’t watch video of the sniper ambush of Dallas policemen and forget it.

But you can. You can if you have watched hundreds of other “clips” – little, live slices of atrocities: ISIS beheadings, police shootings, school shootings, terrorist bombings, torture and on and on.

So perhaps – no, probably – this week’s unholy trinity of murder and racial violence will be just another clip and not a moment of lasting history.

Still, it is a moment with the potential to fracture us further, to be politically divisive and socially malignant.

The assassinations in Dallas are especially fraught. It is precisely the kind of event that makes people take sides and it is precisely the kind of event where there should be no sides. The natural human response to violence and cruelty is to make some sense of it, to frame it as good vs. evil, guilty vs. innocent. Whose side are you on – police or Black Lives Matter?

Of course, the only response is to have a full heart for all sides.

Most public leaders will say this. They call for empathy, respect and solidarity with police and the victims of police brutality. The political climate in America, however, is foully inhospitable to that kind of message, as is the global climate. It is hard to find wise voices that are heard or felt anywhere. It is hard to feel that things aren’t coming apart.

At least, that is how some people felt this morning. Perhaps it will pass with the news cycles. But for whatever it’s worth, I can remember feeling this way only once before, 48 years ago this summer.


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