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Speaking of America

Can a fractured America unite?

WASHINGTON • The past few weeks in the United States might be aptly described as a multicultural society's worst nightmare.

Two shootings in a matter of days left two black men dead at the hands of white police officers - each one the subject of its own gruesome and widely distributed video. And then five police officers were killed by a black gunman who specifically said he set out to gun down as many white police officers as he could.

All this while the nation had barely come to terms with the deadliest shooting in its history - the June 12 massacre of 49 at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

It's almost too much stress for one society to bear in such a short time. And indeed, there have been signs that the country is fraying at the edges.

A chasm has emerged between those who call for justice for the black victims of police shootings and those concerned about the safety of law enforcement officers, as if the two agendas must be mutually exclusive.

In the days following the Dallas shooting, protesters from both sides confronted each other on the streets of the city. On one side was the group dressed in black holding up signs with the words "Black Lives Matter" - the rallying cry of the movement worried about police bias. The other group, waving American flags and Texas flags, chanted what has become the chosen slogan of the counter-protest: "All Lives Matter".


ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

This same conflict has reared its head everywhere, even in the normally unified world of sports.

Last weekend, four police officers in Minnesota providing security at a women's basketball game walked off the job in response to players wearing T-shirts in support of Black Lives Matter. Then on Tuesday, a singer performing at the baseball All-Star game sparked an outcry when he changed the words of the Canadian national anthem to include the phrase "all lives matter".

The wounds have been allowed to fester for too long and too many people too used to having nothing done. In so many previous instances, the script has been the same: Protests will eventually die down and injustices temporarily suppressed until a new incident provides a jolt.

Elsewhere, the rip in the social fabric caused by the outbreak of violence was less clearly demarcated but every bit as real. Some white Americans saydiscomfort has been injected into their everyday interactions with their black neighbours.

One 35-year-old who works for a non-profit organisation told The Straits Times she felt like apologising to every black person she met.

In effect, the racial differences that had been so easily ignored for years have now bubbled to the surface. Just how the country intends to tackle this problem is a question with no easy answers.

A UNIFYING LEADER
At times like these, the normal reaction would be to look for a leader to bring a country together. It is a formula that has been proven to work.

In the wake of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the country looked to then President George W. Bush for unity. And for all his faults, he said the right words and did the right things to bring the country together. He was helped in large part by a Congress that decided to hit pause on partisanship and unite behind him. Members of Congress from both parties famously stood on the steps of the Capitol Building and burst into an impromptu chorus of God Bless America.

Nobody can imagine such a scene taking place today, under President Barack Obama.

This is not a commentary on the relative skills of Mr Obama as uniter-in-chief. The President has done all he is supposed to do and more. He simply lives in a different time with different realities.

The fact that Mr Obama's opponents have spent the better part of eight years painting him as an enemy who has sought to destroy America, means that, whatever he says, his words will land on ears that have long been shut off to him.

As a commentary in The Washington Post noted last week: "Does anyone believe that there is some combination of words Obama could speak now that would cause the likes of (Republican instigators) Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Donald Trump to say, 'That was really terrific; I've had my disagreements with him in the past, but today my hat's off to him'?"

And if Mr Obama can't do it, surely the two party nominees at the heart of the bitter presidential campaign - Mr Trump and Mrs Hillary Clinton - are not going to fare any better.

THE IMPOSSIBLE CONVERSATION
But what if the leadership still had credibility to unite? What could they say that might help in a situation like this one?

Unlike a terrorist attack, it isn't clear at all in the current situation in the US who the villains and heroes are.

Speaking at the funeral of the five slain police officers this week, Mr Obama tried two strategies - first, to try and convince Americans that the country isn't as divided as it has been made out to be, and second, to urge both sides to see the other's point of view. "With an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other's shoes and look at the world through each other's eyes, so that maybe the police officer sees his own son in that teenager with a hoodie who's kind of goofing off but not dangerous. And the teenager, maybe the teenager will see in the police officer the same words and values and authority of his parents," he said.

The message made sense but one can't help but wonder what it could achieve, even under the ideal political circumstances.

It is, after all, an old solution to what seems like a new problem.

The call for society to have a hard and open conversation about the issue, so that all sides can develop a better understanding of one another - is a prescription that has been made out to all manner of conflicts in the past to mixed outcomes.

This time, it is not clear that society can fix itself through some tough talk. After all, the divisions are such that frank and open conversation might not be possible or, even if it is, is unlikely to involve people who really need to have it.

Over time, for a broad multitude of reasons, people have moved from disagreeing over what is the best way to solve a problem to believing that their way to solve the problem is the only way.

Thus, all those who disagree are either insane or malicious.

As political analyst Jonathan Rauch noted in The Atlantic: "They do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even exists. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary."

To be clear, this isn't to suggest that a frank and open conversation isn't useful, but rather that it is likely impossible, no matter how much we exhort each other to have it.

If all of this sounds hopeless, it is because the situation seems that way. The wounds have been allowed to fester for too long and too many people too used to having nothing done. In so many previous instances, the script has been the same: Protests will eventually die down and injustices temporarily suppressed until a new incident provides a jolt.

Perhaps America, ever resourceful and resilient, will find a way this time to pull itself together.

Until then, though, it serves as a tangible example, not just of the preciousness of racial harmony, but also of exactly how hard it is to fix when it is broken.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2016, with the headline 'Can a fractured America unite?'. Print Edition | Subscribe