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A scene from a recent community protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo: Reuters)

Volatile America

Robert C. Koehler

In a flash I thought, oh God, the civil war has started.

Then the headlines shifted and, for the moment, “normalcy” returned. It’s a Trump-sated normalcy that’s anything but, of course, and the most recent heavily reported violence (at least as I write these words) — the murder of three police officers in Baton Rouge — blends into the endlessly simmering turmoil known as the United States of America.

And the civil war, in fact, started long ago. But until recently, only one side has been armed and organized. That’s why the two latest police killings, by disciplined, heavily armed former military men, loose a terrifying despair. The victims are fighting back — in the worst way possible, but in a way sure to inspire replication.

When people are armed and outraged, the world so easily collapses into us vs. them. All complexity vanishes. People’s life purpose clarifies into a simplistic certainty: Kill the enemy. Indeed, sacrifice your life to do so, if necessary. I fear this is still the nation’s dominant attitude toward its troubles. We’re eating ourselves alive.

One way this is happening was described in a recent New York Times story, headlined: “Philando Castile Was Pulled Over 49 Times in 13 Years, Often for Minor Infractions.” Castile, who as the world knows was shot and killed by a police officer during a routine traffic stop on July 6, was a young man caught in a carnivorous system pretty much all his adult life. Every time he started his car, he risked arrest for “driving while black.” The Times quotes a Minneapolis public defender, who described Castile as “typical of low-income drivers who lose their licenses, then become overwhelmed by snowballing fines and fees.” They “just start to feel hopeless.”

The story goes on: “The episode, to many, is a heartbreaking illustration of the disproportionate risks black motorists face with the police. . . . The killings have helped fuel a growing national debate over racial bias in law enforcement.”

A growing national “debate”? Oh, the politeness! How much racism should we allow the police to show before we censure them? It’s like talking about the “debate” we used to have over the moral legitimacy of lynching.

Here’s Gavin Long’s contribution to the “debate”: “One hundred percent of revolutions, of victims fighting their oppressors, from victims fighting their bullies, one hundred percent have been successful through fighting back through bloodshed. Zero have been successful through simply protesting. It has never been successful and it never will.”

Long, the former Marine who served a tour of duty in Iraq, shot and killed three police officers in Baton Rouge on July 17, ten days after Micah Johnson, the former Army Reservist who served a tour in Afghanistan, shot and killed five police officers in Dallas.

America, America . . .

What we have here is a toxic mixture of racism and militarism and guns. We’re in the midst of an endless war against evil — or terror, or whatever — in the Middle East, a war that has pretty much been fought by low-income recruits who see military service as a way out of poverty. This war is a planet-wrecking disaster, though the raw horror created by our bombs and missiles overseas remains largely outside U.S. public awareness. Fifteen years in, it’s simply “war” — the background noise of American greatness. The consequences are somebody else’s problem.

For instance, this sort of news, as reported earlier this week on Common Dreams, hardly makes it into the debate:

“Dozens of civilians, including children, were killed on Monday and Tuesday by U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria.

“The strikes appeared to have been a mistake, with the civilians taken for Islamic State (IS or ISIS) militants, the U.K.-based human rights group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights group told the AFP news agency.

“Fifty-six civilians were killed on Tuesday by coalition forces, and 21 civilians were killed by the coalition on Monday. The 77 civilian deaths included at least 11 children.”

But they’re not Americans, so such deaths just aren’t that important to us.

Indeed, the war — and the trillions of dollars it costs — go virtually unmentioned in the surreal race for the presidency that’s currently underway. Also unmentioned is the fact that the war is being brought home to our gun-saturated society by former soldiers fighting back against racist policing the way soldiers always fight back: They’re killing “the enemy.”

The potential volatility of this barely noticed situation is enormous. If protesters decide to arm themselves as they confront heavily armed police, the violence on both sides could morph into civil war.

The only defense against this is awareness, respect and disarmed openness on all sides of the conflict — openness of the sort that took place this past Sunday in Wichita, Kansas. On the same day, coincidentally, as the police killings in Baton Rouge, members of Black Lives Matter and the Wichita police department co-sponsored what they called a “First Steps Cookout”: an outdoor party with “free food — provided by the police, the community and local businesses — and the opportunity to have open conversations with law enforcement,” according to Huffington Post. Nearly a thousand people attended.

This is what takes courage: to get to know your “enemy.” I know at the deepest level of my being that we can walk together toward such awareness. This is the only chance we have to disarm our volatile future.


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Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Koehler has been the recipient of multiple awards for writing and journalism from organizations including the National Newspaper Association, Suburban Newspapers of America, and the Chicago Headline Club.  He’s a regular contributor to such high-profile websites as Common Dreams and the Huffington Post. Eschewing political labels, Koehler considers himself a “peace journalist. He has been an editor at Tribune Media Services and a reporter, columnist and copy desk chief at Lerner Newspapers, a chain of neighborhood and suburban newspapers in the Chicago area. Koehler launched his column in 1999. Born in Detroit and raised in suburban Dearborn, Koehler has lived in Chicago since 1976. He earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia College and has taught writing at both the college and high school levels. Koehler is a widower and single parent. He explores both conditions at great depth in his writing. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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