“Uncle Jim, turn on the TV – a plane just flew into a tall building in New York City.” I soon saw a second plane fly full-speed into another skyscraper. And though I’d been to Belfast eight times and taught a course on the Irish conflict and terrorism, the awful ugly truth still took time to sink in. This was no accident; it was mass murder.
Fifteen years later, that memory competes with today’s issues. Black Lives Matter. Colin Kaepernick’s protest. Terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando. Policemen assassinated in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and New York. Ugly echoes of Ferguson and Baltimore.
What do these events have in common? Recall Jack Nicholson’s (as Col. Nathan Jessep in the movie “A Few Good Men”) bellicose reply to a prosecutor’s request for a true account – “You can’t handle the truth?” Well, can we? Here are a few – in my opinion.
Like it or not, a common element in radical Islamic terrorism and strained race relations is a mix of envy, fear, dislike, and downright hatred of the western world. Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote: “The U.S. is killing our innocent civilians,” an apparent reference to Muslims in war zones. Eric Holder said we are “… in things racial … a nation of cowards.” And Kaepernick said we are “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Kaepernick cast his seed of discontent on fertile ground, today’s almost trendy anti-Americanism abroad and distrust of government and law enforcement here at home. However, he’s also on thin ice, protesting so visibly while on the job – in uniform – since employers can restrict speech that damages their business.
Colin’s choosing to disrespect the American flag could also be dangerously divisive if it forces football players at the pro, college, and even lower levels into a litmus test of showing “which side” they’re on when “our” national anthem is played.
And this is where the problems of terrorism and race relations intersect – since both require a united front. “United we stand, divided we fall” speaks volumes of truth and wisdom. And the truth – if we can handle it – is that we have neither the strong national leadership nor the common cultural bonds of respect for governmental authority and traditional religion and values that we had in years past. In other words, we are low on unifiers.
The Norman Rockwell world of people praying at dinner time, the apple for the teacher, the friendly policeman, and rock-ribbed religion and patriotism – and just three TV channels when we got television – is long gone. My generation misses it; yours may never have known it.
We now live in a far wider world, a more permissive one where moral standards are lower, drug availability higher, and technology a disruptive enabler of discontent. The interface between law enforcement and local crime is always raw. But with virtually instantaneous 24-7 public transmittal of the worst behavior by police—from my cell phone to your TV set, cell, iPod, or computer – we get a distorted view of reality.
Those disturbing visuals become permanent imprints on community consciousness. Even if the police are later found innocent of misconduct, the press seems almost reluctant to report it with the same intensity of the original event—nor is the local community likely to believe it anyway. That initial camera shot is burned into the brain, becoming an inconvenient truth hard to scrub away.
Northern Ireland became a laboratory of learning for both anti-terrorism experts and sociologists studying divided communities, the us vs. them model. British soldiers and Belfast policemen became targets. One policeman was shot on his hands and knees while checking under his car for a bomb before leaving for work. Even firemen responding to fires in the aggrieved community were often pelted with rocks.
Be it reporting possible terrorist activity, drug dealers, or a woman being battered, we need the cooperation and trust of the local neighborhood. The years since 9-11 have not been kind to inner cities or even leafy suburbs plagued with drug addiction and overdose deaths.
Kaepernick and BLM, with the aid of some senior leadership and advisors who value all people equally, need to turn their protest into a movement that will draw wider respect and support. Otherwise, “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” will ring hollow. And that’s a truth I can’t handle.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.