We Americans try to resolve the civil wars of other countries–sometimes heroically and successfully, sometimes clumsily, sometimes tragically worsening the violence. But these days, peace needs to start at home.
We are in a civil war of words in our country. And not just words. The toxic violence in our political discourse comes amidst actual violence against many. Our presidential campaign has encouraged greater violence rather than diminished it. Violence against women has been celebrated by a candidate who has been accused of it. The lethal tension between black American citizens and police officers who serve our citizenry has been deepened and politicized, not met, as it should be, with bipartisan calls for reform that would save lives and improve policing.
The debate in our presidential campaign is concluding with shocking threats and incitements to widespread political violence the likes of which our country has not seen in its modern life. A candidate has called for “second amendment” responses if he loses, charged that the electoral process is “rigged” against him, and refused to accept the electoral result if he is defeated. Some of his supporters speak openly of taking arms against the government and their political opponents. A Republican campaign office was firebombed in a hate crime the same week men openly displaying guns stood outside of a Democratic campaign office for hours.
These ugly threats do not represent the overwhelming majority of Americans of all political preferences (and none) who want our country to be a safe, fair and free place. And yet threats from a minority can destroy peace and safety for all us if those threats erupt into violence. Even if the violence in words does not lead to violence in deeds, the malignancy we charge our opponents with makes it impossible for us to work together on problems we must solve together to become a better country.
How can we step back from an escalation of the angry words of this campaign into something far worse? The title of this essay quotes Abraham Lincoln’s majestic call for peace as the Civil War closed. Lincoln’s graceful eloquence then suggests the way to an answer today —coming together in agreement, rather than differing with malice, on important parts of our civic life together as Americans.
My next three essays are my hopefully humble suggestions on a way forward that would include: 1) proposing a bipartisan humanitarian policy agenda directed at healing our divisions; 2) reducing the violence in our words that threatens violence in action, and 3) encouraging widespread unifying acts of citizenship and civic activity that would deepen our commitment to serving our country and each other. What runs through all of this is that most Americans actually agree on many important issues, issues that have at their core the principle that we should all be treated with dignity and respect, that we should all live our lives in sanctuary from violence, and that we should all share in the opportunity to live lives of aspiration, achievement, and material well-being. There is plenty of all of this to go around in America.
Part one, the humanitarian agenda, will list policy proposals that would serve these principles and that find the sort of broad public support that could lead to bipartisan endorsement by responsible political leaders on all sides. Part two, changing the violent tone of national conversation, will offer ways to debate politics and policy that allow for agreed decisions and disagreed differences without violent division. Part three, encouraging active citizenship, will suggest how greater participation in civic service can encourage cooperation and understanding that would transcend our divides.
I’ll close this introduction to my series of essays where I began—with the last sentence of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which he gave in the closing weeks of the Civil War and just six weeks before he was killed and became still another of the war’s casualties. President Lincoln’s call for unity and mercy was majestic, coming as it did at the close of a brutal civil war that killed half a million people, maimed millions more, and was fought over the heartless, horrific violence of slavery. Perhaps summoning the magnanimous spirit of Lincoln is part of how we heal our deep but far more solvable divisions now.
Lincoln said, “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”