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Drowning in blood and grief

I watched Dallas, like I watched Orlando and San Bernardino and after I asked why...

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

There is a bad moon rising over American cities. One can sense the coming of more blood, more grief and more tears. The time of rage and fire is upon us; and the vengeful rhetoric of men of blind passion and discord will drown the voices of compassion, empathy and humanity. We have been accustomed to expect in short intervals spasms of violence that defies rational understanding. The names of these cities are drilled in our collective memory: Blacksburg (Virginia Tech.), Killeen (Fort Hood), Tucson, Aurora, Newtown, Washington, DC, Charleston, San Bernardino, Orlando, and now Dallas. It is as if we are engaged in a sickening nihilistic ritual of attaching a shooter’s name to each American city. We know that some of these massacres that killed civilians of all ages including children have been inspired by terror groups, or racial hatred, or by individuals driven by unfathomable human impulses similar to those characters that inhabit the novels of Dostoyevsky and Balzac.

The terror that visited Dallas in the form of Micah Johnson, a 25-year-old military veteran who served in Afghanistan, was driven by vengeful wrath against the police shooting of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota earlier in the week. The Dallas police chief, David O. Brown said the shooter “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers”. For days, the nation was riveted while watching videos of the killing of Alton B. Sterling, 37, in Baton Rouge in front of many witnesses who captured his sudden violent death on video, and the killing of Philando Castile, 32 in Falcon Heights, whose slow death in his car was streamlined on Facebook Live by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds a passenger with her 4-year-old daughter. The history of racially motivated violence in America, preceded the establishment of the Republic, but what makes the killing of these young black men more toxic and immediate now is the fact that it is, like Johnson’s rampage and terrorism in general, a digital phenomenon that can be watched by millions when posted on social media.

Ever since a white police officer fatally shot a black teenager in Ferguson, two years ago, dozens of unarmed African-American young men have been killed by mostly white police officers throughout the country. These deadly encounters with the police, as well as the mass shooting attacks have brought to the fore America’s stark social, cultural and political paradoxes. After each spasm of violence loud civic debates erupt, about the proliferation of guns, lingering institutional racism, economic dislocations and income inequality, but the so-called “national conversation” has led the country nowhere. The carnage in Dallas – the worst attack on the police since the 9/11 terror attacks- has reminded some of the violence experienced by cities like Detroit and Newark during the struggle for civil rights and to end the Vietnam war. Shrieking headlines like the one on the front page of the New York Post may be good for business, but they are deceptive and reckless. The American house is not about to collapse, even though racial tension- always beneath the surface- has reared its ugly head during the administration of the first African-American president.

Lives shortened by violence and suicide

Much has been written about urban violence and degradation, the alienation of African American youths, and the plight of those mostly white middle aged men who lost their jobs to globalization. The predicament of these two groups is in large part a function of the failure of imagination and sound economic planning on the part of government and corporate America. The lives of the new marginalized Americans whether in major cities or in small towns that were deprived of their local industries by the flight of capital and jobs overseas, resemble the life of man in the state of nature described by Thomas Hobbs as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

I watched Dallas, like I watched Orlando and San Bernardino and after I asked why, I felt that these cities also became capitals of pain on the road to redemption.

Hisham Melhem

The lives of African-American youths in the cities are shortened by brutish violence, (gang and drug related) and the lives of those white men who lost jobs and hopes are shortened by growing use of drugs and suicide. The number of people who were shot and wounded in Chicago this year is 1773, and those shot and killed so far is 344. Most of the victims are black, either in black-on-black violence or in confrontations with the police. Life in some neighborhoods of Chicago is shockingly similar to Hobbes’ description. Recent studies have described suicide rates among middle aged white men as a “silent epidemic”. The suicide rate among middle aged white men in the last decade has risen by 28 percent due to limited education, lack of income or because of loneliness. Addressing these problems will require allocating tremendous financial and human resources, to provide health care, economic retraining and investment in new industries and new partnerships with the private sector, conditions that are not likely to be met any time soon given the political gridlock in Washington.

A house divided

The political dysfunction in Washington is unprecedented in modern times. The areas of collaboration between the two parties are shrinking rapidly; in fact they are vanishing. Politics has become a zero sum game, and political compromise has become a dirty concept. The Republican Party took a strategic decision in 2008 not to cooperate with the new President Obama. The leaders of the Grand Old Party never objected to bigots in its ranks like Donald Trump when they questioned the legitimacy of Obama as a citizen and as a president. During the current presidential race, Republican candidates insulted and demonized non-white communities and minorities such as Hispanics, Muslims and others. The Senate refuses to carry out some of its duties which include confirming or rejecting the President’s nominees to the Supreme Court. It looks as if the Republican Party has purged itself from moderate and compassionate conservatives. And now the Party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower has allowed itself to be high-jacked by Donald Trump.

It is impossible to even engage in a civil debate about ways to reduce gun violence in America, even after deranged violent men massacre children in schools or worshipers in a church. The United States is one of those few countries in the world where the right to bear arms is guaranteed by a Constitution that is practically impossible to amend. And yet the gun lobby perpetuates a myth that the current President would like to prevent people from owning guns. The National Rifle Association has collected the souls of many members of the House of Representatives until further notice. In such a warped gun culture a gun is seen by some as a stairway to heaven. The political discourse has been poisoned in recent years particularly since the election of President Obama and the emergence of the Tea Party. President Obama’s shortcomings are a plenty, but one can still engage a President while disagreeing with his policies. Watching and listening to Republican and Democratic leaders one gets the impression that they will continue on their current political trajectories even if the polarization gets deeper.
The differences in outlook and objectives are fundamental: what are the powers of the Federal Government, what is fair taxation, will we pursue unbridled international trade agreements, and when and how we exercise the right to use military force overseas. More than a 150 years ago, specifically in the 1850s, the failure to settle some similar differences plunged the young country in the Civil War. Of course, the United States is not now in a similar situation, but clearly, there are politicians in Washington today who are ready to be subversive just to prevent the act that brought them to Washington: good governance.

Watching the agonies of the victims of violence in Dallas and other major cities, realizing that many victims were made dispensable by a whimper not a bang, I am reminded of the countless victims who are being killed with violent bangs, daily and at times by the hundreds, in the other cities on the other side of the world: Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, and Beirut. At one time I did something morbid, when I tried to count on a daily bases the number of Arabs who were being killed by other Arabs or their pretend friends. I thought of it as a daily harvest of blood. I could not do it for more than few days. These Arab cities became in my mind capitals of pain on the road to eventual redemption and liberation. I watched Dallas, like I watched Orlando and San Bernardino and after I asked why, and realized that I will not fully understand the answer, I felt that these cities also became capitals of pain on the road to redemption. There is a bad moon rising over American cities, but the dawn cannot be that far away.

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Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.