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We are living in a trying time for our democracy. Many of us are questioning the survival of our deeply divided society. Seventy-five years ago, Americans faced an even graver danger when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, destroying much of our navy and killing 2,403 Americans. The enemy then was a foreign power, but the challenges at home were not very different from what we see around us today.

At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States was deeply divided. Most Americans had not recovered the wealth they lost during the Great Depression, and they remained insecure about their futures in a weak economy. Insecurity fed bigotry and intolerance.

The vast majority of Americans opposed war against the fascist powers. They remembered the costs of the First World War and the unsatisfying results. They hated many elements of fascism but did not believe it was worse than Soviet communism, British imperialism, or the continued growth of “Oriental,” “African” and “Jewish” groups in the lands conquered by the fascists. “America First” was a rallying cry for ordinary white Americans who felt mistreated by elites, scarred by economic difficulties and dislocated by international policies.

The Japanese intended their attack to inflame the divisions in the United States, much as Russian, Chinese, the Islamic State group and North Korean leaders seek to exploit our divisions today. But contrary to these expectations, the United States emerged more united in 1941 because it had leaders, especially President Franklin Roosevelt, who tied the war effort to public service, not partisan positions or special interests.

Defending American territory and defeating those who threatened it, Roosevelt spoke directly to citizens: “Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history. We must share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories – the changing fortunes of war.”

The American people heard the call and responded. They would collectively serve their country in different forms – some on the battlefield, many more in factories – to improve the world, despite their lingering reservations and differences of viewpoint. Roosevelt articulated a big goal for all groups, and he made everyone a participant, a stakeholder, and, yes, a public servant. He called the war effort a “covenant with each other before all the world.”

After the war, the public service ethic inspired by Pearl Harbor continued. Americans from all backgrounds served their country in the military, politics, philanthropy and many other fields. Through the G.I. Bill, public service provided access to education and homeownership, both designed to bring citizens together in improving themselves and sharing neighborhoods. For the pre-baby boomer generation that lived through Pearl Harbor as young men and women, working for your country, paying taxes for the common good and defining your success by your public service were essential parts of citizenship. They built the schools, roads, power plants and businesses that continue to undergird our prosperity.

But by the late 1960s, amid controversies over civil rights and an unpopular war in Vietnam, many Americans rejected public service. Bipartisan agreement in 1973 to eliminate conscription and make the military an all-volunteer profession contributed to an abandonment of public service as a marker of citizenship. By the end of the century, the majority of our nation’s business, academic and media elites had never served their country in any serious way – a complete reversal from a generation earlier, when public service was a necessary step to leadership and respectability.

Today, we will never overcome our current divisions by continuing to argue over the issues that divide us. Nor will we rally together magically behind a charismatic outsider who promises to blow it all up. The lesson of Pearl Harbor is that a divided nation needs a common mission and a shared commitment to public service to build new bonds for cooperation, as occurred 75 years ago.

Programs like Teach for America, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps are a start, but they remain very small. Our citizens can do so much more.

We should begin with our crumbling infrastructure and fighting terrorism, two topics that received extensive attention in the recent presidential campaign. Our national and state leaders should create new avenues for young Americans to get involved in addressing these needs, perhaps volunteering their skills for a year or two, followed by assistance with education. Young men and women can apply their talents as engineers, translators, social workers and even soldiers. They will learn to work with people very different from themselves and take pride in contributing to the public good. They will define their success not just in what they earn, but how they serve their fellow citizens.

Our divided country needs a new generation to get out of its segregated neighborhoods and away from its electronic devices to work together in public service. That is what the Pearl Harbor generation did when attacked by a foreign foe. Young men and women are fed up with politics as usual, and they are eager to become another “greatest generation,” if only we will give them a chance.

This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on 3 December 2016.

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Terrorism on American soil is not new. Nor are crimes of hate. Since at least the 19th century, politically motivated citizens have used violence to kill for a purpose. What makes the horrible massacre in Orlando stand out is its connection to a more recent phenomenon: the murder of large numbers by a single attacker.

Even though gun ownership has always been widespread in American society, premeditated murder of innocent mass crowds has only become common during the past 20 or so years.

Shooters such as Omar Mateen are not connected to movements that hope to improve society, but instead desire to bring the whole edifice of civil society crumbling down around their anger. That is why they target schools, churches, clubs and other public spaces. That is why they pledge allegiance to foreign groups like ISIS. The problem is much deeper than anything we might simply label “Islamic radicalism.”

So why now? Our racial, ethnic and religious diversity are not new; we have always been a country of immigrants. Attitudes of hate and prejudice are not new; our country’s horrible history of lynching and vigilantism shows that powerful groups have frequently attacked the vulnerable in the past. What is new is an explosive mix of cultural, political and technological changes.

Our public culture today valorizes individual combat and gratuitous violence. This is not just a problem with the entertainment industry, but our leadership as well. Presidential candidates, governors, chief executgives and even some university presidents strut and brag about “shock and awe,” “annihilating evil,” and “carpet bombing,” among other phrases. And this is not just rhetoric. Winner-take-all combat is acted out in our sports, our businesses, and our policymaking every day. Our 21st century public culture glorifies individualist destruction, and Omar Mateen’s bombastic selfies manifest this phenomenon.

Since 2000, our national and foreign politics have replaced conversation with violence. We have legitimately deployed force against terrorists abroad, including ISIS, but we have refused to engage in a thoughtful public discussion about the social and economic reasons people are drawn to these groups. We have divided the world and ourselves – “you are with us or against us” – and we have justified extremism of our own because the adversaries are so “evil.”

The policy effects have come home when presidential candidates brag about shutting down the government, insult our leaders and defend physical attacks on domestic opponents. Our politics are tribal, and in a war of tribes, ISIS has leverage to recruit and inspire those who have no other group to call their own.

Technology is not the cause of our cultural and political violence, but it multiplies our hatreds. The paradox of the internet and social media is that they are global and provincial at the same time. We can communicate simultaneously with counterparts far away. They can see so much more. Instead of cosmopolitanism, however, these connections encourage balkanization. Individuals stop talking to their neighbors, classmates and co-workers, and instead communicate with people who think like them on other continents.

This creates tribal echo chambers where distortion and extremism become unfiltered “facts” and personal motivators. The worst and simplest ideas get reinforced. Sophisticated and complex understandings of society, which require multiple points of view, are lost. Terrorists such as Mateen are brain-washed not just by ISIS, but by our tribal world of communications.

So what should we do? Blaming ISIS does not get at the root of the problem. Targeting Muslims diverts attention and creates more terrorists.

The time has come for leaders at all levels of our society to begin working toward rebuilding a civic culture that values conversation, compromise and diverse communications. That must be a priority that every one of our leaders affirms. Our leaders must begin by looking closely at themselves and asking how they can model what is not being modeled almost anywhere today. We need a culture of peacemaking, not violence. We need politics of inclusion, not attack. And a civic dialogue with multiple points of view in direct conversation. At the very least, the painful events in Orlando should motivate us to reject any advocates of violence, hate and tribalism in our country today.

This article originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News, the Austin Statesman, and the Waco Tribune on 13 June 2016; The Monitor on 14 June 2016; the Philadelphia Inquirer on 15 June 2016; the Houston Chronicle on 21 June 2016; and other newspapers around the United States.

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.

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