Posts Tagged ‘massacre’

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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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The early summer of 1989 was the most optimistic season in recent memory. William Wordsworth, writing in a previous revolutionary moment, captured the sentiment: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” I remember that feeling, if not those words, as a high school student convinced that I was blessed to be born at such a time.

 

In the early months of 1989 the communist governments of Poland and Hungary, two traditional stalwarts of the Soviet bloc, opened political participation to long repressed trade unions and dissident groups. The leaders of these societies saw that the Soviet Union had entered a period of rapid political and economic reform, including unprecedented efforts to open to the capitalist West. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev spoke explicitly of ending Cold War tensions and creating what he called a “common European home.” This meant a reversal of Soviet-enforced tyranny in Poland, Hungary, and soon all the other satellites in Eastern Europe. By June 1989 it was clear that Gorbachev and his political reforms were for real. No one knew precisely where events would lead, but all signs pointed to brighter sunshine in what had been the very dark world of postwar communism.

 

On May 15 Gorbachev visited China. He was greeted by mass demonstrations led by students and intellectuals demanding democratic reforms in their country. Centered on the huge Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, but spreading throughout other urban areas, a popular movement that began to grow in April took rising inspiration from the Soviet reformer. If Russian communism could be reformed to allow more political freedoms, why couldn’t Chinese communism do the same? The street demonstrators in Beijing and other cities had supporters within the Chinese ruling elite who were themselves inspired by Gorbachev and the example of reform throughout Eastern Europe. The Soviet leader’s visit brought international attention to the tremors shaking China.

 

For nearly three weeks after Gorbachev’s visit, leaders throughout Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China debated how to manage the powerful impulses unleashed for radical change in their societies. This was one of those rare but recurring historical moments when impregnable institutions looked like they were about to crumble under the weight of their long-standing inertia. Gorbachev and his East European counterparts chose to embrace change and re-define political authority in their societies to address the demands of their citizens. Chinese hard-liners, led by Deng Xiaoping, turned in the other direction. They purged reformers from government and ordered more than 200,000 soldiers from the countryside to attack demonstrating students in the cities. On the night of June 3-4, 1989, the Chinese Communist Party massacred those who dared to hope for democracy in their country.

 

For many American observers, the flowering of freedom in Eastern Europe disguised the murder of courageous activists in China. The Chinese Communist Party has subsequently used force, economic coercion, and propaganda to erase the memory of June 1989. Twenty-five years later it is difficult to imagine the democracy movement in China producing anything other than the repression and autocracy that followed it. Twenty-five years later the current communist regime appears “natural,” even appropriate for a vast and populous Chinese society in need of political order and managed economy.

 

Returning to the history of the Chinese tragedy in 1989 deflates this very damaging lie. Chinese society, like its counterparts in Eastern Europe, had many democratic alternatives to repression in that promising early summer. The popular movement in Beijing and other cities was as serious and substantive as anything occurring elsewhere. Chinese democracy activists had a long history of their own to draw upon, including major efforts a decade earlier. The reformers were well-educated, cosmopolitan, and compelling. They had supporters throughout the Chinese political and military establishment. Many of them had strong personal and institutional connections to the power elite of their society.

 

The massacre at Tiananmen was a rear-guard action opposed by many and, by some accounts, barely pulled off. For a few days it appeared that the military might revolt against its instructions to attack civilians. Some high-ranking generals resigned or disregarded orders. The success of the repression shows the extreme determination of a select few leaders, and their effective manipulation of a large and poorly-informed rural population.

 

It clearly did not have to turn out this way. Renewed focus on the realistic alternatives of 1989 should remind us that alternatives are also available today. History is about contingencies, near misses, and possibilities for rapid change after long periods of stagnation. Repression is never as “necessary” as it seems.

 

Americans had little influence over the Chinese events in 1989. Our influence is similarly limited twenty-five years later. We have many reasons to work closely with the contemporary Chinese government for the sake of East Asian security and global economic growth, both of which are imperiled today.

 

The historical memory of 1989, and the remembrance of what might have been, should prevent us from simply accepting present circumstances. The Chinese people have a recent and an ancient history of struggling for self-governance, personal dignity, and freedom from repression. We should affirm those values as we manage our relations with the current regime.

 

All politics, like all relationships, is about the past, the present, and the future. The present Chinese leadership must recognize that it cannot erase the past. It must instead make that past part of its future. Thinking back to the optimistic early summer of 1989, we owe the kindling of this historical memory to those who suffered for change and those who might make it young again.

 

This blog post originally appeared at http://globalbrief.ca

 

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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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