How Divided Are We?

Iraq’s recent descent into chaos is just another example of people unwilling to accept any compromise in their belief that they are right while others are wrong. The situation is not unique to Iraq or even to a certain part of the world. Fundamental disagreement exists within every society to one degree or another, and what keeps chaos at bay may be a much more delicate balance than we realize.

As important as our military, police, and courts are, what really keeps the peace are the decisions each of us make every day to treat others with respect, avoid violence, obey laws, and generally trust the people around us. No government has a strong enough military or large enough police force to prevent chaos if a big enough group of people decides to create it. Some of us believe that our best defense is to arm ourselves and store food for the coming apocalypse. I believe we are better served by investing in economic opportunity, education, and other programs that promote hope for people of all ages

We often hear that the violence in Iraq is the product of religious divisions that date back to the succession of the prophet Mohammed. I know there is some truth to this observation, but I think the problem is much more complex than an historic theological dispute. The gap between rich and poor is too wide and visible in Iraq, and there are far too many unemployed young men with little hope for a better future. Education, while recovering, was neglected for too long; and the zealots find fertile ground to spread their violent ideology among the ignorant. Add in the widespread availability of weapons plus corrupt political institutions and the formula looks very similar to those that produced similar outcomes in Somalia, Afghanistan, and, to some extent, Syria.

I am probably repeating myself by pointing out that there is great personal freedom in societies governed by anarchy. The downside, of course, is that there is very little security for people or their property. These are particularly bad places for a child, which predicts a particularly bad future for everyone.

I have been trying to decide for a number of years how the divisions within our own society compare to those in some of the more violent places where I’ve lived and worked. We have so much, yet we sometimes seem to lose track of why we do. We have always had political parties, religious differences, racial conflicts, and violent disagreements. Our last civil war was only two lifetimes ago. I believe the answer continues to be investment in making our communities safe, decent places to live, and personal commitment to respecting the rights of others.

Last week I wrote about my granddaughter appearing in the play To Kill a Mockingbird. I have read the book, seen the movie, and been to the play three times, yet only recently realized that its message goes well beyond a powerful statement against racial injustice. The story is also a plea for community, civility, tolerance, and common decency. It may be more timely today than when it was published in 1960, and I wish more people everywhere could see and understand it.