Here we are, plagued by domestic violence and an opioid crisis, and the president of the United States warns incessantly of the need to make America safe from foreign terrorists. He orders federal agents to ramp up their hunt for undocumented immigrants. He closes the door on thousands of refugees. He keeps trying to ban travel to the United States from predominantly Muslim countries.
“We must keep America safe!” he tweets.
Here we are, three weeks after an American citizen fired hundreds of bullets, machine gun-style, into a crowd at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, killing 59 people and injuring more than 500 others. It is considered the worst mass killing in modern U.S. history. The president declared the shooter a “demented, sick individual,” then moved on to other business.
Here we are, in Maryland, with a horrific workplace shooting in Harford County that resulted in the deaths of three men, immigrants all, and the president tweets about an increase in crime in the United Kingdom, linking it, erroneously, to the “spread of radical Islamic terror,” again raising the threat of fanatical violence against the United States.
Few of us relish self-examination, particularly men with large egos — and countries that think they are exceptional.
Donald J. Trump’s obsessive harping about outside threats, reflected in his fear-mongering rhetoric and in his draconian immigration policies, means he can avoid acknowledging the large, internal problems that only intelligent vision and big, principled leadership can solve.
And it’s not just Trump. Many Americans would rather look outward than look inward because looking inward is tough. It means facing up to your most immediate problems, and who wants that?
Facing up to problems means, first, acknowledging them. You know — agreeing that there are too many guns, too many people addicted to drugs, too many people who can’t afford mental health services. And nothing is more ego-shattering for Americans than acknowledging you have such problems.
And that you’ve let them fester.
But getting past denial to acknowledgment is not the toughest part. The toughest part is solving the problem, and for a country as self-satisfied and as cocky as ours, we are almost completely dysfunctional when it comes to fixing the big stuff.
We’re sick of the debates. We’re tired of trying to get to common ground. We think the political system is rigged against solutions, that it thrives in chaos and unfinished business. We think our democracy is such a mess — gridlocked, broken, super-polarized, co-opted by special interests — that we can’t agree on anything.
Trump’s campaign pledge was to “make America great again,” but not in the way it would make the majority of us feel that we have a society that matches our ideals — humane, civil, peaceful, welcoming, generous, healthy, secure and sustainable.
Look where we are. Look at us. Look at the shattering gun violence all around us. Look at the rate of killings here in Baltimore, fueled by an endless supply of guns. Look at those scenes of misery from the workplace killings in Harford County on Wednesday. Look at the amount of drug addiction among us, the opioid crisis.
I was struck by something Dr. Frank Palmisano said when I interviewed him shortly after his retirement from a long career as a family doctor in Baltimore — that is, the number of patients who came to him suffering some form of mental distress. It was the first thing Palmisano mentioned when I asked for his take-away from a practice that had lasted “47 years minus one week.”
Again, here’s a problem that we have allowed to fester, without any genuine appreciation of its cumulative effect on American society.
Clinicians for years have been warning us about the level of untreated mental illness and its consequences. The passage of the Affordable Care Act meant millions more Americans would have access to health care — and to treatment for mental illness. But, of course, we are foolishly still arguing about it. The president is trying to sabotage the ACA instead of fixing it.
I don’t see how we advance and become a great society if we do not deal with the big problems at home: The proliferation of guns and our failure (the failure of our laws and our criminal justice system) to keep them out of the hands of the wrong people; putting people with drug addictions and mental illness in prisons for punishment instead of hospitals for treatment; a rate of opioid addiction that became a deadly crisis before we acted to stop it; public schools that still fail to educate too many children, especially kids from low-income households; our reluctance to face up to the racist aspects of the country’s history and understand how it affects many of our fellow citizens; our long reliance on fossil fuels and how it continues to damage the Earth’s atmosphere.
If there’s peril facing America, it’s right at home. It’s right in front of us.