Consider this contrast in two men: Wes Moore, the new governor of Maryland, calling young people to public service, while Brandon Russell, a young neo-Nazi, allegedly plots to cause massive chaos by knocking out the power grid around Baltimore.
One day we hear the new governor, a 44-year-old Army veteran, declare that “service will save us.” A few days later, federal authorities charge Russell, the 27-year-old founder of a violent extremist group, in a scheme to, as his girlfriend and co-conspirator allegedly put it, “lay this city to waste.”
I don’t know if the contrast between Moore and Russell will occur to anyone else; it might seem weird to even mention the two in the same sentence. But I make the connection because of where we are as a nation. On one hand, we have plenty of good people who take full responsibility for the care and feeding of American democracy. On the other hand — at the extreme political right — we have people who apparently want to see the whole thing burn to the ground.
Even before the torchbearers marched through Charlottesville, anyone paying attention could see not only the usual racial and ethnic hatreds, but an angry push against our changing society and our central government. I came to believe a lot of it was fueled by white men in protracted adolescence.
Psychologists will say there’s more to it than a lack of maturity, and I believe them correct. But when I see white supremacists on the march — when I hear their reasons for gearing up in camo and guns — I see aimlessness, irrational anger and a level of self-centeredness that makes them oblivious to any sense of the common good.
Causes are many, starting, obviously, with the conditions of a person’s life, his childhood. (I use “his” here because white supremacists and white separatists are primarily male.) But, as a young man reaches his teen years and early adulthood, if he doesn’t receive good “launch influence,” he can end up on the dark side.
By “launch influence,” I mean men and women — schoolteachers, coaches, mentors, trusted adult leaders — who affect boys in positive ways. Fathers and mothers obviously have the largest share of influence, but there are gaps as boys mature, and if they are not filled with good ideas and experiences, a young man can become isolated, insecure, resentful, angry and even violent.
He can also reach his 20s with no sense of country, no sense of belonging to something larger than himself.
When I see Proud Boys or other groups on the march — or read an indictment like the one issued against Brandon Russell on Monday — I have two reactions. The first is something like, “Grow the hell up!” The second is, “Sign the hell up!” By that, I mean public service. I can’t think of a better “launch influence” for those who come out of high school without a plan than a stint in public service.
Wes Moore wants to see it offered in Maryland and has already established a Department of Service and Civic Innovation to make it happen.
“At a time when civic bonds are frayed, when many feel more disconnected from their neighbors than ever before, service is the antidote to the epidemic of loneliness and otherness,” Moore said last week, in his first State of the State speech before the General Assembly. “Service is how we will reengage our people in the project of forming a more perfect state.”
Jan. 27 marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the military draft, and the nation has relied upon volunteers to staff our armed forces ever since. Politicians like it this way. It means they can conduct military operations, including wars, without hearing, as their predecessors did during the Vietnam years, the howls of constituents angry that their kin are forced to fight.
But it also means that a couple of generations of men, in particular, have missed the noncombat aspects of military service that benefit them and the country — bonds that form across racial, geographic and social lines; the sense of duty and honor instilled in those who serve.
Obviously, it doesn’t work for everyone. A significant number of veterans as well as a few active-duty service members were part of the Trump-inspired mob that attacked the Capitol in January 2021. Russell was a member of the Florida National Guard once, and he’s now charged with plotting to destroy the Baltimore power grid.
Still, public service — and not just military service — has the potential to build stronger Americans, more solid citizens who support representative government and the rule of law, men and women who understand that thing called the common good.
Over the years, I’ve suggested mandatory national public service. We could bolster a sense of citizenship and close the divide between those who serve and those who don’t with two years of commitment — with a choice of civic, military or foreign service — for every American once he or she reaches the age of 18, with deferment optional until the age of 21, when service becomes mandatory.
It’s not the complete answer to what ails us. It won’t save every misguided young man. But it will help many find the right path and give them a sense of country they don’t have now.