Americans are a very patient people.
Maybe not in little things: when another car cuts them off in a merge or a guy in a movie theater texts his baby sitter, Americans are quick to open fire. But for the big things: when the government violates the constitution or dozens of us get shot in shopping malls and schools, Americans tend to hang out and see what’s next.
We must sort of enjoy reading about the shootings, robberies, scams, and government breakdowns that fill newspaper pages. Crimes and disasters sell; the editors know.
Sports sell too, the more violent the better. Hockey players are always slamming each other against the boards; football players are always taking each other down as hard as possible. We watch with horrified fascination to see if a fallen skater will have an artery severed by a skate, or if a downed quarterback will hobble off the field on his own or go off in a stretcher.
I attribute this fascination to the survivor program mentality. A contestant goes off the island, a player is injured, a bunch of people are shot up in Connecticut or Maryland, how terrible! And thank goodness, it’s not us! Who do you think will be next?
Why do drivers slow down and check out accident scenes? Wow, five cars off the road, that must be a good one! Oh, I mean: how terrible!
It’s hard to feel other people’s pain–as shown by the constant reporting about poverty and hunger despite the increasing numbers of people right here in West Chester who have to go to a food pantry or a church program offering a free meal. “50 Years Later, War on Poverty Is a Mixed Bag” (New York Times, 1/4/14). If we, collectively, really cared, the war on poverty would be a complete success. If we, collectively, really cared, gun violence would not be the national tragedy and disgrace it is.
So perhaps our usual passivity comes from a lack of empathy?
Or perhaps Robert Reich is right, in “Why There’s No Outcry” (1/25/14), that we don’t act because workers fear losing their jobs, students fear not being able to pay off their loans, and the general public has grown cynical.
Or perhaps we suffer from an inability to draw connections. Could you and I ever be standing in one of those food lines? Yes: we could lose our job or pension, have huge uninsured medical expenses, invest with a Bernie Madoff, any number of things. Could we and people we know be part of a group massacre? Sure.
Or maybe we lack intellectual coherence. Politicians and judges, sworn to uphold the US constitution, support the government’s spying on Americans–a form of violence–because it just might stop terror attacks (there’s no real evidence, but this is the reasoning). But that’s not the way the 4th amendment puts it:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
It doesn’t say “except if the government claims it’s protecting you” or “except if the government doesn’t want to talk about it.” The 4th amendment says our “persons, houses, papers, and effects” can’t be searched and seized without a warrant. If our government no longer believes that, it should try to amend the constitution. That will be an interesting discussion.
Or maybe we’re always in too much of a hurry. “I’d love to help (or sign, or join, or donate, or vote) but I need to run,” right?
Or maybe we have too many distractions to see what’s important. Under 1/3 of us will bother to vote this year. But do we have time for our favorite TV shows? You bet!
Or maybe we suffer from an excess of patience. Patience is usually a virtue. But to rephrase Barry Goldwater, impatience in the defense of liberty is no vice and patience in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. MLK must have agreed, because when the White House asked him to go slow on civil rights demands, he declined the invitation to be eternally patient.
Of course, it all depends how we answer the question: what are liberty and justice? But that’s another story. And we may never find an answer unless we grow less patient.