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Senator John McCain, after suffering a long battle with a brain tumor, finally passed away on August 25, at the age of 81. The Senator was one of the more influential members of the Congress during my lifetime. For both better and worse, his opinion on the policy issues of the day have driven much of the debate in this country for over the last two decades.
This, of course, doesn’t even to begin to describe his sacrifice during the Vietnam War, where he suffered years of torture at the hands of his Vietnamese captors. This was a true American: imperfect, with lots of friends and enemies, but he certainly sacrificed much for the great cause of his nation.
And yet, like everything else in America today, his passing brought up terrible responses of hate, anger, and downright ugliness.
What is unique about McCain, unlike most of the other examples we have seen in recent years, is how bipartisan that hatred truly is. The hate from the far Left mostly originates from anger toward McCain’s aggressive foreign policy stances, which have promoted intervention and war. The hate from the Right originates from several areas, starting with his “disputed” record in Vietnam (from some corners), to his very mixed record as a Republican and conservative, where his “Maverick” status often let to McCain undercutting base conservatives in an attempt to move to the theoretical political middle. The fact that he killed one of Trump’s promised goals, the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, only hardened those feelings.
Both extremes have been very vocal in their giddiness over the news of McCain’s passing. It is unlike anything else we have seen in recent years. Sure, hatred toward Reagan and Thatcher was quite vocal when they passed, but that came from one side of the aisle. McCain’s haters are ironically bipartisan and enthusiastic on both extremes of the political divide.
To compound matters, President Donald Trump isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue on these matters. As always, in his small, petty, thin-skinned way, he did everything possible even in death to belittle McCain. First, he refused to make a sufficient statement on learning of McCain’s passing. After several hours (where can one imagine his staffers pleading with him to put something out publicly) … he expressed condolences to the McCain family, without ever praising McCain himself. This was compounded by the fact that Trump raised the flag over the White House from half-staff, only a day after McCain’s death, which angered many, especially those in the military community. It was only three days later that Trump could bring himself to put out a satisfactory White House statement on the Senator’s passing.
Now, we can write this off as “Trump being Trump.” And frankly, at this late stage, getting angry at Trump’s petty theatrics is probably a waste of time. He is better ignored than focused upon.
But Trump is a mirror on which we might be able to understand the state of the social climate in America as a whole. Many refuse to admit this, but Trump’s actions echo much of our public’s reflexive responses to political disputes these days. And McCain’s death isn’t the only recent example.
The Mollie Tibbetts case comes to mind.
Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student, was kidnapped and murdered a month ago. Her case made national news, as the frantic search for the young woman continued. After finding her body, it was quickly discovered a young local man had committed the crime. The fact that this young man was in the country illegally, however, set off the expected political chain reaction one might expect.
The political Right quickly made Mollie the newest in a line of poster children for the risks of open borders. This, for obvious reasons, had a poor reaction from the media, who quickly attacked conservatives for “politicizing a tragedy.”
To be frank, there is absolutely no question the Right was politicizing a tragedy. The irony is that for the last several years, we’ve been told that politicizing tragedies was precisely what the country needed to fix policy failures at the federal level. Every time a mass shooting has occurred, we’ve heard this refrain … just from the Left instead of the Right.
Clearly, there are political issues involved. These days, when isn’t politics involved? For me, however, this goes back to my concern about the fundamental shattering of basic civility and common decency in American society.
Both McCain’s death and the Tibbetts tragedy highlight how vicious our daily rancor has become, even with the simplest of human interactions. Common decency once dictated that we would, for the briefest of moments, express sympathy to the families who had lost a loved one, and that our personal animosities and political ambitions would be brushed aside, for the greater good.
That commonality of humanity is lacking today.
Politicization of every single facet of life has had massive detrimental repercussions. Conservatives have warned about the ever-encroaching effect of government in our daily lives; we are now seeing some of the real-world effects of this seismic shift, and these reactions are an example of them. The inability to view our political “enemies” as fellow Americans, with some level of common purpose and beliefs, is undermining the very fabric of what it used to be to be an American.
Additionally, using these events as moments to advance political causes is not without some logic, but the tactic is not benign. Tibbetts’ family rightfully pleaded with the nation to avoid using their daughter’s death as a political tool. I fundamentally wish people had heeded that call. But in an era where both sides are adamant about winning the political battle, the feelings of the mourning family seems irrelevant for either political tribe.
There were moments in which we could unite as a country, regardless of party affiliation, policy differences, and general disagreements. The assassination of JFK. The moon landing. The 1980 USA Hockey Gold Medal team. The Challenger explosion. 9/11. We used to be able to come together at those moments and weep or celebrate together.
Smaller tragedies, like those described above, would bring us together for a few moments. Now, they are events that drive us further apart.
Sadly, I am not sure this trajectory can be reversed in the short run. We have become a more coarse, hard-edged society, unwilling to give even the smallest concession to our “enemies,” even at a moment of suffering and weakness. Some hyperpartisans believe showing such empathy at moments of tragedy shows our weakness; the irony is, the lack of showing such emotion is what is undermining our country in the long run.
Eventually, we must ask ourselves: if we are not a society that can come together in any way, even in moments of greatness, sadness, and heartache … what kind of country are we?