November 20, 2004

If We’re One Nation, Handcuffed Together, Where Do We Go From Here?

I have been amazed and gratified by the incredible amount of positive reaction I’ve gotten to my Op Ex piece, “One Nation, Handcuffed Together,” that was published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on November 6th. Friends have e-mailed, neighbors have called, co-workers keep stopping me to tell me how much the piece meant to them. Even the mailman left a nice note to tell me that he appreciated it!

Just today, someone I don’t know called to thank me for what I’d written. She said they’d cut it out and showed it to their son and daughter-in-law who are visiting from Dallas, and their son copied it so they could send it to friends around the country. That’s been a common theme in people’s responses, that they’re sending it to others. A member of my church told me she sent it to her cousin in Sweden, who’s baffled by what happened in the election. My supervisor told me she sent it to a relative who’s a missionary in Africa (who voted absentee for John Kerry.)

And what’s happening on a personal scale, friend to friend, relative to relative, is happening on a much larger scale on the Internet. The article got picked up by a number of web sites: everything from “” to some online newspapers to several bloggers. The discussion goes on. It is continuing even today, as others click on  “E-mail this to someone you know.” Of course, it is eliciting some negative reaction too, and some very interesting back-and-forth online discussions.

And that’s the first step. We’ve got to talk about it. Apparently, we are still a nation divided, the aftermath of a war that happened more than a century ago. Growing up in Minnesota, the Civil War was just a chapter in a history book to me. But that’s because my side won. We could move on. To many in the South, it is still a festering wound.

My mother and sisters and I took a trip to Natchez, Mississippi in 1996 for their big tourist event, the “Pilgrimage,” a semi-annual tour of antebellum mansions. At our bed and breakfast, my sister asked if she could play the piano in the living room. Yes, the owner told her, as long as she didn’t play “Yankee Doodle.” She wasn’t joking.

We noticed that in all the tours of the plantation mansions, there was nary a word that they were built on the backs of slaves. One night, we attended the big production they put on in a coliseum, a show with beautiful costumes and elaborate musical numbers set in the glorious pre-Civil war days. Near the end, we were surprised to see people all around us rising to their feet. Then we saw the boy in a Confederate uniform running the around the track waving a giant Confederate flag. We looked at each other with shocked eyes, stunned to see this emotional outpouring of loyalty to this flag. We felt like we were in a foreign country, and it was a country we did not feel comfortable in.

So, the second step is to somehow try to heal the pain that still exists. I wish I knew how to do that. Maybe the North needs to acknowledge that Yankee soldiers did burn Confederate lands, rape their women, and cause massive pain to their citizens. Maybe the South needs to admit that slavery was immoral—no ifs, buts, or economic qualifiers attached. Maybe there needs to be a national museum of remembrance for slavery, like the Holocaust museum. Maybe the South needs to find a less divisive symbol of southern pride than the Confederate flag.

Finally let us learn from the Civil War that war should not be the first response, or the second, or anything but the very last, no-other-choice response. It’s not just the loss of life, money and land that make war a bad choice, it’s also the aftermath of bitterness. And yet, here we are again, creating new, bitter and determined enemies of the U.S. in Iraq.

Eighty-five percent of Iraqi citizens now despise America for the way we have devastated their county, both by our own weaponry and by allowing insurgents into the country who weren’t there before. If you read in-depth analyses of the way things are in Iraq right now, such as was published in the recent Rolling Stone, you find out that they are in a situation much like the South was at the end of the Civil War: infrastructure destroyed, homes and land in ruins, people afraid to leave their homes, not enough food and medical care.

But war with Iraq wasn’t just President Bush’s first choice, it was the only choice he ever considered. I was among the many here in the U.S. and around the world protesting the proposed invasion of Iraq in the fall of 2002. And on the street that day, I really thought, wow, we have a chance to stop a war before it happens. We learned something from Vietnam. I underestimated Bush’s lack of concern for anything but his own ideas and plans. But I’m still glad I was out there letting the world know that all of us in America weren’t blindly falling in place behind our president’s warmongering.

The most moving response I got to my article was a letter from a lady in Rochester, Minnesota. She wrote, “This fiasco of an election has been very difficult for me…. It feels like a death…. Some time ago, I joined the Southeastern Minnesota Peace Alliance when we were trying to stop the invasion of Iraq by Bush and the neocons. As time has gone on in my life, I realize that I am a pacifist…. (The attack on Fallujah) brought me to tears. I thought of the women, children and men who were dying because Bush & Co. has to prove something…. I don’t know what I will do, but I think I must be more active in the peace movement…. Please keep up the commentaries. You are speaking for a lot of people. Perhaps enough of them will become active and stop this madness.”

I hope so, too.