11/01/2012 10:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

America at War With Itself: Reflecting on Hurricane Sandy and the Elections

In the wake of hurricane Sandy's destruction just prior to the U.S. elections, I am struck by the opportunity to reflect on the potential impact of America's political conflict.

As I watch the news about the U.S. elections, the language, posturing and behaviors of candidates and political parties reminds me of what I witnessed in war torn countries in Africa: polarized groups that stereotype, dehumanize and attack "the other." At the heart of the U.S. political conflict is a spiritual crisis: we must awaken our capacity to bring compassion, tolerance and understanding into national dialogues in practical and effective ways. In this sense, Americans have much to learn from peacebuilders I have met across Africa and other parts of the world.

From 1985 to 1989, I served with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. It was with horror as I later watched the country fall into a chaotic and bloody civil war. I returned to Sierra Leone during and after the war as part of peacebuilding missions. In Sierra Leone, it was hard to see the patterns of conflict as there were no clear ethnic, religious or political divisions.

It was when I started to travel to Burundi and other war torn countries that I began to see a pattern to many destructive conflicts. It seemed people became polarized, and that extreme positions drove the agendas. The people with the loudest voices often used fear as a tactic to unify their group against the others. As fear increased, people narrowed their multiple identities (such as father, mother, musician, artist, farmer, teacher) down to just one -- whether an ethnic group ("I'm a Hutu and you're a Tutsi"), a religious sect ("I'm a Muslim and you're a Jew") or a political party ("I'm a Republican and you're a Democrat").

Instead of seeing what they had in common, or what connected them, they saw only how they were different and what separated them. (In this sense, it was not so much religion that drove conflict as the human tendency toward dualistic and polarizing patterns of thinking.) Even though polarized groups had shared concerns -- economic, education, health care, etc. -- they often saw the other as the problem. The way to overcome the problem was to attack, defeat and even destroy the other.

Sometimes it takes conflicts getting worse before once perceived enemies are willing to work together. I recently interviewed Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, as part of the Summer of Peace 2012 telesummit (a virtual summit I directed and co-produced with many partner organizations, featuring more than 120 peacebuilders from around the world). Bassam and Rami both lost a daughter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their shared pain brought them to join the Bereaved Family Forum and Combatants for Peace, two organizations where Israelis and Palestinians are working together for peace. Across Africa, I have met many similar unlikely colleagues working together. In Burundi, Adrian Sindayigaya, a Hutu, and Agnes Nindorera, a Tutsi both lost family and friends to ethnic violence. Yet, they chose to work with Search for Common Ground as journalists to co-produce radio programs that promoted inter-ethnic understanding and reconciliation.

bassam and rami

Bassam, Rami, Adrian, Agnes and other peace builders are modeling compassion, tolerance and understanding in difficult situations. They strive to help people on opposing sides to expand their sense of identity to see their common humanity and to go from attacking one another, to standing side by side to address shared problems.

In Burundi and Israel-Palestine, along with other places suffering from violent conflict, it is easy to see the impact of extreme polarization. In the United States, we are starting to see the cost of political polarization as gridlock in Congress is making it nearly impossible to find viable solutions to complex problems such as the national debt, health care and sustainable energy supplies. The long-term consequences of political polarization in the United States could be devastating for tens of millions of people for generations to come. While there are positive examples of bipartisan efforts in Washington, D.C., they are the exception.

The timing of Hurricane Sandy just prior to the elections presents an opportunity to reflect on America's political conflict. When there is a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis, we come face to face with human suffering and the fragility of life. Barriers that once separated us suddenly fall away as we rush to assist our fellow man, woman and child to address basic needs -- food, water, shelter, transportation and medical emergencies. There is an awareness of our common humanity and interdependence. This openness was experienced on the streets of New York after the falling of the Twin Towers, as people came together to console one another and to help the victims. Unfortunately, this window into our humanity often closes after the crisis and we go back behind the walls that separate us and back to business as usual.

Republican Gov. Christie in New Jersey praised President Obama for his response to the hurricane disaster, a comment unthinkable this close to the elections. The question is: Can political leaders and Americans in general work together to address the difficult issues facing this country without having to experience more catastrophes and overwhelming human suffering?

When I watched the recent presidential debates, I was disappointed to hear both President Obama and Governor Romney repeatedly say, "My plan." I kept waiting for one of them to say, "I will address the most critical problem in the country: political polarization. I will bring together Democrats and Republicans, along with private sector and civil society leaders, in civil dialogues to find more creative, viable and sustainable solutions to our nation's problems than any one person or party can do alone."

Once political leaders and parties work together, then all the other issues will be more manageable. Until our political leaders model this behavior, we all can do our part. We can vote for candidates who will work together. We also can stop stereotyping and dehumanizing political leaders and parties. And more importantly, we can reach out to our neighbors who have opposing political views and focus on what connects us -- children, families and community. This way, we can bring the best of our own humanity -- compassion, tolerance and understanding -- into the national dialogue.

Let us not wait for another crisis to bring the best of our own humanity -- compassion, tolerance and understanding -- into the national political dialogue.