As I drifted into unconsciousness this past Wednesday night, I was presented with a question: "So, are you still an island?" This disembodied voice, a quiet but powerful echo, jolted me to full consciousness. At first, I groggily attributed this remark to the changes in today's communication as a result of technology -- that strange dichotomy of constantly talking to people electronically, yet being conditioned to physically stay apart. I settled on this explanation and went back to sleep.
The next morning I thought it over: "So, are you still an island?" What did it really refer to? Did it even make sense? Given that I immerse myself in our government for a living, and that oftentimes the events covered in the news leave me feeling isolated and hopeless, I have to believe it relates to the major issues our country is facing right now. More personally, this little voice seemed to recognize how hard it is for me to find my place as a proud American amidst the avalanche of conflicts in our country. How does one conduct herself each day among such partisanship, isolation, domestic and international disasters, and what seems like the daily fracturing not only of our nation, but also of our relationship with other nations? You'll be surprised to find where I ultimately got my answer. It's been a harrowing week trying to figure all of this out -- here's what I've established.
Guns. I've received criticism for my anti-gun views and frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. We currently live in a country where children accidentally shoot and kill each other. Neighbor against neighbor, sibling against sibling. Not literally against, of course, but these accidents should not happen once, let alone several times in few months. The Children's Defense Fund reports that in 2010, 15,576 children and teenagers were injured by firearms -- three times more than the number of U.S. soldiers injured in the war in Afghanistan. Those of us who own guns should lock them, double lock them, triple lock them. What we should absolutely not be doing as individual states is declining to enforce federal laws. States should have some discretion as to how they apply their resources, but it can just as easily be argued that the federal government exists to override decisions that present danger for populations.
Don't get me started on 3D gun printing, which is the most dangerously unregulated and isolationist activity American citizens could partake in. If you must have a gun, go out and by one (hopefully with federally mandated background checks in the future), lock up your guns at home, and abide by federal laws as a citizen of this country over citizens of a state (that goes for marriage equality, too; soon enough, so many states will allow gay marriage that it will become a federal law, as it should have been long ago).
Kidnapping. It's is a crime that has always existed, but the Cleveland case is particularly disturbing. Reports have revealed that throughout the 10 years these girls were in captivity, neighbors noticed suspicious activity on the part of the homeowners. One person reportedly saw naked women crawling around in the backyard with dog leashes around their necks; others heard screams and pounding on doors. The police were called several times but didn't take the accusations seriously, leaving after walking only around the side of the house. Another time, police never even responded to the calls. Joel Achenbach writes in a recent Washington Post article that he hopes this incident "will get us all to pay more attention to the people around us, including our neighbors." People are suffering horrifically from the distractions and lack of communication and follow-up brimming in today's culture.
Benghazi. With Benghazi brings issues of government transparency (how much do we actually have? Are we entitled to more?) and partisan conspiracy theories (where was all the interest when 64 attacks on American diplomatic targets occurred during George W. Bush's administration?) Benghazi is not Watergate. It's not Iran Contra. Details were overlooked in the Obama administration and there was little time to react. Not to mention that diplomatic security budgets began receiving less funding under Bush, hence the lack of protection. And maybe Obama's re-electability was a factor why his administration was reluctant to be forthright with information after the attack. But it wasn't a conspiracy. No one wanted those four Americans to die. It's possibly the most bipartisan statement among all of these partisan accusations to say that sometimes, shit just happens.
Federal budget. Are we always going to live on the edge, in a perpetual state of "fiscal cliff?" Is there a chance that any kind of deal can be made between the executive and legislative branches (was there ever a chance?), or will we wax and wane this way until we get back on track, if ever? What even is "on track?" The manner in which I'm firing out these questions might seem overly Woody Allen-esque, but these anxieties plague all of us who follow the news, and especially those who feel the effects of our government's financial woes. Financially, many of us are all alone out there. We want to get back on our feet but we just don't have the resources. Are these people still islands? Hell yes.
Terrorism (and surveillance). I bet you never thought you'd long for the Cold War days, when we knew exactly who our enemies were. The most alarming part about today's world is that any attack can happen at any time by anyone. Maybe the government will be able to thwart the attack, maybe not. This also ties in with the issue of surveillance. How much are we willing to have our personal securities breached so that the government can gather information to prevent a potential attack on our country? The conflict between security and liberty isn't new, but it's coming to a tipping point with today's technology and terrorism. Even the abstract idea of terror reinforces the lack of control individuals have. Sixty-three percent of Americans believe that terrorists will always find ways to launch major attacks, no matter what government does, according to Time magazine. Forty percent worry that someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism. At the same time, 61 percent of us worry that the government will enact excessive antiterrorism policies. Everyone is shifting around in discomfort and disagreement when it comes to terrorism and surveillance. How we deal with these issues personally and as a nation has yet to be realized.
Trust in government. Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas have described Washington as "a town where one party believes it's winning only if the other party believes its losing." Perhaps it has always been the case that gains and losses are just perception. The difference between history and the present is that right now everyone is losing, reflected in Americans' extreme distrust of government and the president, which furthers the polarization pervading our country. Even a national tragedy, such as the Boston Marathon bombings, can't bring our government or its citizens together anymore. Partisanship and disconnection prevail above absolutely everything else in America today. In such a society, no one can win.
In addition to all of the above, we have much to fear in a world of nuclear and chemical weapons, where entire populations can be blown up with the press of a button. Our country is becoming strikingly similar to the Hunger Games. We're justified in feeling like each one of us is an island, incapable of or too cautious to tread water to the others. But as my subconscious said, each one of us has a choice not to be an island. We can talk about all of these issues with each other, not at each other via Twitter (a great networking tool but not a good remedy for feeling isolated). We can acknowledge and connect.
A good friend of mine sent me the most refreshing video just a few days ago. It starts out following a 10-year-old boy as he shows viewers how to be "the most suave, romantic, George Clooniest guy out there." By the end of the video, you realize it's not really about romance; it's about intimacy and connection with other human beings, even people you don't know. "Don't just be a nice date," the kid says, "be a nice guy." Be kind, generous, and forgiving. Don't stare at your phone while you walk -- acknowledge a stranger's existence instead. Let a struggling car merge in front of you, even when you're driving in insane LA traffic.
We can't do much about terrorism and drones; we can't force the government to be more transparent. We can't pass gun safety or immigration reforms -- at least not right now, and certainly not alone. What we can do is recognize individuals every day, and be kind to one another other amidst all of this isolation and upheaval. Maybe we are all islands, due to technology, distrust of government, fear of the unknown, or other reasons. But we don't have to be. If you reach out to others, human to human, you'll be surprised how easy it is to feel that most of us exist together on the same island, instead of fragmented and alone.