It poured rain on a recent Sunday in Washington D.C. My girlfriend Katie and I were visiting my 88-year-old grandmother, staying in her apartment in the suburbs, but this Sunday we drove our rented Toyota into the district to do the requisite monument tour. Normally there would be crowds, this time of year, it being the last weekend of the Cherry Blossom Festival, but a spell of warm weather earlier on had caused the trees to bloom early, and shed early. The lack of blossoms and the wet and chilly weather translated into meager attendance at a Cherry Blossom stage outside of the Jefferson Memorial, where the three or four onlookers clasping umbrellas barely outnumbered the performers.
I'm not a big fan of rain, normally. (It tends to work up my allergies, and living in Los Angeles has dulled my keeping-dry instincts. For instance, I carried a hat, coat, umbrella and so forth, but neglected to pay any attention to a hole in the soul of my shoe.) This rain seemed appropriate, however - not just in retrospect, given the horrible shootings at Virginia Tech that occurred the following day, but as a general testament to the dreary state of our political leadership and our direction as a country. I need not preach to the choir here, except to reference our drawn-out war and its murky beginnings, and the string of domestic and foreign affronts to civil liberties and human rights all intertwined within it.
The rain nursed my bile, and I began to feel particularly angry and self-righteous here, within a stone's throw of the White House. Within a stone's throw of Bush and his coterie of schemers and idiots. Invective peppered my blood, and I let it, and enjoyed it. Then Lincoln set me straight. We had wandered into his Grecian memorial, and my eyes fell on Lincoln's second inaugural address, chiseled into the interior marble. Lincoln was speaking on the occasion of his second inauguration, in March of 1865, as the Civil War was drawing to a close and victory over the secessionists was assured. A triumphant moment, to be sure, but his speech set aside divisive rhetoric in favor of nuanced empathy that invites the suffering of the other into the experience of the self. From this angle, victory - however worthwhile its effect - is necessarily bittersweet.
Of the opposing sides, Lincoln said, "Both read the same bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully...With malice toward none; with charity for all..."
What struck me first was the vast divide between this way of relating to the enemy, the other -- characterized by empathy, cognizant of the ambiguity inherent to worldview confrontation -- and the simplistic way that Bush et al relate to their designated "axis of evil." While Lincoln invokes the shared thread of humanity that binds us all together, friends and foes, Bush divides the world into absolute categories, good and evil, saved and damned, human and subhuman; it's the oldest trick in the book and when coupled with perceived danger -- 9/11 primed the pump -- this totalistic division can serve to draw the in-group together as a mob bent on obliterating the out-group before it obliterates us. The out-group becomes a fairly elastic category. It's a terribly convenient dynamic for leaders whose purpose is vague or misguided, for these divisions, once established, tend to fuel themselves, and come to require only a threadbare rationale. The first shot rings out, and then each army seeks to punish the other for sins that at least partially originated with the self. It's easy to lose track of yourself in the mêlée.
Standing there in the memorial as rain poured down outside, I was also struck by the extent to which that divisive spirit has infected my own relationship with the folks in power. As a childhood friend wrote me recently, "You've got to believe that all these politician guys have a lot of humanity hidden inside them -- even little Bushy -- it's just that most of them seem to think it necessary to conceal it, squelch it, and are excellent at it." It's easiest to resist tyranny by turning tyrannical, easiest to fight fire with fire, easiest to name-call "Bush and his coterie of schemers and idiots" and in so doing relegate these folks to subhuman status.
Easiest, though perhaps largely ineffective. A smart argument can be made that refusing to recognize the humanity of our foes - those heartless bastards - sets up a binary opposition along the lines aforementioned, with our vitriol effectively counterbalancing and propping up the vitriol of our enemy. Tension ratchets up with each acerbic exchange, until conflict becomes an end in itself. Ironically, each side is significantly dependent upon the other for its own sense of self and worldview, the boundaries of its community, its energy and momentum. Hoary adage though it be, perhaps it's true that love is the best antidote to hate. The question being, how do you execute that philosophy?
I'm reminded of an exchange between Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and activist mom Cindy Sheehan, which took place in October of 2005 in a small room in the community center of L.A.'s MacArthur Park. I was on assignment for the Los Angeles Times, covering the peace march Hanh had organized for later that morning, and was interviewing Hanh when Sheehan dropped by and the two met for the first time. Both have strong antiwar agendas, of course, and both have suffered deeply in the past - but the similarity mostly ends there. Hanh, who exudes a sense of peacefulness, spoke kindly but did not mince his words.
"The energy of peace is very important," he told Sheehan. "That, we can generate. It is nourished by the brotherhood of compassion and nondiscrimination. I don't think shouting angrily at the government can help us end the war. When we are able to change our own thinking, the government will have to change. With the practice of deep listening, compassionate listening, we will change the minds of people... During the Vietnam war I came to this country not to shout, but to show them the true nature of the war in Vietnam. By this time, people in America realize that the war in Vietnam was completely useless. Use compassion, patience and loving speech in order to make this happen."
Sheehan listened graciously but said little, and then she and Hanh headed out to meet the thousands who had gathered to walk in silence around the park -- political signs and shouting were strongly discouraged. I called Sheehan a few days later, curious if Hanh's approach had at all swayed her own.
"It didn't change much the way I relate to the struggle," she told me. "I think there definitely is a time and a place for silence, but there is also a place for marching and carrying signs. I admit it: I'm angry. I'm angry at the people who killed my son. I wonder if Thich Nhat Hanh has had a son killed violently. When my son was killed, that was the most violent thing that could ever have happened to me. I could have died easily myself. I'm angry and I'll be angry until I die that my son was stolen from me this way."
Back in Washington, Katie and I left the Lincoln Memorial and trudged across a muddy pathway to our car. Our last stop was for a look at the White House, where I stood behind the gate feeling blissful outrage - and also a sense of emptiness, just beneath the surface.