A blog by Barry Edelson

The Resumption of History


Or, How to Learn Nothing from the Past

At the time, the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of communist totalitarianism were events whose historical and human import could hardly be overstated. We struggled to find words for the feelings of joy over the sudden liberation of the long-suffering peoples of Eastern Europe, and the immense relief that the threat from an implacable enemy had almost instantly evaporated. We wished we could have been there to share the ecstasy of the German and Czech and Hungarian revelers. As deep as our own happiness was, we knew that theirs was incomparably greater.

How remote it seems to us now. So self-absorbed have we become in our own travails that it is difficult to conjure the emotions of those heady days of deliverance. For the Germans in particular, but for all of the subject peoples once ground into submission by the vast and merciless Soviet maw, the twentieth anniversary celebrations in Berlin this past week appear to arouse still powerful and vivid memories of the dark days of communist rule and of the jubilation over its thankful demise. Today, we watch their commemoration less like allies who shared in their struggle and triumph than like distant cousins who have not kept in touch, and who consequently feel a bit awkward about attending the reunion party. That the victory against fascism is still well within the memory of tens of millions of living Americans, and that American soldiers were critical both to that colossal undertaking and to the subsequent airlift that kept West Berlin from falling under communist control, makes our remoteness from these unparalleled events even more remarkable and perplexing.

It was a mere 12 years between the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 and the attacks of September 11, 2001, yet it now seems as if an eon passed between them.
An "opulent" store window, Prague, Easter 1988
The sheer euphoria that greeted the end of communism in Eastern Europe lasted barely long enough for us to dust off some of the domestic troubles that had been long neglected during the 40-year preoccupation with the Cold War, before we found ourselves thrust into a new, all-consuming conflict that seemed to come out of nowhere.

That we ought to have seen it coming is perhaps the least of the lessons to be drawn from the events of the last 20 years. Perhaps it is our geographic isolation and relative physical security, even when the rest of the world is burning, that has led us time and again to turn away from the troubles of other nations only to find ourselves repeatedly surprised to find smoke blowing in our eyes. To take the most current example: in our ongoing deliberations about the quandary of Afghanistan, it has become almost a cliché that we are reaping our reward for turning our backs on that blighted country once the Soviet threat had passed from our consciousness. How could we expect the Afghans, or anyone else, to be anything but wary of our commitment to them?

Perhaps we can better understanding our historical cycles of paranoid isolationism and hyperactive engagement by considering a seemingly unrelated event that happened almost exactly half-way between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 9/11 attacks: the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. As it happened, my wife and I were in Europe at the time of the bombing. We had just spent a few days visiting friends in Bratislava — one of those places that were still struggling mightily to arouse themselves from the nightmare of their communist past — and had gone on with some English friends to Prague and finally Vienna when news of the bombings reached us. We were staying in a guest house without a television in the room, so for the first day or so our only information came from day-old reports in the International Herald Tribune. We had a sickly, sinking feeling that something horrible and momentous was happening at home and we were cut off from it. The first bombing of the World Trade Center had occurred just two years before, so it was only "natural" that suspicions would center on foreign terrorists. We eventually were able to watch a live broadcast on British television, and finally learned that the perpetrators were believed to be home-grown extremists, not Islamic terrorists as was originally assumed.

Coincidentally, we had had a conversation only a few days earlier with our Slovak friends about the American need to create imagined enemies when real ones were not available. How ironic, I wrote at the time, that we had just come from the Czech and Slovak Republics, where communism had been thoroughly discredited and soundly rejected, only to learn that, the Cold War definitively over, American lunatics were turning their gunsights on the very federal government which was not only the world's anti-communist beacon of freedom for four decades, but which trained and harbored many of these delusional people in the ranks of the very military machine that led the fight. Having regained a real if shadowy foreign enemy after 9/11, we have largely forgotten the internecine conflicts that roiled the body politic in the 1990s.
Bratislava apartment buildings, 1995
Remember the worries over the Christian militias and patriot movement, some of whose adherents murdered police officers and committed other crimes in mainly rural parts of the western states? Remember Ruby Ridge? Waco? At the time, there seemed to be a slowly growing threat to our internal security, with some on the right edge of politics going so far as to beg the nation's understanding for these unconventional types. Ironically, Oklahoma City helped to squash that movement, as the murder of innocents was too much even for some of the most committed anti-government fanatics.

Nonetheless, these events were an unpleasant reminder that an underlying distrust of anyone remotely different — urban, liberal, non-white, non-Christian — is an enduring feature of the American political landscape. For half a century, fascism and then communism provided convenient foils for those most suspicious of "foreign" influences. Moreover, they helped to paper over differences between the mainstream left and right, offering a common enemy on which to focus everyone's attention. It might have seemed that al Qaeda would serve the same purpose, but despite the 9/11 attacks and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Islamic extremists have apparently proven to be too diffuse and unreliable a foe to play a meaningful role in rearranging the American psyche. It struck me, just a few days after the attacks, when a fighter jet on patrol around the New York metro area roared fearsomely overhead as I stepped out of my house, that we had much more to fear from our overreaction to 9/11 than from the threat itself. However much harm al Qaeda might do, and however many people they might kill, we are never going to have to suffer sustained aerial bombardment or occupation by a foreign army. We are just too strong. Indeed, the only force powerful enough to defeat us is ourselves.

Having first overreacted and then adapted, we are back to attacking one another, and in a disturbingly irrational and hateful manner. On television just the other day, a woman attending an anti-health care reform rally in Washington (hosted by Congressional Republicans, no less) insisted in a very calm voice that "we are not crazy — we just want our country back." Back from what? Or more correctly, from whom? We are not supposed to suggest that these protests have anything to do with the President's race, but that would be a lot easier to believe if these freedom-loving, tax-hating citizens had gotten half as exercised by the vast abuse of power and reckless spending of the previous occupants of the White House.

In the course of our Slovak friends' lifetimes, their country and all the countries around them had to endure the brutality of two regimes, fascist and communist, in which distrust was deliberately and maliciously dispersed through the population; in which enemies and friends were so intermingled among one's neighbors and colleagues as to be indistinguishable; and in which constant fear left good people like themselves unable to delineate their world into the simple dualities of decency and cruelty which we naively assume are the entire world's moral currency.
Highway underpass, Moscow, 2007
Perhaps this partially explains the raw appeal of nationalism: it makes the enemy an easily identifiable target. No need to worry about the loyalty or integrity of people who look and talk like you. The dangerous "other" is easy to pick out of a crowd. In the music conservatory in Bratislava, for example, where one of our acquaintances was on the faculty, group photos of ethnically homogeneous graduating classes from the darkest years of the last century line the corridors. Looking at those faces now, she and her colleagues must surely wonder if there were any among them who denounced a classmate for the sake of their own advancement, or out of jealousy, or fear. Did we win this long fight against totalitarianism only to find ourselves, ironically, descending into the abyss from which these people of Eastern Europe have spent the last 20 years climbing out of? Over the past few months, as the most hateful vitriol has poured from the mouths of so many self-described American patriots, I have much the same concern I had in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. I overhear conversations about politics on trains and in restaurants, among neighbors and strangers, and I find myself asking: Where do their sympathies lie? Whose side are they on? Can they be trusted?

This is a terrible way to feel about one's countrymen. Can it be only eight years since 9/11 elicited a powerful sense of national unity, when people from all over the country rushed to the aid of the people of New York without the slightest regard to the politics, religion or race of the victims? Can be it be merely 20 years since the communist implosion engendered a nearly universal sense of possibility? One can only hope these domestic divisions will fade, that there won't be more incidents or incitements to divide us further and sink us deeper into suspicion and fear. Because there are two things we should remember above all others as we watch the joyous commemorations from the formerly Communist East: a poisonous climate in which ignorance and intimidation are not forcefully confronted can easily descend into a maelstrom of unrelenting violence; and that while running away from evil may save your skin today, you will surely have to come back and fight it again tomorrow.

November 10, 2009

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