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America and its Demons

America and its Demons
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

The United States of America has never resolved the fundamental problem of racism that underpins its society and its very creation. From the treatment of Native Americans to that of Blacks today, the country keeps reliving episodes of racial injustice. This time around, even more so than before, the country is bursting at the seams with revolt, as injustice is being doubled down by the cynical political manipulaition of a president who is out of control.

Ruthless hunting scenes, or ordinary racism in America? The gaze of the policeman choking his "prey" by applying pressure on the neck with his knee is deliberately provocative. At his feet lies an unarmed human being, not a lion.

The knee that kills is answered by the knee that protests or apologizes through genuflection. When, in December 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt spontaneously in front of Warsaw’s Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, he contributed to transforming the country’s image and consolidating European unity. Repentance - contrary to what some think - is not a sign of weakness. It is the prerequisite for reconciliation between peoples, as well as between communities within the same nation.

Dehumanization of the other

Racism culminates in the dehumanization of the other. Those who are killed without hesitation and without remorse are no longer human beings, but harmful and dangerous beasts, no matter what they look like: a black giant in the United States or a Jewish child in the Warsaw ghetto. When a human being, by his mere physical strength, out of principle or through a position of authority, seizes full power over another, the whole social equilibrium is in danger. And this is true whether it concerns violence by a man against a woman or by a policeman against a black man. The abuse of power by some creates a deep sense of injustice among others.

When a human being seizes full power over another, the whole social equilibrium is in danger.

Will the murder of George Floyd, captured on video for over eight minutes, be the "one crime too many" in the history of the United States? Could the Holocaust have lasted for years, if its unbearable images had traveled around the world thanks to social media?

"This time it’s different." How many times, after a school or college shooting or a homicide of a black person by a white police officer, have we heard that "this time it’s different"? And each time - once the emotions have dissipated, the tension subsided - everything went back to the way it was before, facilitated by the over-the-counter sale of weapons - which would be considered weapons of war outside the United States - or by a fundamentally racist culture in the American police force.

Inner solitude

Why would it be any different today? Stupidity (one would be tempted to use a stronger word) and ignorance are still present. You can’t change human nature by waving a magical wand. How can we, in 2020, solve a "black problem" that America has never really faced since its inception? From the treatment of Native Americans to that of Blacks, the "foundations of the House of America" have been shaky since the creation of the Republic. The contrast between the universalist principles of the Declaration of Independence, which opens with the proclamation of absolute equality between men, and the reality of the condition of Blacks - before and after the abolition of slavery - is simply too great, today as yesterday. Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, a man of the Enlightenment, never freed his own slaves.

As a student at Harvard in the early 1970s, I witnessed "the problem". At Adams House, where I lived, there was a self-constituted "black table" where white students were not welcome. My status as a Frenchman - and General de Gaulle’s critical positions on the Vietnam war - earned me special treatment. I could occasionally join their meals and share their inner solitude.

Acknowledging the depth and the historical and cultural specificity of the problem would undoubtedly avoid gross misinterpretations. Comparing the "Yellow Vests" in France to the African-American community in the United States, as some do, is not simply a demonstration of ignorance, if not bad faith; it is an insult to the specific situation of the Black community in America, a situation that persists despite the fragile and ever-challenged wins that have been booked.

Explosion of anger

Why would this time be different? Because the outburst of anger coincides with public health and economic crises that, like the "systemic slip-ups" of the police, disproportionately affect the African-American community? Because the shock induced by the images is unprecedented and has moved the whole world? Because, by his nature and through calculated blunders, the man at the head of the United States provides a focal point for the outrage, putting a face to the evil?

The cynical political exploitation of the drama, the call on the armed forces, the misuse of the Bible, the total lack of empathy for the victims: Donald Trump has broken all taboos.

A little for all these reasons, no doubt. The cynical political exploitation of the drama, the call on the armed forces - a decision denounced even in his own camp, by the former Secretary of Defence James Mattis, and criticized by the latter’s successor - the misuse of the Bible, the total lack of empathy for the victims: Donald Trump has broken all taboos, knocked down any and all barriers of decency. How can one react, other than by voting - for which the timing is right - when the greatest obstacle to the security of the United States and the unity of its citizens is the President himself?

"Arise quickly, ye wished-for storms." This passage from Chateaubriand’s "René" seems to sum up Donald Trump’s political thinking, from the external threat of China to the internal explosion of violence. And if "the storms" don’t break out fast enough, why not give them "a little push"? Donald Trump deliberately plays with fire, convinced that the more "the indignant" turn to violence, the more likely he is to be re-elected. Yet, judging by the results of the local elections a few days ago, the anti-Trump movement is on the march. The call for unity and dignity can prevail over division and lies.

This time it’s different. (Maybe.)




Copyright : Olivier DOULIERY / AFP


Courtesy of Les Echos (published on 08/06/2020)

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