Civil war? Let’s make a civil pact instead

9 May 2022

Urban liberal that I am, I have a message and a proposal for you, my MAGA neighbors. I propose that we make a pact. I like the word “pact.” It comes from the Latin “pax” meaning peace, and that is precisely what I am offering here, a peace proposal. Let me explain.

I’ve meant to reach out to you earlier, ever since the 2016 election season, when you seemed to come out of nowhere. I feel some urgency to connect now, though, because there is something that is bothering me. More and more I’m hearing the term “civil war” tossed around, and recently by more mainstream voices. I’m sure you’re hearing it too and it seems that all that talk is really about war of some kind between us, you and me. It is talk that presumes that there is so much animosity between us that we are on the cusp of committing violence against each other on a broad and sustained scale that we are on the cusp of war.

As we speak the horror and brutality of war unfolds daily in Ukraine. Although not a civil war as most understand that term, the violence and suffering there offers us stark warning for us, a warning about what can happen when grievances over national identity are not resolved peacefully. With Ukraine as our backdrop, can you even imagine being at war, any kind of war, with your fellow-citizens?

I can’t.

As Americans we have some familiarity with actual civil war, don’t we? And given our history, how misguided would we be to allow that to happen again? After all, from our first (and to date only) civil war, we know that our country was brought to its knees: five years of bloody slaughter, some 800,000 dead, many more wounded and disabled, whole towns wiped off the map, a decimated citizenry and economy. The scars of the Civil War – economic, psychological, social and cultural – lingered for decades. Some linger still.

Of course, a civil war like our first or a war like that in Ukraine, with standing armies and well-defined geographic and ideological dividing lines, isn’t likely. But how reassuring is that given the deep vein of political hostility, of rage really, that currently pulses through our country? As sure as we might be that we won’t see again a clash of standing armies on American soil, are we as certain that we won’t see marauding militia groups with competing agendas threatening each other, or threatening the most heavily armed civilian population the world has ever known? Indeed, isn’t commentary about civil war growing – aren’t I writing this very piece – precisely because it seems there is grave risk that an act of political violence or even assassination, a senseless spark, could lead to cascading violence?

Whatever its definition, the outbreak of civil war in any form would surely mean constant threat to our lives and safety. It would mean disruption all around us, to government at all levels, to all our institutions, schools, churches, clubs, and businesses. In a state of civil war, there would be no security, but only profound instability and at a time when pandemic instability has already stretched us thin.

If we’re disturbed now by supply chain woes, imagine how those woes would be compounded by civil war. In a climate of widespread violence and fear, how do businesses function? How do they make or move the goods, supply the services that we need and rely on? With businesses under siege, wouldn’t we see widespread loss of jobs and loss of the income derived from those jobs? If we’re feeling that we’re merely treading water now, how soon before we drown – before we drown each other – in the chaos of civil war?

And what of our families? How would we keep them safe and healthy? If we’re already exhausted by virtual learning, by the emotional and academic toll that our children have suffered in the pandemic, wouldn’t that suffering be exponentially greater in a state of civil war? I don’t think it hyperbolic to say that, if we can’t figure out how to resolve differences without violence, it would all come crashing down, not just government and businesses and schools, but everything we hope for, all our dreams.

The alternative, and antidote, to civil war is that we figure out how to get along. And doesn’t a bit of empathy and compassion for each other sound more sensible, more patriotic? I also have a hunch that if we got to know each other better we might just see eye-to-eye on more than a few things. We might just realize that what binds us together is far greater than what pulls us apart.

For instance, that urban-liberal moniker. It is only a small part of who I am and not the most important part. Family is most important. I am married and have children, three girls and two boys. Three are out of the house, done with school, and starting to make their way in the world. The two youngest are teenagers, doing what teenagers do. They go to school, play sports and music, hang out with their friends, and listen ever less to what their parents have to say. Like their older siblings, they expect to get a good education, and to have the sort of work and life options that their parents have had. Our version of the American dream.

Might you have similar dreams, and might there be much more to you than that MAGA tag?

I was raised in the Catholic tradition where, as with most religious denominations, the central principle is love thy neighbor. I’ll bet we share this tradition too. I’ve fallen away from my Catholic roots but believe, more than ever, in that first principle. I feel morally compelled to abide by it, while also deeply aware of how often I fall short of it. I know we can relate on this point: sinners all, and in need of forgiveness.

Don’t get me wrong, I know there are deep divisions between us. I understand too that some won’t be easily resolved, and some perhaps not at all. We aren’t likely, for instance, to see eye-to-eye on a certain former President. I admit that I find your affinity for him confounding, sometimes infuriating. I offer this not to pick at a fresh scab, but in the spirit of full disclosure, so that you know how I think or, as you may see it, where my blinders are. I can assure you, though, that whatever our disagreement over President 45, he is not, in my view, worth starting a war over. Rather, I’m willing to accept that our best option may be to simply agree to disagree, about his character and competence, and let the chips – or, in this case, the voting ballots – fall where they may.

And about those voting ballots. Am I right that this may be a sore spot for you, and a fundamental point of contention between us? I hear constantly that you believe that the last election was rigged or stolen, that Joe Biden is not our legitimate president. Truth be told? I might agree with you that, if anything is worth fighting over, it would be a stolen election. Fighting to create and preserve democracy is central to our DNA as Americans, isn’t it?

However, before we fight or, God forbid, start a war, over election chicanery or anything else, don’t we owe it to each other to be certain of our suspicions, to be sure that there are good facts, and not bad assumptions, undergirding our beliefs? I mean, how much regret, how much shame, would we carry if we were moved to violence – against each other, against neighbors, and fellow Americans – based on bad facts and a false narrative? What if we brought about collapse of all that is good in America because we were misled and wrong?

Can we at least agree, then, that there should be good fact to support any belief that would lead us to civil war? Given the stakes, that’s not too much to ask, is it?

Now if you hear judgment in my rhetorical questions, I admit there may be some because I firmly believe, after close study of the available evidence, that the election was neither stolen nor rigged.  Nonetheless, as part of the pact I’m proposing, I will promise to examine closely every bit of evidence that you offer to support your belief, and I’ll try to do so with an open mind, if you will do the same for me. Don’t we owe this to each other, to our families, communities, and our country? Isn’t this the least we can do?

So here’s my peace proposal, that pact that I would like us to make as citizens of one great country: that we strive to know each other better, listen better to each other, listen less to those that gain from dividing us, and that we commit to grounding our strongest beliefs – about each other and our politics – on fact and truth.

Wouldn’t a pact like this be in keeping with the commandment that we love our neighbor?  Wouldn’t it be a far cry better than civil war? What do you say?

Urban liberal that he is, Bill O’Brien lives in Minneapolis and works as a labor and civil rights lawyer.

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