Remembering ‘the other’
Today is Memorial Day, a day that unites Americans in honoring those who gave their lives in defense of their country. But how many of us will pause to acknowledge the fact that among those we honor are some — nobody knows how many, of course — whose religious faith, sexual orientation, skin color and political persuasion may set them apart from us?
Many of these individuals we honor represent “the other.” And around the world “the other” is too often distrusted, disliked and demonized. That was the case last week in London when two Muslim radicals butchered a British soldier as symbolic punishment (in their minds) for perceived crimes by the British military against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Here in the United States, the current political and cultural discourse is fraught with hostility toward “the other” as liberals and conservatives alike use inflammatory rhetoric to denounce their political rivals, as some religious figures condemn homosexuals and vigorously oppose any legalized protections in their favor, and as some in power seek to render workers’ unions powerless to legally protect their own interests.
There’s a tendency on occasions such as Memorial Day for all of us to believe that those we salute for their sacrifice were equals, but in fact the only equality they share is that they died, whether directly or indirectly, in the defense of their country.
It is proper, even essential, that their sacrifice be recognized, not just on this one day of the year but on every day we remain a free nation.
Flying the flag, making speeches and listening to patriotic music are not nearly enough. For various reasons — and in this day of the ubiquitous Internet, cable television, and the explosion of social media, our absolutely essential embrace of freedom of speech must share the responsibility — the United States appears, or at least acts, far less united today than it has at any time since perhaps the Civil War because, in a pluralistic society, it seems painfully obvious that we’ve become far less tolerant of those who are not like us.
And those unlike us are “the other.” By no means is this apparently growing chasm unique to the United States. In fact, the chasm is and probably always has been much wider and deeper in other places. But wherever it occurs it is an example of the identical phenomenon: a dislike and a distrust of those who don’t share our own beliefs and values and, too often, a reliance on violence rather than negotiation to settle differences.
Even in once-tranquil Sweden, riots have broken out and apparently the main cause has been the feeling, held by immigrants, that the native population has “marginalized” them to the point their frustrations have boiled over.
In Northern Ireland, a fragile peace is in place yet there’s constant vigilance lest militants on either side of the Catholic-Protestant divide choose to once again redress their grievances with bullets and bombs. In Nigeria, in Egypt, in India, in Myanmar (Burma) and especially in Syria and its neighboring nations, “the other” is at risk of brutal annihilation at the hands of those who don’t share their political, religious or ethnic values.
While this phenomenon is more potent elsewhere, it is nevertheless worrisome that while we believe our nation’s freedoms are priceless and permanent, they’re actually at risk as so many of us appear to resent “the other” for their cultural, social, ethnic and religious differences.
On Memorial Day, don’t forget that even “the other” are Americans.