Wars and Rumors of Wars

Late one night in June, a series of loud explosions outside our apartment in Brooklyn Heights jolted me awake. Bleary, I thought I was back in Saigon during the war, and we had just come under artillery bombardment. Where were the big guns that were firing — in New Jersey? On a ship in the harbor? But there was only silence, no more blasts, no shouts of panic, no sirens on the street…It must have been firecrackers, I thought, and went back to sleep.

But we have been in a war for the past three months. It began with the battle against the Coronavirus, which forced us all to take shelter at home, bringing on an economic collapse worse than anything since the Great Depression but enabling us, we hoped, to minimize our casualties. Nevertheless, more than 115,000 Americans have died, and hundreds are still dying every day. Anxiety began building steadily in March, with social strains compounding because such a disproportionate number of the victims were people of color working in jobs that exposed them to the virus, living as they have been forced to do for decades in crowded neighborhoods poorly served by social support networks. Tensions in inner-city neighborhoods finally exploded at the end of May, with the videotape of the atrocious police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. That sparked huge protest demonstrations, which soon spread far beyond Minnesota — and millions of black protestors were joined by millions of their white fellow citizens, taking to the streets in scores of cities across the country to demand an end to the toleration of racism not only in police departments but in so many other American institutions.

Some of those early demonstrations were angry and violent, with looting and burning buildings and police pummeling both vandals and innocent protestors alike. And what did leaders in Washington do? President Trump, instead of using his office to try to bring the country together and restore calm, played to his base five months before the election, calling for LAW AND ORDER and sending armed police and National Guard soldiers into the streets, and pushing to use combat troops from the U.S. Army’s 82d Airborne Division to put down what he saw as insurrections.

On June 1, after taking shelter in the White House basement as demonstrations closed in, he showed his defiance. A few blocks away, a large crowd of demonstrators peacefully protesting with Black Lives Matter signs had occupied the north side of Lafayette Square and the street near St. John’s Church, which had been damaged by fire earlier. At his insistence, Trump’s officials ordered Park Police and National Guard soldiers using tear gas, smoke bombs, rubber bullets and pepper pellets to force the crowd back so that he could walk to the church and hold up a Bible triumphantly — not to say a prayer, not to console, but to inflame. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who had talked about achieving “dominance” of the “battle area,” walked with him, as did Attorney General William Barr and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, in combat fatigues.

There had been nothing like this in America since 1968, after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and deadly violence in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago and elsewhere. Now, after mostly white Second Amendment supporters of the President, bearing arms, had gathered around state capitals after he encouraged them to demand that governors lift lockdown restrictions imposed to control the Covid virus, were we in danger of spiraling into civil war again?

No, this time it was different. The anger was the same, but this time it came with determination across racial lines to do something about its underlying cause — the racism that had brought African slaves to the colonies before the Revolution, then recognized them not as citizens but as property until the Civil War, then made second-class citizens of their descendants until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and finally even up to now still massively fails to ensure that they can enjoy the same legal and constitutional rights as whites can. Violence subsided in most protests, though some continued to be marred by self-destructive looting.

Encouragingly, senior retired and active-duty military leaders horrified by having been used to enable Trump’s photo op outside the church began speaking out. Secretary Esper infuriated the President by saying that calling in combat forces to quell civil demonstrations on American soil was wrong. General Milley said he had made a mistake by going with the President Lafayette Square. Retired Marine General James Mattis, who had served as Secretary of Defense before Esper, said he supported the demonstrators for “insisting that we live up to our values” and denounced Trump for three years of deliberately trying to divide the American people instead of bringing them together. Rank and file D.C. National Guard soldiers complained about being ordered into action against their neighbors. Gradually, police stopped using nightsticks to enforce curfews on demonstrators who were not bent on challenging or confronting them. All they wanted was the right to walk peacefully together on streets that belonged to all of them.

And people around the world showed that they agreed it was time to do something about racism, in America and in their own countries. Millions marched in London, Paris, Berlin, and beyond. Here, demonstrations continued in Brooklyn, Minneapolis, Washington and elsewhere — peacefully. At last, political leaders around the nation were taking notice of the need for action against systemic racism, after years of lip service. The Minneapolis City Council set in motion a process that could lead to voters deciding whether to downgrade and reduce funding for the Police Department. The New York City Council called for redirecting $1 billion of the NYCPD’s $6-billion budget to other social support services. New York State banned all police from using chokeholds, and repealed a law that kept police personnel records secret to thwart prosecution or lawsuits for misconduct.

But what about President Trump and his supporters, whom he had even cheered for marching on state houses bearing arms to demand that lockdowns be relaxed so people could get back to work? What about the white-supremacy groups that gathered in 2017 in Charlottesville, where one of their supporters drove his car into a peaceful protest and killed one of the demonstrators? “Fine people” on both sides, Trump said then. Militant racists have been ominously quiet since the marches for Black Lives Matter gathered momentum this June, but surely they haven’t gone away. Had those marches continued to be violent, it’s quite possible white militants could have joined with police in violent clashes that could have escalated into something that looked like civil war.

Trump’s chances of winning the election in November could improve if that had happened. What he does shows that he knows that. Just as General Mattis said, he kept doing everything he could to widen our divisions, denouncing his opponents as unpatriotic leftists bent on depriving him of his office, if not by impeachment then by mail-in ballots, which again and again he has falsely claimed were a massive source of election fraud.

And if he loses in November — wait for it — he will denounce the election as rigged and invalid and refuse to leave office. Then, unless we think hard now about how to avoid the possibility, we could have a real civil war. At least the senior military ranks have now made it clear that he cannot count on them to keep him in office if the vote goes against him. His Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, said in a CNN interview on June 10 that if Trump is defeated, “I am absolutely convinced that they will escort him from the White House with great dispatch.”

If enough of us civilians, white and people of color, are also willing to think again about the best way forward, perhaps there is hope for us. But we need to get started soon. Repeated fiascos with digital voting machines and foulups with ballots in the mail will be catastrophic if there is massive failure in November, as there was in primaries in Iowa and parts of Georgia this spring. And it’s not enough to get state legislatures and governors to approve voting by mail for everyone who wants it, if we don’t ensure that there are enough printed ballots, envelopes, and staff to get them out and then to process them quickly on election day.

We have to demand that our political leaders listen to what we are telling them we need.. We don’t need repression, we don’t need boots on our necks, we need enlightened leadership. We need to stop yelling at each other, we need to talk with each other — to overcome our current polarization and find a better way forward, aware of our weaknesses but also aware of the need to overcome them.

Is there hope for us to make America great again, truly great? We shall see.

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Craig R. Whitney

Retired from New York Times in 2009 after a 40-year career as foreign correspondent in Vietnam, Moscow, Germany, London and Paris and as an editor in New York.