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There's more than miles that separate Americans

Posted: Sunday, August 23, 2009

Our story so far: Last year, Barack Obama was elected president, the first American of African heritage ever to reach that office. If this was regarded as a new beginning by most Americans, it was regarded apocalyptically by others who promptly proceeded to lose both their minds and any pretense of enlightenment.

These are the people who immediately declared it their fervent hope that the new presidency fail, the ones who cheered when the governor of Texas raised the specter of secession, the ones who went online to rechristen the executive mansion the "Black" House, and to picture it with a watermelon patch out front.

On tax day they were the ones who, having apparently just discovered the grim tidings April 15 brings us all each year, launched angry, unruly protests. In the debate over health-care reform, they are the ones who have disrupted town hall meetings, shouting about the president's supposed plan for "death panels" to euthanize the elderly.

Now, they are the ones bringing firearms to places the president is speaking.

The Washington Post tells us at least a dozen individuals have arrived openly - and, yes, legally - strapped at events in Arizona and New Hampshire, including at least one who carried a semiautomatic assault rifle. In case the implied threat is not clear, one of them also brought a sign referencing Thomas Jefferson's quote about the need to water the tree of liberty with "the blood of ... tyrants."

It remains unclear, once you get beyond the realm of Internet myth, alarmist rhetoric and blatant lie, what the substance of the president's supposed tyranny might be. "Socialized health care?" Given that our libraries, schools, police and fire departments are all "socialized," that's hard to swallow.

When and if the implied violence comes, perhaps its author will explain. Meanwhile, expect those who stoked his rage - i.e., the makers of Internet myths, alarmist rhetoric and blatant lies - to disdain any and all moral responsibility for the outcome.

These are strange times. They call to mind what historian Henry Adams said in the mid-1800s: "There are grave doubts at the hugeness of the land and whether one government can comprehend the whole."

Adams spoke in geographical terms of a nation rapidly expanding toward the Pacific. Our challenge is less geographical than spiritual, less a question of the distance between Honolulu and New York than between you and the person right next to you. Such as when you look at a guy who thought it a good idea to bring a "gun" to a presidential speech and find yourself stunned by incomprehension. On paper, he is your fellow American, but you absolutely do not know him, recognize nothing of yourself in him. You keep asking yourself: Who "is" this guy?

We frame the differences in terms of "conservative" and "liberal," but these are tired old markers that with overuse and misuse have largely lost whatever meaning they used to have and with it, any ability to explain us to us. This isn't liberal vs. conservative, it is yesterday vs. tomorrow, the stress of profound cultural and demographic changes that will leave none of us as we were.

And change, almost by definition, always comes too fast, always brings a sense of stark dislocation. As in the woman who cried to a reporter, "I want 'my country' back!" Probably the country she meant still had Beaver Cleaver on TV and Doris Day on "Your Hit Parade."

Round and round we go and where we stop, nobody knows. And it is an open question, as it was for Henry Adams, what kind of country we'll have when it's done. "Can" one government comprehend the whole? It may be harder to answer now than it was then.

The distances that divide us cannot be measured in miles.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpittsmiamiherald.com.



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