Oct 17th 2017

The Challenge to Restore Sanity

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

Despite the fact that the stock market is at record highs and the unemployment rate, which began its substantial decline during the Obama Administration, is now at record lows, we spend our days haunted by the gnawing sense that life has spun out of control.  

In recent weeks we've been hit by hurricanes that devastated islands in the Caribbean, parts of Texas and Louisiana, and most of Puerto Rico.  Then came the horrific mass murder in Las Vegas. And now monstrous fires are ravaging northern California.   

It's always difficult to wrap your brain around any individual tragedy, but when they come by the handful in rapid succession, it becomes impossible to ingest these nightmares upon nightmares.  

The scenes of burned out blocks in Santa Rosa and reports of the fire's ever-rising death toll, prove only a momentary distraction before our minds switch to what's happening in San Juan where 85% of the island of 3.7 million souls are still without electric power or drinkable water. Tragically, Houston has been all but forgotten as it struggles to recover - as if it can ever fully recover - with lives lost, homes gone, and whole areas still unlivable.   

Las Vegas is another story, entirely. It is a man-made horror. Despite the exceptional magnitude of this massacre, we appear to refuse to come to grips with the reality that mass shootings are a daily affair in the United States. The New York Times recently produced a chart from the Orlando to Las Vegas: 477 days, 521 mass shootings, with 527 killed and 2,156 wounded.  

With all these horrors being visited upon us - both acts of nature or by man's own hand - a sense of dread has set in. It's as if we wake up each day "waiting for the other shoe to drop."  

If all of this weren't bad enough, more often than not, our politics and government also appear to be out of control. Hyper-partisanship has created such dysfunction that Congress simply can't act to address the nation's agenda. Health care remains in limbo, 700,000 Dreamers face an uncertain future. There is no real prospect for comprehensive immigration reform or the long-promised investments to repair our crumbling infrastructure. And, in all likelihood, this session will end with Congress once again failing to pass a budget.  

For his part, the President appears more obsessed with undoing whatever his predecessor has done with little concern for the consequences of his actions or his words. This week, alone, his administration took executive actions to erase critical Obama-era environmental regulations and make significant changes that severely weaken health insurance guidelines and threaten the well-being of the poor and the disabled.   

And then there are his tweets. In past administrations, when we faced unsettling tragedy or saw the world in chaos, presidents would act to bring us together and try to restore our confidence. Past presidents have played the role of comforter-in-chief, helping us heal our divisions or our wounds and restore faith in our national purpose. But not this president.  

Trump was elected with the promise that he would "shake things up" - and doesn't appear to understand the truth in the old maxim "there's a time and place for everything." And so, when we are already reeling from several calamities, he chooses to unsettle us further with provocative words or actions, the impact of which drive some to the brink of despair.  

Each morning, I check Twitter to see what new insults or threats the president has hurled at foreign leaders or domestic opponents. This week alone, with gleeful abandon, Trump has threatened North Korea's leader, tried to humiliate the Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, insulted and threatened leaders in suffering Puerto Rico, and challenged NBC News network's license to broadcast.  

Other than North Korea, I haven't mentioned the other multiple crises we face overseas - from the continuing nightmare of Syria, with its hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of refugees, to the humanitarian crisis that is Yemen, and the increasingly insolvable Israel-Palestine conflict. Added to that, there is an emboldened Iran and the unpredictable impact of this Administration's recent threat to upend the nuclear deal; an empowered China flexing its muscles regionally and internationally; an aggressive and emboldened Russia; and our fraying relations with Europe.        

In the face of all of this, the Administration appears to have no clear direction or even leadership. It is increasingly difficult to discern exactly where the US stands on any issue, whose voice matters, or how decisions are made. What we are left with are tweets - and that only compounds our sense that we're adrift in troubled waters.     

With the world in chaos and feeling out of control, and with our politics and our congress and president only contributing to our national anxiety - it is imperative that we not surrender to despair. We must work to pull ourselves together. We need a revival of national unity by insisting on civil discourse with our opponents and our adversaries. We must develop a national agenda that restores our purpose, cares for our people, and gives hope to those who feel left behind and have lost faith in our ability to live up to the promise of our country. And we must provide clear-headed direction in foreign policy that will guide our relations with other nations.    

It will be a heady task, with a long road ahead. But it is a challenge we dare not ignore. Too much, including our collective sanity, is at stake.  



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