In Service to Our Country
When I was 26 years old and living in New York City, I signed up for the Marines. On 9/11, I had stood on the rooftop of my building in Brooklyn and watched the World Trade Center collapse, the target of an act of blind hatred and ignorance. After roaming the streets of the city in shock, despair, fear, and anger, I suddenly had a vision of myself in uniform. This vision gave me strength and courage and the resolve to face this tragedy through service. One week later, I was in the recruiting office of the US Marines, ready to fight for my country. I went through all the paperwork, the medical testing, interviews, and at some point in June 2002 I was scheduled to ship out to Quantico for boot camp and then Officer Candidate School.
In the end, though, I lacked the courage to follow through. I lacked the courage to give up the life I had in New York, to say goodbye to the projects I was engaged in at the time, to let go of the tremendous freedom I enjoyed.
In so many ways, backing out of military service is the largest regret of my life.
Having grown up with many family members in various branches of military service, I learned the value of service, and of discipline and sacrifice. While I myself may have lacked those values, I had role models in my life who embodied them. I have always had a vision of what it means to serve our country, to give back for all the tremendous opportunities we have received as citizens.
Fast forward fifteen years to 11/9. Upon reading the announcement that Donald J Trump won the presidency, I was overcome by a flood of emotions that, in my lifetime, have only compared to what I felt the days following 9/11 – shock, fear, despair, anger. A molotov cocktail of confusion.
No doubt it will be difficult for many to equate one of our greatest national tragedies with the election of a president. But for me, and for many other Americans, the news of a Trump presidency was a soul-crushing attack on nearly everything we believe in. It was like watching as five decades of progress in civil rights, women’s rights, human rights, and concern for our environment came crumbling down overnight. It was a validation that rules don’t apply equally in our society – as long as you’re wealthy, any behavior is acceptable, no matter how self-serving or vile. His election, for many of us, represented placing hatred and fear at the forefront of American values.
However, after many long, introspective walks, I also came to recognize that this election was a lose-lose proposition for America.
Either we elected a man who is hated by half of America, or we elected a woman that was hated by the other half. Regardless of the justifications on either side of this argument, we have been deeply divided by the failures of both political parties to lead with integrity.
Wherever you stand on this, we all have played a role in allowing corruption to permeate every level of our government. We have all remained silent for decades as the wealthiest and most powerful have hijacked policy in their favor. And we have supported this by turning against each other instead of turning our collective attention towards the real problems driving the ideological divisions and inequalities of income and justice.
The divisions in our country will not just disappear, as healing for this sort of wound never happens automatically. And I certainly don’t have a great deal of faith in our national leadership to lead that charge.
It’s one of the clichés of history, that empires tend not to fall as a result of threats from outside their borders, but rather they collapse from within, their societal foundations eroded by internal strife, confusion, and corruption.
So here is the call to service. I’m far too old for the Marines, though; and in any case, we’re facing a very different threat.
I can serve my country by collaborating with people across the entire spectrum of Americans to heal the divisions in our communities, to reawaken a sense of civic duty in the populace, and to stand guard over the rights guaranteed by the Constitution to all citizens.
Healing our divisions will require having difficult conversations with people of different belief systems, political or otherwise. It means a willingness to listen as much or more than I speak, to make a strong effort to understand my neighbors’ views, and to recognize biases where they exist. I have biases, you have biases, we all do; to pretend otherwise is to ignore reality. Stereotypes and biases are a poison in our system. To heal and unify will demand that we stop taking those poisons.
Reawakening a sense of civic duty will require studying the issues and seeking to understand the deep complexity underlying every policy problem we face. There is never an easy solution, and no one way is always the right way. This will involve engaging in rational debate, weighing different viewpoints, and most importantly, making certain that our elected representatives hear those views. If our leaders falter, it is my civic duty to demand action: that they take steps to alleviate the consequences of their failures.
Standing guard over the rights of our citizens means working to ensure that all Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, religious beliefs, or the color of their skin have a place at the table. This requires keeping our eyes on policies as they form and having a willingness to point out and denounce violations of the rights of any group, regardless of which party is committing those violations. Whether Republican or Democrat, conservative, liberal, libertarian, or independent, if we want to live in a healthy democracy, we must be willing to call a crime a crime, even if it’s coming from our preferred party.
Thinking of the sacrifices and hardships endured by our servicemen and women, this kind of service pales in comparison.
It requires minimal time and entails no physical risk. This kind of service only requires the willingness to have uncomfortable conversations with those of differing views. It requires listening and seeking to understand. It requires a willingness to recognize that an action by our government that is unfair or unjust for any Americans is unjust for all Americans.
It requires only just a little bit of courage to stand up and speak out when we see injustice, to demand better from our government. If we are dissatisfied with the state of our government, and yet we only participate every four years in the political process, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Ensuring the greatness of America is the duty of all citizens.
Over these past two weeks, I have watched as my shock turned to despair, which then gave way to rage. My rage then gradually turned into acceptance. Guided by compassion and hopefully a bit of wisdom, I will transform these feelings into action.
I’ll allow this experience to transform me into stronger person, one who is driven to stand up to injustice, defuse hatred with compassion, and cultivate wisdom in place of ignorance.
I hope to serve alongside all of you.