By June Sochen
Americans are joiners. They join voluntary associations, religious institutions, athletic clubs and an assortment of other organizations. But, most importantly, they join together to help their neighbors in need.
Americans, especially in recent years with instant communication and instant information about events occurring across the country, rush to help those in distress.
Superstorm Sandy sent utilities crews from Illinois to New Jersey; first responders from communities throughout the metropolitan area of New York came to the aid of those devastated by the unprecedented storm. Whether it is a wildfire, a hurricane or a man-made disaster, help is on the way from Americans — both in this country and abroad.
It has become a usual, and expected, behavior during times of crisis.
After the horrific mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., the same expression of support, grief and aid came from citizens from the surrounding area as well as from around the country and the world.
We would expect nothing less from our fellow Americans. We treasure our families and our communities and empathize with others in need.
Although at times we congratulate ourselves too much for our generosity of spirit, it is appropriate during the aftermath of this hideous event to note the solidarity of all Americans. Differences melt away and commonalities are highlighted. Whether you are a parent or not, you can identify with parents who have suffered such a terrible loss.
While this outpouring of sympathy and this coming together strengthens everyone, we are also witnessing in this country examples of Americans coming apart. There are individuals, groups and organizations devoted to reminding us of the ways in which we are different from each other.
Texans talk about seceding from the union. Talk of secession emphasizes the alien feelings one group has for all others outside their state borders. There are residents of other states, particularly Southern states, who view the union as suspect, possibly as a negative force with no positive attributes.
Anti-Washington rhetoric fills the airwaves on some radio and television stations. Talk-show hosts inveigh against the federal government and ascribe sinister motives to all actions emanating from the nation's capital. Some people describe the federal government as if it is an entity from outer space designed to encompass every citizen and deprive everyone of his or her rights.
Conspiracy theories abound and the culture wars of the 1960s appear to be revivified. Emphasizing differences between regions, between classes and between genders replaces efforts to focus upon sameness, upon ways in which we are all more alike than different.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy has brought the issue of guns in our society to the fore, after a long period of silence. Gun-rights and gun-control advocates each argue their position with force and conviction. Mental-health professionals emphasize the need for early identification of troubled youth as a way to prevent such hideous events. The sides are drawn with a seemingly wide gap between them.
The either/or mentality of the public debate, and indeed the perception by many people of the issue, makes it hard to come together and have a public discussion on this very important subject. Dualities separate us while strivers for unities bring us together. Good or evil, nature or nurture, and guns for all versus gun restrictions frame difficult issues in adversarial terms.
If the goal is coming together, rather than keeping us apart, this mentality has to be altered. Seeking common ground, shared attitudes and ways to bridge the gap between them should replace the either/or attitude. The insistence on uncompromising positions, on purity and on ideological consistency serves us poorly at this time.
The Republicans in Congress seem unable to step away from their irrevocable opposition to tax increases and the National Rifle Association seeks to widen the gap between its views and gun-control advocates. Asking for armed guards in every school in America is an audacious leap from the original position of the right of individuals to bear arms. The strategy seems to be the best defense is an offense.
Emphasizing differences between individuals and groups, aggressively demanding uncompromising positions and declaring victory as the only possibility ensures distrust, anger and a turbulent public space. As long as the volume of discussion remains on high, reasonable voices cannot be heard. Respect for differences, while striving for similarities, has always been an American balancing act. When the bar teeters over to one side, the others fall off and the hope for harmony disappears. We can't let that happen.