In this season of hope and frigid fear, the other day on the Hudson River we saw another reason for optimism. When faced with imminent danger, we saw the best in what we all can do together. A jetliner is in trouble and the pilot skillfully steers away from the most populated strip of land in America, and brings his passengers and crew to safety. Ferry captains, firefighters, police, the Coast Guard and many others head toward danger to save people. Ordinary people on the jet and on the ferries lend a helping hand and no one dies.
Let’s hope this is a metaphor for our country and our world. Working together, we can help each other and survive this season to live and thrive in the next one. Spring will surely follow this bleak winter. Let’s celebrate the competence and courage of pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III, a name we will all come to know: The captain who truly was the last to leave his sinking craft. But let’s also celebrate this post 9-11 mantra that tells us we are all in this together. We are all interdependent and all part of the same community. As ecologist Barry Commoner said over four decades ago- everything is connected to everything else.
What does that mean? Next week we inaugurate a new President, who is as sophisticated and self aware as any President we have ever had. I don’t think it’s wishful thinking to believe that he understands both the peril in the modern world and the opportunities that abound. We need to turn this big boat around and become a force for good on this planet. I recognize that we have enemies throughout the world, but bombing them into submission does not really make them submit. It simply makes them hate us more.
We need to change the rules of the game. Perhaps our competition with China is a good example. In the days when we called mainland China “Red China”, we imagined they would use force to push the rest of Asia into their orbit. Instead, they learned to exercise power through economic rather than military strength. They never invaded San Francisco, but they manufacture a lot of the stuff we use and we owe them a small fortune.
A great political scientist, E.E. Schattschneider once wrote about what he called the “contagiousness of conflict”. In his classic book, The Semisovereign People, he starts with a story that summarizes his main point: It is 1943 and there is a fight in a Harlem Hotel lobby between an African American soldier and a white policeman. Before long crowds are assembling at the hotel, the hospital and police station, millions of dollars of damage takes place and hundreds are injured. The cop and the solider had nothing to do with the riot, but it spread without reason. Conflict spreads due to unreasoned emotion. However, the contagiousness of conflict can also be part of someone’s explicit strategy. We see this in a typical barroom brawl. One guy is pummeling another. A crowd is drawn by the fight and the guy losing starts to implore the crowd to help him. The bystanders get involved and the loser stops losing. When you are losing a fight, a typical strategy is to expand the scope of conflict and try to change the rules of the game. As Schattschneider wrote: “The outcome of every conflict is determined by the extent to which the audience becomes involved in it. That is, the outcome of all conflict is determined by the scope of its contagion.” (p.2) However, as modern terrorism has taught us, it is not simply a case of expanding the scope of conflict, but changing the rules of the game.
In the modern version of Schattschneider’s fist fight in Harlem, the guy losing doesn’t just scream for help, he takes out a mobile rocket launcher and sends a missile into the other guy’s apartment. Or even worse, if that’s possible, the loser is so desperate and demented that he sends a child to a public place with a bomb in his backpack. This is the unavoidable and even unspeakable peril of the modern world. The terrorists try to change the rules of competition in more destructive directions and we need to be smart enough to change the rules in a different direction. A descending spiral of violence makes us all losers. An ascending path of sustainable commerce makes us all winners.
It can be done. We see the beauty of the response to the jet liner that landed on the Hudson. We see election evening in Grant Park Chicago and all over America. We see the possibility of situations where everyone wins. That is the nature of peace. All of us share a common humanity. As John Kennedy once said, “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
The most common human need is to live in a community, free from want, secure to relate to family and friends. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen many wars fought over issues of power and competing views of god and ethics. The technology of destruction has advanced more rapidly than the technology of defense. For that reason the key to our survival is to move this competition to other arenas. We know that this will not be easy, since the losers will always try to change the rules of the game. The lesson is to not let losers stay lost. The losers in World War II, are major winners today. Japan, Germany and Italy are wealthy, peaceful societies.
Our new President and his team must learn to pilot like Chesley B. Sullenberger III and his crew. We need a safe landing where everyone wins. It’s true that the winter wind is howling outside and we live in a frightening moment; but watching that miracle on the Hudson was inspiring. How about a miracle on the Potomac too?