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Us-and-Them thinking is wearing us out

Watching people is a hobby of mine. So, when I made an emergency trip to be with my daughter who has a serious medical condition, I spent an entire night flying from Eugene to Albany, New York. This afforded me a lot of time to people-watch, because I never fall asleep on a plane.

Perhaps because of our recent shootings and the attacks on the French, I couldn't help but locate flying-mates who seemed shifty or unfriendly. I noticed there were a lot of young men on this flight. One such man came down the aisle at me, and I locked onto him. He appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, was wearing a hoody, and he wouldn't look at anyone. Immediately, my mind started calculating the risk of being on the same plane with him.

Then my better self took over. I wondered how it feels to be a young man who just happens to look Middle Eastern. Is he angry? Is he scared? Or maybe he won't make eye contact because he's afraid his seat partner will be chatty.

This thought provoked a deeper question. How can we trust in a world where walking down the wrong street or going into the wrong building might cost us our lives? Just taking my grandchildren to a movie puts me on high alert. I understand the temptation to suspect everyone around me, but it's turning us into something that will ultimately destroy us.

When I arrived in New York, after a very long night in two-hour seats, the men around me began telling jokes about gay people while we waited to disembark. The longer I stood there, the uglier the punch line became. I couldn't help but wonder if the "missing link" in our human development has been in front of us all along. It's us — and we're still missing.

Then there's the quote that circulates on Facebook regularly, "It's God's job to judge the terrorists. It's our job to arrange the meeting."

This quote is used by the military, a sort of gallows humor designed to keep the troops focused. I'm sure this type of thing has always been part of the military culture, but when did identifying with people whose sole directive is to annihilate certain demographics make its way into our everyday vernacular, and what is it doing to mainstream America?

It feels like the lines between defender and oppressor have been blurred in an attempt to "secure" our country for the future. Our children are learning to define the enemy by no more than Us and Them; those who are not "us" are our enemies.

Where did our humanity go? When did we lose it? What is it doing to us and our children to be faced with such denigration day in and day out? When did we become so politically marinated, ruined by religiosity, or so grand that we no longer have to answer for our behavior in a world that's blowing itself up? How did we turn from having our arms open to having them crossed?

There's no wall on our borders, but there are barriers erected in our midst, stifling our ability to function as a free society. We fear oppression by the government, but guess what? We are a government for the people, by the people. Any oppression in our land is adjudicated by us. We're suturing our hearts and minds, while amputating our ability to empathize with anyone we don't understand, or who looks different from us. We're losing our trust and have fostered an impotent electorate, playing dodge ball in a house built for cooperation.

Maybe somewhere inside we still want to be the America we've always professed to be:

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddle masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:

I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door."

— Emma Lazarus

Or maybe U.S. is no longer an acronym.

Susan Kay lives in Douglas County.