In 1968, when I was stationed at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, enlisted men were restricted to base for several weeks for our own protection. No, it was not terrorism, foreign or domestic, that kept us isolated. The Vietnam War protests had spilled out onto the streets of Philadelphia. It was ugly and inflammatory. But, we lived in ugly times. JFK, RFK and MLK, Jr. had been murdered, conspiracy theories abounded, everyone was pointing fingers.
I had friends who supported the anti-war sentiment and participated in the civil rights movement, good men and women who were passionate about their cause. As a hayseed farm boy who was apolitical, I listened to those friends and tried to make sense of their arguments, but, in the end analysis as a G.I., my life belonged to the government where differing opinions were frowned upon.
But, what I do remember were the rational conversations regarding government and politics. Yes, sometimes heated and sometimes spilling out onto the streets, what drove them was passion for their cause. Many fellow G.I.s , who faced the consequences of a war initiated and prolonged by a greedy munitions-industrial base in the United States, were involved in the fierce debate.
We should not dare compare the 1960s and its internal turmoil with today’s visceral hatred that spews from Presidential rallies. The scenes from those rallies are pictures of unfettered wrath and undisciplined behavior. They show America at its worst as the world sees growling faces and pointing fingers. This is not how America debates its differences. Consider the peaceful marches in the deep South led by MLK, Jr. and the young peaceniks marching for an end to Vietnam. They were dedicated to the cause, they were vocal, and they finally prevailed. But, they were not hateful displays of immaturity and screaming faces.
Change can be forced by one viewpoint upon the other with one of the parties being a consummate loser. I win, you lose. Or change can be a win-win situation when both sides agree to compromise, to be civil, and to conduct a rational discourse.
I also remember accounts of an era, just preceding my birth in 1947, of a leader who took it upon himself to incite the hateful, discriminatory rhetoric of the people and conduct one of the most despicable, inhumane eras in human history. We can do better than that, can we not?