First Muster: Salem, Massachusetts, 1637. American colonists adopted the English militia system which obligated all males, between the ages of 16 and 60, to possess arms and participate in the defense of the community. The National Guard would be deployed were political and social strife to break out in the United States. (Photo: National Guard Bureau)

Now blood has been shed. With the attempted autogolpe and insurrection that led to the brief occupation of the U.S. Capitol last week, and five deaths, any notion that partisan divides in the United States will stay in politics and punditry should be dispelled. Americans should not have been caught off-guard: the rhetoric of violence has been a mainstay of the Twittersphere for years now and there are no shortage of guns in the country.

Many, particularly Black Americans, have long experienced violence at the hands of the state, but now a significant number of white Americans have turned on their own government. The government response, riven as it has been by deceit and partisan agendas, has been wanting. To prevent further deterioration of the polity, and the type of violence from which there is no easy return, the United States of America needs a national peace conference – urgently.

Horrific strife in the U.S. is not that far-fetched

Having spent the better part of two decades overseas in countries at war with themselves, or under authoritarian sway (another kind of war), I unfortunately see more and more parallels between the intense social divisions in the United States and divisions that led others into horrific strife. (See Dante Paradiso’s article in Global Geneva on peacekeeping) It may be obvious but in these fraught times the obvious needs restating: it is easier to break a society than fix one, and it is far easier to start wars than end them. Faith, business, media, and other community leaders – civil society and the private sector – should convene a national peace conference in the United States to start the work of finding common purpose, and affirming common aspirations, before violence escalates.

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In America, where white citizens have not experienced sustained war on their own soil in well more than a century –and where so many are accustomed to big cars and trucks, next-day delivery, on-demand video, or name-your-comfort – there is an understandable tendency to think war cannot happen to them. But warning signs are flashing. Unless Americans can find a way to break bread together, civil war or authoritarian rule or both are in the cards.

Everyone knows the basics: Trust in the institutions that bind Americans together is eroding at every level, from the national to the personal. Government, courts, and law enforcement are all under intense pressure, but so too are businesses, schools, hospitals, and religious institutions. The chaotic and contentious response to the pandemic has further driven Americans into their silos, as they have looked to their screens for connection. “Red” America and “Blue” America now get news from entirely different streams so that, though they may still work together, shop at the same venues, watch many of the same shows, or even root for the same sports teams, they mentally live in different countries.

National Guard during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. (Photo: US Army Field Artillery School)

The urgent need to find common ground

The very concept of “America” is of course at issue. Red and Blue partisans both believe they fighting for American values and American identity, but this has long been a political war of attrition. It is abundantly clear that no election cycle or court will deliver a decisive resolution in favor of one side. Mounting frustration has inflamed rhetoric, which has had the perverse effect of restricting political speech: political affiliation, social media posts, and even lawn signs are now taken as an invitation by one side or the other to attack. This makes it increasingly difficult to find common ground. In an era where the loudest voice is platformed, more and more we have heard calls for extrajudicial solutions and, increasingly, actual violence. Last week, in the Capitol itself, the world saw the consequences.   

The United States lives with the ghosts of its unreconciled past. The American civil war and the institution of slavery over which it was fought – as well as more recent racist history – are well within our collective memory, while original peoples still contest the state for basic rights on their own lands. Indeed, the United States has only been a true multiracial democracy for just over fifty years. Today, race, class, religion, and ideology are white hot topics that divide communities in ways that rot the foundations of the state – so much so that self-proclaimed “patriots” sought to derail the peaceful transition of power.

Americans cannot simply look to elected proxies to resolve these issues. Congress reflects the divisions and representatives are often bound by commitments to their charged constituents. And, while insurrectionists must face justice, law enforcement does not have the remit to address the broader societal divisions that give rise to extremist acts. Law enforcement itself has been the target of both Red and Blue partisans, and often, has reflected these divisions in its ranks. The country is also built on local solutions and on the strength of local communities and local associations, not things imposed from on high. But when the national discourse sours and affects parochial politics, dividing not just communities but families, some broader initiatives might help identify more productive paths.

Crucial to engage all. A national peace conference would seek to bring together all political, social, business and grass roots leaders, not just the country’s new leadership in the White House. (Photo: Official transition website)

Now is the time for leaders across American society, outside government, to start to focus on commonalities. If Americans commit to talk peace now, before the fever of real conflict sets in, the country can avoid the kind of compounding errors that lead to unthinkable bloodshed. In international peace negotiations, mediators often try to break impasses between warring parties by encouraging the participation of “stakeholders”, such as the faith leaders or other community advocacy groups. These groups amplify the voices of wider society and help focus the parties on what is really at stake. They can also counsel acceptable compromise.

Imagine the symbolic resonance if faith leaders, top corporate executives, small business representatives, educators, doctors, labor leaders, content creators, media executives, and community activists – including armed groups – gathered in fellowship to talk about reviving the “united” part of the United States. Just starting the conversation itself, outside the political arena, would represent a first step toward conflict resolution. In this era of intense political division, Americans need to remind themselves that they are not enemies. Competition for ideas must not become conflict over ideas. Americans need to start listening to one another and seeing one another. They are family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, believers, and, in the end, compatriots.

It is time to hold a national peace conference and find common purpose.

Dante Paradiso is the author of the “The Embassy: A Story of War and Diplomacy”.  (See article by Dante Paradiso on peacekeeping) He is an attorney and has been a U.S. diplomat for twenty years. In 2019-2020 he was U.S. Embassy Kabul Counselor for Peace and Reconciliation. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. government or U.S. State Department.

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