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United States of America

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By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

“Are you worried about what’s going to happen to our country?”

This question was posed to me by a younger person I know. He was clearly worried by current events, and with good reason. Our nation is facing a number of serious problems, and, in fact, so is most of the rest of the world.

His question made me think back to some of the chaotic times I remember. Polarization is a painful word being used to describe the United States today, but there were other times in my short lifetime when our country was seriously divided.

I have an early memory of signs hanging in our apartment house elevator. “Impeach Truman,” they urged. I don’t think I knew what they meant, but people on the streets were heatedly saying the same thing. I knew Truman was president, but I certainly did not know anything about impeachment, and I had never before heard of Douglas McArthur, who had been relieved of his command in the Far East for disagreeing with Truman over Korean War tactics. That was a time of polarization, and tensions were high, even in my neighborhood of New York City. The Chicago Tribune editorialized, “The American nation has never been in greater danger.”

Our country moved on.

Everyone who was alive in the 60s well remembers the torments of that decade. Both Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, civil rights legislation drove friends apart, the Vietnam War caused endless demonstrations and riots, and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 was a frightful militarized spectacle epitomizing the nation’s divisions and chaos. It seemed our nation was being torn apart. People wondered if the country would survive.

Our country moved on.

There was Watergate in the 70s and a president of the United States was forced to resign. There were long lines at the gas pumps and wild inflation with stagnation and American hostages in Iran.

Our country moved on.

You get the point. Severe problems have always periodically challenged America, our stability and our way of life. There have been those with evil intent and there have been true heroes. We have been challenged regularly, we have come together and we have moved on.

July 4th, we celebrated our independence, and the flag that belongs to all of us. In our small town America, up and down the Island, we paraded together, fire departments and police departments, conservatives and liberals, Blacks and whites and Latinos and Asians, gay and straight, lifers and choicers. We did so as Americans, proud of our nation despite its many faults, recognizing that we can make our country better even as we cheer the exceptionalism that makes immigrants risk and sometimes lose their lives to get here.

If you read through the Declaration of Independence, as I did this past weekend, you will see the values that bind us together. We must not lose, in the struggles to find our way forward today, the respect in the ending sentence:

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Let us then start our healing not by putting power over country but by pledging to each other our sacred Honor. That will help unite us, to truly hear each other, and together we can move on. We always have, and together, we always will.

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The next generation is afraid.

Can you blame them? They know about 9/11, as they should. When they’re not sending pictures of themselves and the food they’re eating to their group of best friends through social media, they read headlines and see pictures of people, just like them, who are living their lives one day and then becoming statistics the next.

This particular generation says it would pick security over freedom. Not all of them do, of course, but, in a recent discussion among some teenagers, I heard repeated arguments about how freedom is irrelevant if you’re dead.

That is a reflection of just how much the world has changed since I grew up. In my youth, I was aware of the Cold War. A nuclear war, although a possibility in the bilateral world that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union, seemed unlikely. After all, the biggest deterrent was the likelihood of mutually assured destruction. As Matthew Broderick experienced in the movie “War Games,” no one wins or, to quote the eerie computer from the movie, “the only winning move is not to play.”

In times of stress, Americans have historically pulled away from the ideals of freedom and democracy.

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which ensures that someone can challenge an unlawful detention or imprisonment. During World War II, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established internment camps, where he held more than 100,000 people of Japanese decent, worried that they might be colluding with a government that had just attacked us.

At the start of the Cold War, Sen. Joseph McCarthy played into our worst fears, leading the House Un-American Activities Committee to question the beliefs and loyalties of its citizens. In the meantime, he ruined the lives of thousands of people and turned Americans against each other.

Many of these pursuits were designed to ease the minds of citizens about our friends and neighbors, some of whom might be working with an enemy and strike against us.

So, today, what are we willing to give up? And, perhaps more importantly, to whom are we surrendering these freedoms?

I recently watched a television reporter who was interviewing citizens in North Korea. He was asking them how they felt about their leader, Kim Jung-un, and the way he was rattling the saber against the United States and the rest of the world.

Not surprisingly, the North Koreans, or the translator with them, expressed unreserved support for the man who trades threats seemingly on a daily basis with President Donald Trump. Those interviewed were confident they were in good hands.

I doubt they felt comfortable expressing any other view. What consequences would they suffer if they publicly questioned their leader’s judgment? Their leader doesn’t seem receptive to opposing viewpoints.

On our shores, we can question our own leaders openly and frequently. We can gather in groups and protest.

Trump can bristle at the way the left-leaning press covers him, just as President Barack Obama shared his displeasure over the coverage from Fox News during his presidency, but presidents can’t shut down these organizations.

Early in our country’s history, our Founding Fathers, who had just emerged victorious in a costly battle with King George III of Great Britain and Ireland, didn’t want the leaders of the new nation to have unchecked power. The pioneering statesmen wanted to guarantee Americans protections from any government, domestic or international.

Every freedom we give up moves us further down a slippery slope.

For those of us who grew up before the fight against terrorism, freedom remains at the heart of the country we are protecting.

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Whether you voted for Donald Trump or not, you have to agree that he is responsible for a positive outcome from his campaign and his election. He has animated the population he serves. It is no secret that Americans have, as a country, been largely apolitical. When I have traveled to other countries, especially when I first began, I have consistently been impressed by and even envied how much politics and current events were a part of the daily conversations among the people I was visiting. But that was not so in the United States. Throughout my academic life, in high school and college, there were almost no political clubs, and those that did exist had few members who were regarded as a little odd for their political passions. I have not found many people who were deeply interested in our government, its processes, its politics and its politicians. Indeed, spot person-in-the-street interviews regularly revealed that most respondents did not know who held which office beyond that of the president and perhaps the governor.

Not any longer.

Imagine my surprise when the 4-year-old son of a friend came home from nursery school and announced his opinion of President Trump, complete with reasons. A 13-year-old I met knows the name of the Environmental Protection Agency chief (Scott Pruitt), and a 15-year-old announced that she wants to register as a Republican as soon as her age allows so she can help decide who the party’s next candidate might be. These are not just youngsters parroting what their parents are saying. In some cases the youngsters disagree with their parents. How do they know to do that? They are now surrounded by news, whether on television, with blasts on their iPhones, from talking to each other in class or hearing many adults offering different opinions. Wherever all of us go, to a doctor’s appointment, to a casual restaurant, in and out of stores (with the exception so far of supermarkets), there is a television turned on and we hear the latest comments from both parties, outrageous or not. The media are having a field day reporting quotables. And the public is deluged. Kids, remember, are part of the public.

How long can you be at a dinner party before the talk turns to politics? When you wake up in the morning and switch on the radio or the TV, don’t you expect to hear the latest quote from Donald Trump? The president has managed to dominate world news so provocatively that his is the most well-known name on the planet.

I think what has happened is a good thing. An informed and engaged public is necessary for a democracy to exist. Our Founding Fathers said as much. The United States has had a dismal voting record at the polls during election season for scores of years. Less than half of those eligible actually vote here compared with other, newer democracies where voters may risk their lives in order to cast their votes. We, living in a nation that is the symbol of democracy, are too complacent to be bothered voting or too cynical to think that our vote might matter.

So I am delighted to see young people talking about politics and asking how government works. And we in the news business are validated by the sight of grown-ups arguing government policies on street corners. Let’s get everybody involved, even if it takes incredible, unprecedented comments and actions to stir us up. I came of age in the Vietnam era when marches and, yes, riots in opposition to government policy toppled a sitting president and eventually stopped the war.

The good news is we don’t have to riot. We don’t even have to march. All we have to do is go to the polls and vote. And if we don’t get what We the People want, we do it again the next time until we get the public servants we wish to represent us. An informed and engaged populace is a beautiful thing.

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Monday, we will finally get to see, on the same stage, the presidential candidates who hate each other, find each other unqualified, and who long ago seem to have taken the gloves off in their smackdown.

Here are just a few of the questions I’d ask the man and woman who would like to be our president:

• People don’t like either of you, including politicians in Washington. Secretary Clinton, how will you bring together Democrats and Republicans, when your war with so many Republicans dates back to your years as first lady? And, Mr. Trump, notable Democrats and Republicans seem to find your style and policies confounding. How much can you really accomplish without the broad-based support of Republicans?

• Mr. Trump, you suggested that Congress shouldn’t consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee and they haven’t. What would you do if you were President Obama and the Senate openly ignored your choice for Supreme Court?

• Mrs. Clinton, there’s a frequent line from courtroom dramas like Law & Order that goes something like this: “You said X when the detectives spoke to you and now you’re saying Y. Which is it? Were you lying then or are you lying now?” People don’t trust you. You don’t seem completely forthcoming, even about your pneumonia, until we see pictures of you stumbling into your SUV. How do we know when you’re sharing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

• Mr. Trump, are you going to release your tax returns? The longer you go without sharing them, the more people wonder if you’re hiding something. You believe your opponent selectively discloses details about herself all the time, but you’re not sharing something most, if not all, candidates have shared. What gives?

• Mr. Trump, you have suggested on a few occasions that advocates of the second amendment might have something to say about Hillary Clinton’s position on gun control. You claim that people misinterpret what you say because you didn’t mean what you said when you wrote it. Your rhetoric, were you to be president, would mean something far different from what it does when you’re tweeting. If you were president, would you tamp down the bluster that people might misinterpret? Do you feel you can and should be able to shoot from the hip, as it were, whenever it suits your interests?

• Neither of you seems ready to say the kinds of things we would hope to teach our children, such as “I’m sorry,” or “I was wrong.” Can each of you name a situation or circumstance in public life when you made a mistake and you recognize that you could and should have done better?

• Okay, turning away from each other, what policy do each of you guarantee wouldn’t change one iota and for which you would be inflexible or unwilling to compromise if either of you became president? Candidates often make promises they can’t keep when they’re elected. Is there anything you will pursue in its current form from your platforms?

• You both must recognize that your own rhetoric has alienated voters and raised concerns among various groups about your ability to lead and act on their behalf. Mrs. Clinton, how would you reconcile with Trump’s “deplorables,” as you put it, and Mr. Trump, how would you represent Muslim-Americans, Americans of Mexican heritage or any of the other people you’ve alienated if you became president?

• This campaign seems steeped in negativity. What is the most positive message each of you can share? How would that positive message make people feel better about the election and, down the road, the prospects for themselves and for this country? Be as specific as possible.