In America, dreams live alongside nightmares

There is a gap between the America in the life of most citizens and the country that's in the news

Tourists gather near the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center in New York, n December 2. EPA

Here are some headline-making stories from American newspapers this week: A 15-year-old boy, Ethan Crumbley entered Oxford High School in Michigan with a handgun. He is charged with killing four teenagers and wounding eight other people.

The trial of Ghislaine Maxwell in New York hears sordid tales of multi-millionaire Jeffrey Epstein and abuse of under-age girls.

The US Supreme Court may soon cause a national outcry by overturning access to abortions supposedly guaranteed by the landmark case known as Roe versus Wade.

US President Joe Biden has signed into law a temporary funding bill to avoid a US federal government shutdown just hours before the latest deadline, in a row with Congress.

Republican Congressman Paul Gosar tweeted a video in which in an anime he is shown killing a Democratic Congresswoman from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and swinging a sword at Mr Biden.

And Kevin Strickland a 62-year-old African American has been freed from prison in Missouri after 43 years. He has been cleared of triple homicide. Mr Strickland is bewildered by his freedom.

Kevin Strickland, centre, with his attorneys. Mr Strickland was jailed for more than 40 years for three murders. He was released after a judge ruled that he was wrongfully convicted in 1979. AP

These news stories stick in my mind because, even though they are shocking, they also are familiar and recognisable American tales. The America where I lived – and which I love – did often have headlines similar to these, but my experience was not filled with gun-toting juveniles, despicable billionaire sex predators or hate-filled members of Congress. On the contrary, the America of my personal experience is that of a wonderful nation experienced by most US citizens. It is a land where one of my daughters is studying at a great US university; where my son is spending a week having fun with friends in New York; the land where I have never seen so much natural beauty nor experienced so much kindness and friendship from strangers.

People take picture in front of Macy's Christmas window installation in New York on December 2. AFP

The disjunction between the America in the life of most citizens and America in the anecdotal on TV and in newspapers is not the fault of the news media. Bad things happen in a great country. That old song "America the Beautiful" co-exists with plenty of examples of America the Ugly. Like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the two inhabit the same body. And the America of gun violence, racial and political division, and super-rich people thinking they are above the law, is not a 21st century aberration. It is a bolted-on accompaniment of American history, the ugly counterpoint to the brilliance and genius of American people in every field of human endeavour.

Far from being a modern phenomenon, the first known killings on school property in north America were recorded in 1764, before the US even existed. The first recorded school shooting involving a pupil was in Kentucky in November 1853. Matthew Ward shot dead a headmaster for excessively punishing Ward’s brother the previous day. Ward was acquitted of murder. By 1866 the New York Times argued against guns in schools, noting the problem included "... pistols being dropped on the floor at balls or being exploded in very inconvenient ways.”

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The first recorded school shooting involving a pupil was in Kentucky in November 1853

The “inconvenient ways” of school shootings continue to shock us because guns are now even more powerful, but the violent pathology remains the same. Then there are the political divisions. In his November 2020 election victory speech, Joe Biden promised a “time to heal” after the divisions of the Trump era. Presidents – with the exception of Donald Trump – always do promise to heal. But as we approach Christmas, the threat of the government shutdown, the bitter row over abortion and the nastiness in Congress all attest to the fact that “healing” American public life is a better slogan than a political reality.

Parents of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting have joined a grassroots initiative called the Sandy Hook Promise to support solutions for a safer community.

The words “gridlock,” “demosclerosis” and “government shutdowns” are just part of the now routine political vocabulary of Washington life, even if shutdowns are fairly new. They date from 1980 where a “lapse of appropriation” – that is, when Congress refuses to give the President money to spend – means US federal government workers have to be sent home.

The worst shutdowns hit the Clinton administration for 21 days in 1995-96, the Obama administration for 16 days in 2013, and the Trump administration for a record 35 days in 2018-19.

As for the unpleasant behaviour of the Arizona Republican Paul Gosar, four sitting US Presidents have been assassinated. Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan narrowly escaped the same fate, and among the many failed assassination attempts, I once reported on the death of an alcoholic pilot who flew a stolen Cessna aircraft into the Clinton White House. The Clintons were not at home. The pilot was killed. And so as we process the latest American news, good and bad, maybe we should also remember that country song of American diversity and division from 20 years ago:

One kid dreams of fame and fortune

One kid helps pay the rent

One could end up going to prison

One just might be president.

The song is called “Only in America”. It is a land where the American dream lives alongside some nightmares. Only in America.

Published: December 7th 2021, 4:00 AM
Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National