Stop thinking of this country as the sole superpower or the indispensable nation on Earth and start reimagining it as the great fracturer, the exceptional smasher, the indispensable fragmenter. Its wars of the twenty-first century are starting to come home big time -- home being not just this particular country (though that's true, too) but this planet. Though hardly alone, the U.S. is, for the moment, the most exceptional home-destroyer around and its president is now not just the commander-in-chief but the home-smasher-in-chief.
Just this week, for instance, home smashing was in the headlines. After all, the Islamic State's "capital," the city of Raqqa, was "liberated." We won! The U.S. and the forces it backed in Syria were finally victorious and the brutal Islamic State (a home-smashing movement that emerged from an American military prison in Iraq) was finally driven from that city (almost!). And oh yes, according to witnesses, the former city of 300,000 lies abandoned with hardly a building left undamaged, unbroken, unsmashed. Over these last months, the American bombing campaign against Raqqa and the artillery support that went with it reportedly killed more than 1,000 civilians and turned significant parts of the city into rubble -- and what that didn't do, ISIS bombs and other munitions did. (According to estimates, they could take years to find and remove.) And Raqqa is just the latest Middle Eastern city to be smashed more or less to bits.
And since the splintering of the planet is the TomDispatch subject of the day, what about the recent Austrian election, fought out and won by right-wing "populists" on the basis of anti-refugee sentiments and Islamophobia? Where exactly did such sentiments come from? You know perfectly well: from America's war on terror and the much-vaunted "precision warfare" (smart bombs and the rest) that continues to fracture a vast swath of the planet from Afghanistan to Libya and beyond. In the Greater Middle East and Africa, people by the tens of millions, including staggering numbers of children, have been uprooted and displaced, their homes destroyed, their cities and towns devastated, sending survivors fleeing across national borders as refugees in numbers that haven't been seen since a significant part of the planet was leveled in World War II. In this way, America's 16-year-old war on terror has been a genuine force for terror, and so for the kind of resentment and fear that's now helping to crack open a recently united Europe (and in the United States helped elect... well, you know just who).
And that's only a small introduction to the largely unexplored American role in the fracturing of this planet. Don't even get me started on our president and climate change!
As it happens, the fellow who brought the nature of this splintering home to me was TomDispatch regular John Feffer, who in early 2015 began writing for this website what became his remarkable dystopian novel Splinterlands. In it, he imagined our shattered planet in 2050 so vividly that it's stayed with me ever since -- and evidently with him, too, because today he considers just how quickly the splintering process he imagined has been occurring not in his fictional version of our world, but in the all-too-real one. Tom
Donald Trump and the Fourth Great Shattering
By John Feffer
When the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., published his bestseller The Disuniting of America in 1991, he didn't seriously entertain the worst-case scenario suggested by the title. At the time, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were imploding, while separatist movements in Quebec, East Timor, Spain's Basque country, and elsewhere were already clamoring for their own states. But when it came to the United States, Schlesinger's worries were principally focused on the far smaller battlefield of the American classroom and what he saw as multiculturalism's threat to the mythic "melting pot." Although he took those teacup tempests seriously, the worst future Schlesinger could imagine was what he called the "tribalization of American life." He didn't contemplate the actual dismemberment of the country.
Today, controversies over hate speech and gender politics continue to roil American campuses. These, however, are probably the least important conflicts in the country right now, considering the almost daily evidence of disintegrative pressures of every sort: demonstrations by white supremacists, mass shootings and police killings, and the current dismantling of the federal government, not to speak of the way cities and states are defying Washington's dictates on immigration, the environment, and health care. The nation's motto of e pluribus unum (out of many, one) is in serious danger of being turned inside out.
A country that hasn't had a civil war in more than 150 years, where secessionist movements from Texas to Vermont have generally caused merriment not concern, now faces divisions so serious, and a civilian arsenal of weapons so huge, that the possibility of national disintegration has become part of mainstream conversation. Indeed, after the 2016 elections, predicting a second civil war in the United States -- a real, bloody, no-holds-barred military conflict -- has become all the rage among journalists, historians, and foreign policy pundits across the political spectrum.
Particularly after Charlottesville, the left is convinced that President Trump and his extremist allies are intent on inciting the "alt-right" toward violence against a broad swath of his administration's opponents. The right is convinced, particularly after the shooting of Louisiana Republican Congressman Steve Scalise, that the "alt-left" is armed and ready to revolt alongside "Mexican murderers and rapists." Foreign Policy columnist Thomas Ricks has been taking the temperature of national security analysts on the likelihood of a future civil war. In March, their responses averaged out to a 35% chance -- and that number's been climbing ever since. A sign of the times: Omar El Akkad's American War, a novel about a second civil war, has been widely reviewed and has sold well, though whether readers are taking it as a warning or a how-to manual is not yet clear.
Sure, most Americans don't yet fall into irreconcilable factions. But if you consider the transformation of Yugoslavia from vacation spot to killing field in two short years after 1989, it's easier to imagine how a few demagogues, with their militant supporters, could use minority passions in this country to neutralize majority sentiments. All of which suggests why the "American carnage" that Trump invoked in his inaugural address could turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Of course, it's not just Donald Trump. Globally speaking, the fledgling American president is more symptom than cause. The United States is just now catching up to much of the rest of the world as President Trump, from his bullying pulpit, does whatever he can to make America first in fractiousness.
When it comes to demagogues and divisiveness, however, he has plenty of competition -- in Europe, in the Middle East, indeed all over our splintering planet.
The Multiplication of Division
The recent referendum on independence in Catalonia is a reminder that a single well-timed blow can break apart the unitary states of Europe as if they were nothing but poorly made piñatas. True, it's not clear how many Catalans genuinely want independence from Spain. Those who participated in the referendum there opted overwhelmingly in favor of secession, but only 42% of voters even bothered to register their preference. In addition, the announced relocation of 531 companies to other parts of the country is a sobering reminder of the potential economic consequences of secession. However the standoff may be resolved, though, separatist sentiments are not about to vanish in Catalonia, particularly given the Spanish government's heavy-handed attempts to stop the vote or the voters.