America's Trickle Down Culture Of Fear And Suspicion

It's saddening as an American to watch the events in Dallas from overseas. I spend most summers in Japan, where the type of violence that Americans take for granted is unimaginable. My friends here look in horror and amazement at what transpires in the U.S. and constantly ask what's wrong with my country. It's a difficult question to answer when asked by people who live in a society largely without these problems.

You don't experience mass shootings or really much crime of any kind in Japan. Murders, thefts and other crimes do happen and occasionally someone goes after a group of people with a knife, but an event like Dallas or Orlando or Sandy Hook is improbable in Japan. Part of the reason is that ordinary people can't get weapons like AK-47s or even handguns, although they can own hunting rifles. The result of this is that there is never any reason to fear a mass shooting--or any kind of shooting -- in Japan.

You also don't see police very often in Japan. They're around and police boxes (stations) are readily evident in the cities, but patrol cars are not routinely visible and cops seem to stay in their police stations most of the time. The police don't wear flack jackets, don't carry high capacity 9mm handguns (they carry .38 revolvers), and when they go home their weapons stay at the police station. At the loud and angry anti-war and anti-government demonstrations I watched last summer, police were highly visible, but were wearing short-sleeve shirts and reflective vests rather than riot gear.

What happened in Dallas is not really possible here, although there are certainly people who might feel enough anger to want to kill many others. The police in Japan don't need to militarize themselves because the public is not increasingly dangerous due to easy availability of weapons of war for private citizens. In other words, the police don't need to be suspicious and fearful of the general public; nor is the general public unduly afraid of the police. The police are there to help when help is needed and to arrest when necessary.

But the issues in the U.S. aren't just about guns and police.

The most important difference I see in Japan is that it's a society in which people don't constantly fear each other. There is a basic level of trust and sense of respecting one's fellow citizen that translates into low crime rates, very rare incidents of mass violence, and little desire for people to have guns for protection. As I write this from the Bullet Train, if I get up to buy a drink or walk around and leave my bag (with money in it) at my seat, it will still be there when I get back. I have no fear of it being stolen.

No doubt someone will comment that Japan is racially homogeneous and that's why there is little crime. This isn't the reason, because there is no necessary cause that forces people of different races to distrust each other. Racial hatred and distrust are cultural, and American culture has a lot of experience promoting it. There is racism in Japan, to be sure, and sometimes foreigners are blamed for crime and immigration laws are rigid. But there is also open welcoming of people from other countries and other races and a desire among many Japanese to befriend outsiders. Like any other country, Japan is complex and diverse, with people of many attitudes and behaviors.

American society suffers from a pervasive culture of fear, distrust, and selfishness. The desire to have guns for protection stems from fear of others and fear of losing one's material possessions. Racism is also a product of fear -- fear of those who look different or might have different ideas and beliefs from one's own combined with a selfish unwillingness to see the world through the eyes of others. And conflicts over religious belief are also a product of fear, selfishness, and distrust.

Racism, wanting guns for protection, and religious intolerance are all symptoms of a society whose most serious problem is having become governed by fear and characterized by distrust.

When I look at America from abroad, that's really where the problem seems to lie -- Americans have created a culture of suspicion and distrust over the past few decades that pervades the relationships between and among those who have different opinions about how best to organize society and keep people safe, productive, and happy. Perhaps it has always been there, but the gap of distrust seems to be growing more intense over time and has become, somewhat ironically, increasingly noticeable since 9/11.

Why is this happening? One answer lies in the behavior of representatives in Congress and other politicians.

There is an old saying that actions speak louder than words. The actions of politicians have been screaming at the public for years an unwillingness to address, and in many cases even discuss, real social problems like institutional racism, extreme inequalities in distribution of wealth, unequal educational quality, and easy availability of weapons of war. And many in Congress and elsewhere have failed to display open respect for each other and the system in which they function as elected officials, instead showing contempt for those with differing viewpoints and political beliefs and in many cases for the political system itself.

The result of Congressional intransigence and stubborn self-centeredness by politicians in general is what we might call Trickle Down Culture. The problem of growing suspicion, distrust, and unwillingness to listen to those who are different from ourselves starts with the Congress and with other politicians, who have provided a stunning example of poor behavior the American public has increasingly come to mimic in both actions and words. Nowhere is this more evident than in the actions of many who support Donald Trump's presidential bid.

The solution to American's problems begins with members of Congress, as well as those who hold and are running for other public office. Our politicians need to speak with actions (and words) that display trust, respect, and a willingness collectively to address social ills and compromise with those who have opposing views. In other words, America's politicians need to show that they are genuinely interested in the well-being of the American public and the future of their country. Until this happens, nothing can change.