President Barack Obama is in Dallas following last week's killings of five police officers. The city has become emblematic of an increasingly divided United States, Texas native Tyson Barker writes in a guest commentary.
Dallas has always been an emblem of the postwar United States. Big D rode the arc of confident optimism that cut across the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W Bush. The sprawling suburban metropolis surrounding the city is home to accountants and defense contractors, but also to American iconography: the retailer Neiman Marcus; the Southfork Ranch, where the eponymous TV series is set; the base from which the Chuck Norris character in "Walker, Texas Ranger" is dispatched on his missions; the country-lite of LeAnn Rimes and the soul sung by Norah Jones and Erykah Badu; the spicy soda Dr. Pepper and the spicier Tex-Mex cuisine.
The city became the poster child for the genteel, tolerant brand of conservatism espoused by Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, and even named its convention center after her. Commercially, Dallas is open to the world - and especially to Latin America, with American Airlines offering direct flights to many major cities south - or at the very least to the world that ideologizes free trade. Interstate 35, which runs 1,569 miles (2,510 kilometers), from the US border with Mexico to just shy of the frontier with Canada, is eight lanes wide when it passes through Dallas.
Now, however, the seemingly benign conservative social contract is buckling at the seams. Many white working-class Americans perceive themselves as on the losing side of the globalization that has become central to the existence of cities such as Dallas - and they want their privilege back. Donald Trump has staked his political fortune to weaponizing that want; speaking mostly in monosyllables, he has become the Svengali of a certain type of grievance and anger.
Legacy of violence
The moment goes beyond Trump. This past year, the Dallas area has been pockmarked by acts of political violence. In May 2015, two gunmen were killed by police in Garland before they could complete their plan to shoot attendees at the "First Annual Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest," a display of prohibited caricatures of the prophet organized by the anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller and the Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders. In Irving last September, a Muslim student was arrested after administrators at MacArthur High School accused him of building a bomb when all he had assembled was a clock. After a series of attacks left 137 people dead in Paris in November, concerned Texans protected by the state's open-carry laws assembled at Irving's mosque, brandishing rifles and other assault weapons to terrify worshipers on their way to services. And now this: Last week's sniper attack on police patrolling a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest was just the latest episode in which a sense of grievance, fear and anxiety took a deadly turn.
US President Barack Obama is in Dallas today to mourn the five officers killed last Thursday night. He will see a region that is qualitatively different from the one that opened Texas to intercontinental commerce and nourished the nation with new sounds and new flavors. North Texas is in the throes of America's identity crisis - a profound radicalization. It is impossible not to note the ghoulish parallels between Dallas on November 22, 1963, and the senseless horror of July 7, 2016. What does Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated US President John F Kennedy from his perch at the Texas School Book Depository over 50 years ago, have in common with Micah Johnson, who opened fire on police at the Black Lives Matter rally last week? A lot. Both were disturbed men whose acts of destruction lacked clear purpose. Both struck at a point when tensions across the country were hitting a fever pitch. And, just like Dallas, itself, both are harbingers of a change in American democracy.
As the president speaks in Dallas, he will do what he can to stitch together a country ripping apart. But the recent incidents are just symptoms. A combustive cocktail of political violence, guns, tribalism, inequality, globalization, technology and alienation has come to define the past year. No speech - no president - can tackle it alone. This will require a whole-of-country effort. Let's hope the United States is up to the task.
Tyson Barker is a senior fellow at the Brandenburg Institute for Society and Security. He is a former US State Department official.
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