A Movie Warning to American Voters

In the hit movie Captain America: Civil War, no spoiler alert is required. The title alone tells the story line: the Avengers are bitterly divided. Instead of fighting together against the forces of terror that have been let loose in the world, they are fighting each other. Instead of combating the growing evil that threatens America, they are destroying themselves.

“It’s just a story,” Hollywood insiders are fond of saying. But is it?

Like the superheroes in the movie, each candidate claims that he or she will save us from the scourge of ISIS. They each argue passionately that they are The One who will arrive on their white horse and protect the homeland. They argue that they know best, then bludgeon each other, desperately trying to destroy their rivals in the name of safety and freedom. But as every military strategist since Sun Tzu knows, they are missing the crucial element in self-defense. They are forgetting the adage: “Divided we fall, united we stand.”

Clearly neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton will solve the deeper problem that America is divided against itself. Like Captain America (played by Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Clinton and Trump are leading rival factions that want to save America. But as we prepare to witness internecine warfare for the remainder of 2016, and possibly beyond, we are failing to focus effectively on the “bad guys” (to use Donald Trump’s favorite catch-all phrase). Instead of developing a clear long-term national security strategy that our allies can join, we are in danger of ricocheting like a pinball between invasion and retreat — and back again.

For a brief shining moment, following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, it seemed that a common enemy might bring us together. Instead, we have managed to become even more divided.

  • Within days after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, attention shifted from homeless people and submerged neighborhoods to attacking President George W. Bush for being an incompetent and uncaring crisis manager.  
  • While the economy eventually recovered from the 2008 financial crisis in 2008, charges and countercharges continue to be hurled, with each party blaming the other for causing the economic calamity.
  • With delicate nuclear negotiations between the USA and Iran underway in early 2015, the spectacle of American foreign policy in hyper-partisan disarray undermined our nation’s authority and credibility.
  • More recently, presidential candidates bitterly accused each other of taking the nation into unnecessary wars and impugned the judgment — and sometimes the character — of both President Bush and President Obama.

Today we Americans can’t summon enough political will to build a major airport or fix our bridges. We can’t pass health care reform without a rebellion on Capitol Hill. We can’t negotiate a federal budget without the threat of government shutdowns. We can’t even mount a defense against the Zika-virus mosquito without political bickering. Like the superheroes on the screen, our enemies are exploiting our weakness. In fact, we become our own worst enemy.

Terrorists know that, for the remainder of this year, and perhaps longer, this geopolitical superpower — like the cinematic superheroes— will be in a political battle with itself. ISIS leaders do not have to be political scientists or experts in American culture to know that it will be hard, if not impossible, for this country’s leadership to take effective action against a foreign enemy.  

The greatest military power on earth obviously has the capability of containing and ultimately eliminating a small, poorly organized caliphate of young hoodlums masquerading as devout Muslims. But that is true only if we are united. We have the proven skills and tools for having a national conversation and for reaching common ground. But we need to use them — and soon. 

Of course fierce disagreement is a vital part of being a democracy. But so is collaborative decision-making. When an issue is a matter of life and death, can we raise the level of our political discourse and actually dialogue, deliberate and reach a coherent and sustainable decision? When our security depends on it, can we finally put country before party?

The moral of the movie could not be clearer. A bruising battle between Clinton and Trump, followed by another era of divided government, will not make us safer. Only a reunited America will.

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation and a former screenwriter, is the author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.