Can We Get Along? Maybe Not

DANIEL BERGER

September 25, 1993|By DANIEL BERGER

The release of John Demjanjuk by Israel and his readmission to the United States may represent the considered judgment of two great legal systems after years of deliberation.

But it puts a strain on the civil society of Greater Cleveland, which that region will have trouble containing and which it did nothing to deserve.

Probably most of the Jews of Greater Cleveland, living in suburbs east of the city, believe that Mr. Demjanjuk must be guilty of crimes against humanity, the identity of the camp in which he committed them not mattering, and of having entered this country illegally in the first place by concealing the facts.

Probably many of the East European Christian immigrants and their children, in the West Side of Cleveland and the suburbs south of there, believe Mr. Demjanjuk is a victim of mistaken identity and vengeance who has suffered enough for whatever sins he may have committed as a young man, who deserves to live out his years in dignity and peace with the American family he created

On the whole, the areas of concentrations of people who disagree fundamentally about Mr. Demjanjuk are 15 miles apart. With goodwill, restraint and common sense, no strife is needed.

It is just not necessary for this man to cause large groups of people -- who may have been different nationalities in the same country in Europe but are the same nationality as Americans, who get along well as individuals and have no fundamental quarrel with each other -- to collide in bitterness. But that may happen.

In New York, Mayor David Dinkins is running for re-election on his reputation for being extremely civil (to the public, not his staff) in a largely uncivil city.

This is symbolism New York desperately needs and may be more important than his demonstrated ineptitude at the administrative business of running the city.

His opponent, Rudolph Giuliani, famous for putting people in prison, opened the general election campaign by promising to reduce the services the city provides for the homeless. It is a very attractive argument to people of modest means who work (( hard and pay high taxes.

There is no evidence as to whether Mr. Giuliani would run the city any better than Mr. Dinkins has, but he promises to be less civil. That may be a winner.

In Florida, young criminals have murdered a handful of foreign tourists, creating lurid publicity around the world for the United States as a lawless hell-hole.

This threatens the livelihood of many thousands of Floridians who work hard to make tourists comfortable and happy. It is a crisis for the whole state, in the way that the murder of Floridians by other Floridians on a hideously larger scale is not.

Everyone wants an end put to this wanton violence, but not everyone agrees with what the police, responding to pressure, are doing to countless young men, most of whom did not murder anyone.

And then lots of people get very angry at lots of other people over their disagreement about what the police should have done. And then Florida becomes a worse environment for all of them.

In Bosnia, it has been determined that people of three different ethnicities cannot coexist, though they always have. In the name of tradition, they must be separated into three enclaves, though they never have been.

As for the many people who are none of the above three ethnicities, there is no place for them except under ground or outside Bosnia. That is part of the idea.

In Quebec, it is being said insistently that now that their historic grievances have been redressed, the people cannot continue as Canadians. Many English-speaking Canadians, tired of making their entire country fit and fair for Quebecers, are inclined to agree.

In American schools, it used to be fashionable to teach myths of American identity as history. Now it is fashionable to teach myths of separate identities as history.

The schools formerly were used to create nationality, as the schools of Ireland or Mexico do. Now they are to be used to celebrate our differences, or invent them.

If Americans do not consciously try to forge an American nationality, and go on forging it as immigration and reproduction rates alter the mix, we will be converting the United States into a Bosnia writ very large.

The world deserves to be spared that.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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