A Crash Course in Humanity

My epiphany wasn’t the baseball practice shooting in Alexandria, Virginia. Two weeks ago I had an epiphany of my own.

When you have to brake that fast on the Garden State Parkway during evening rush hour, you know it’s not going to be good. My Subaru Impreza missed hitting the four-door sedan in front of me by about five feet. But any sense of relief was tempered by the sound of metal crunching against concrete and the sound of skidding that immediately preceded it. A compact car, its front end crushed, its rear banged up, came to a stop in the left lane. 

I parked my car on the right shoulder and darted across the southbound lanes toward the vehicle, which I figured had hit the abutment of the overpass. The airbag had deployed. A female voice inside shrieked for help. But she was surrounded 360 degrees by what I realized were actually two deployed airbags. By now, two men in their twenties were alongside me pulling on the door handles, pounding on the car. None of us could open the door on either side. I was about to pull off my shirt, wrap my fist in it and smash a window when one of the guys got the passenger door open.

The woman’s shrieking reached panic levels as she knew help was near while she remained literally sealed inside. Just her hand was visible. As in some B-horror movie, the hand reached out and was covered in blood. I yelled for the crew to get a knife and I ran to find one of my own. A half minute later, I tore into the passenger side airbag with the sharp chisel from my workbag as one of the guys slashed away with a penknife. Once the bag was rendered a series of flaps, I saw the woman inside, young and heavyset, possibly Latina, covered in blood especially from the neck up.

The three of us guided her out the long way, over the front passenger seat. It was a tough call, but a serious spinal injury seemed unlikely by the way she thrashed about, and the possibility of the car catching fire along with the blood clogging her airways pointed in one direction only. We let her down as gently as possible onto the pavement, as she screamed what happened? You were in an accident. You’re going to be fine.

Soon we had an amateur MASH unit assembled. There were easily a dozen commuters now on foot, each assuming a different role. Someone located the victim’s travel bag and handed me a towel, which I held firmly against her left ear to staunch the bleeding. Two women ran back and forth to their cars for bottles of water and anything resembling medical supplies. A middle aged man was on the phone with 911. A young man and an older gentleman played traffic cop and tried to keep a lane or two moving for the eventual arrival of an ambulance. A young woman stood nearby and helped translate Spanish. Yet another woman, this one much older, just prayed. 

It took a total of 25 minutes for the first ambulance to nudge its way through traffic. I was now off duty. The victim was alive but apparently in shock. In a lesser sense so was I. There was nothing left to do except give my contact information to a state trooper on the scene and drive away.

Shock has a silver lining. It can provide clarity. The precarious nature of life will at times strip away pretense and hubris, leaving pure reflection that is, sadly, ephemeral. Over the following hours, I consciously seized that opportunity before it faded back into oblivion. A portion of that reflection is relevant to this space.

As I drove home, the many faces of our self-drafted rescue squad appeared in my mind. Age, gender, color, and presumably political views melded into a single constant—urgency. Deep concern could be seen in all eyes, as if it was their own sister or daughter trapped and bleeding. For a few minutes we worked together like a well-oiled machine in the service of saving a life. And this, somehow, is the same America that is divided against itself to the point of utter dysfunction.

For an explanation, my temporary Zen-like state led me directly to what I now call the division industry. Like the government itself, only a small portion of the two major parties is devoted to actual problem solving. The same is true for much of the media across the board. There is, of course, a significant amount of legitimate reporting and worthy editorial advocacy on specific issues. Yet the blood sport of left-right hatred has all but eclipsed football as our top revenue producing pastime. Left-right hatred cannot and will not be moderated. It’s bad for business.

Unlike many self-described progressives, however, for years I’ve made a point of listening to at least an hour of rightwing radio each week. Fair and balanced is not something you can achieve on a personal level by tuning into any one network. Fair and balanced can only be achieved or simulated by sticking your nose in the ass crack of the so-called opposition and inhaling awhile. During my countless hours of immersion in Limbaugh, Savage, Levin, and Hannity, I have on occasion learned something about a clause or two in the Constitution. Or perhaps about certain states innovating to solve a problem that had seemed intractable at a federal level. But over the long haul these golden teachable moments have been outnumbered ten to one by the near constant lambasting and skewering of so-called liberals. 

If you were new to the planet and placed in solitary confinement with an AM radio on drive time loop, your definition of a liberal would be someone who sought to eliminate all national borders, confiscate all material wealth via the state, eliminate all gender differences through mandatory surgery, and institute Sharia law. The liberal bugaboo created by Savage and company is so detestable I have grown to loathe it myself except that from time to time I remember it is a grotesque, hysterical, nearly unrecognizable caricature of me. As listeners call in, one after the other, each echoing rightwing talking points not quite thought through, the Zen-like eavesdropper comes to understand these listeners may sound angry, but they are moreover seeking the same thing the Garden State rescue squad was after—fraternity. 

There is no precise mirror image of rightwing radio on the so-called left. But there is an insidious condescension that returns every few minutes like an unshakable springtime pollen allergy. It’s an allergy I’ve experienced and fostered many times as a part-time commentator. It’s easy to return the fire when you catch the shrapnel of Limbaugh, Savage, Levin, and Hannity. It takes a saint not to loathe the people who profess to loathe you. 

The paradigm described here has been called, time and time again, a bubble. But it is much worse than a bubble. It is a cockfight. It is bread and circuses and the Roman Coliseum. We are the fighters. We are the audience. But someone else is making money off it. 

At the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, there is a broad consensus on at least a half dozen make-or-break national issues. We are running something like a police state which has resulted in a debilitating prison subculture. Jail is rarely the answer for someone with a substance abuse problem. We need real immigration reform. Mentally unstable people should not have access to firearms. The trillions of dollars spent interfering in the Middle East could have funded the best infrastructure the world has ever seen. Young people should not have to mortgage their future to attain one. 

Wear a press pass, carry a high-end video camera, visit a busy shopping mall if you can still find one, and see how few people disagree with any one of these statements. Or interview people who have just rescued an accident victim on the Garden State Parkway.

Donald Trump corralled a small but effective portion of this consensus in an inane, cynical, deplorable way. Yet he corralled it better than all his GOP primary opponents and better than Hillary Clinton. In an even more deplorable but still effective manner, he gave a plurality of the people what they wanted—fraternity. 

Donald Trump, the blamer-in-chief, outsider though he pretended to be, is more accurately a mutant bi-product of the division industry. In 2016, with his alleged success in business and absolute willingness to verbally abuse literally anyone, Trump was hailed as the outsider’s outsider, an ironic path to both enmity and fraternity. Unfortunately, the current occupant of the White House was also an outsider to reason, logic, experience, patience, prudence, knowledge, tact, and introspection. 

One could lament the division industry taps too deeply and opportunistically into our emotional need for both identification and rage to ever release its grip from the carotid artery of American politics. But as I pulled away from the scene of the accident on the Garden State, I really didn’t see it that way. Instead, I saw kind-hearted, generous, enlightened people primed for the ideal statesman to speak to the best instead of the worst in them. 

But that was fifteen days ago, and that scene is now barely a spec in my rear view mirror.

Rich Herschlag is well into his third decade as an author, consulting engineer, husband and father and is very tired.