I have moments where I catch myself off guard. I’ve glanced into the bathroom mirror or passed by a plate glass window and, for a brief instant, not recognized the stranger reflected there. Who is she? I’ll wonder for a disorienting second or two before my brain starts actually working and I know my own face. It’s not surprising. I’ve been through a lot these past few years, and I know I look different. All of this happened so gradually, though, that I don’t really see it for what it is unless I come upon myself unaware.
Changes that happen over long periods of time are like that; they’re nearly impossible to notice until that one day when you look in the mirror and realize, for that brief instant, that you aren’t who you thought you were.
It’s been the kind of month where we as a state and a country can almost glimpse how we’ve changed when we look into the mirror. A lot of people aren’t liking what they see reflected there. For instance, I was idly watching pieces of the Republican debate, and the conservative crowd actually booed a solider who was serving in Iraq. He was a gay man, asking whether the Republican candidates would circumvent progress made for gay and lesbian soldiers. Rick Santorum, who answered the question, lectured the soldier while looking absolutely disgusted. This isn’t the first time crowds at these debates have made headlines with their cruelty, either. Somehow, this is the new normal. We almost expect there to be awful, hateful things shouted at Republican and Tea Party events while candidates smile and do nothing to stop it. Is this who we are, now?
Speaking of cruelty: amidst global outcry the state of Georgia on Wednesday night executed a man despite serious flaws in the case against him, including many eyewitnesses who have since recanted their testimony. This is the kind of sickening event that should make us stop and think about what we’re doing, especially when thinking about the death penalty in our own state. Even now, one of the two accused killers in the horrifying Petit slayings (the first was convicted) is on trial, and will likely get the death penalty should he be found guilty. I doubt anyone will wonder when and if that sentence is pronounced whether executing a man is really any kind of justice, or whether the brief satisfaction of an execution where guilt seems clear makes up for all the ones where it wasn’t. When Michael Ross became the first man Connecticut had executed in decades back in 2005, it gave us pause. Now? I think we may be getting used to the idea.
Meanwhile, poverty and especially child poverty are on the rise in Connecticut, proposed cuts in Medicaid threaten children’s health care programs, schools, roads and bridges are falling apart, and income for the middle class is dropping. Yet the “debates” we see in Washington and even in Hartford are all about cutting government services, cutting spending on social programs, slashing salaries and benefits of government workers and keeping in place tax breaks for the richest among us. We’re less interested in fixing our major social problems and disparities than we are in trying to preserve a creaking economic system that doesn’t always work for everyone.
It’s tempting to think we’ve always been this way. It’s possible that we’ve always been paranoid and quick to point the finger at anyone but ourselves. Maybe cruelty is one of the first impulses we feel, and I could believe that we’ve always been more willing to save a few bucks in taxes rather than care for people in desperate need. I can’t believe, however, that a nightmare decade of endless war, economic turmoil, political savagery and national decline hasn’t affected us in some fundamental ways. I also can’t believe that we’ll always be like this, and that we won’t keep changing.
When we look in the mirror, I think we’re starting to have that little moment where we wonder just who is staring back at us. Maybe the shock and surprise we feel before recognition belatedly sets in will give us the kick we need to finally confront who we’ve become, and who we want to be.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.