FACED with Los Angeles on fire, with shooting, looting, and unprecedented conflict between Hispanics, blacks, whites, Koreans, police, and storekeepers, a shaken Rodney King told the world media: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? ... Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids? ... It's just not right. It's not right."
The question is ancient: Can we all get along? America may be the richest and freest country in the world, but the LA riots were a wake-up to the gaping fault lines in US cities and to tears in the social fabric that must not widen.
It would be a mistake to write off Los Angeles as a temporary urban problem. If not challenged by the kinds of efforts partly illustrated in today's Monitor special on urban community, the inequities and injustices felt in inner cities and by minorities after the King verdict will harden hearts and minds and lead to a more divided future.
Specific proposals - enterprise zones, improved police presence, more uniform justice, or job requirements in the welfare system - must emerge from, yes, a heartfelt desire to see America whole. To treat urban problems as another crisis to be managed, a wound to be hidden unhealed, would be to disserve the inner cities and to undercut America's development as a civilization.
Federal troops on Wilshire Boulevard remind us that America as a civil community is still an experiment. America is changing. It is clearly more multicultural. An earlier Protestant ethos is waning. Aggressive consumerism and corporate Darwinism contribute to greater disparities of wealth between haves and have-nots. A curious new blend of apathy and cynicism about institutions of government is forming. It is not too dramatic to say: The basic sense of America as a civil society is in trouble - the compl ex web of visible and invisible trusts and understandings that allow people to live together and "all get along," as King puts it.
The vision of another King - Martin Luther King - rises above race and class. Citizens are not first black or white; they are Americans, protected by laws, hard-earned rights, and a spirit of brotherhood that has religious roots. The alternatives to community are chaos or brutal authoritarian force. Both are exploitable. The police beating of Rodney King and others has an analog in the lyrics of rapper "Sister Souljah," who calmly told the Washington Post recently: "I mean, if black people kill black peo ple every day, why not have a week and kill white people?"
Will America wake to the importance of its democratic, multicultural experiment to mankind? The new world order begun in 1989 is becoming more tribal, anarchic. From Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic an iron curtain of irredentism is falling. Ethnic mafias, powermongers, and nationalists exploit old hatreds. Serb tyrant Slobodan Milosevic is making the Balkans a zone of barbarity - with no end in sight. A young Serb in Sarajevo told the Monitor: "My girlfriend is Muslim, my best friend is Croat. But when I hear about old injustices to Serbs, I feel anger. I know it's irrational. I'm being exploited. But it's how I feel."
Europeans found after Denmark's vote against the Maastricht Treaty that community demands much democracy.
Oddly, America, founded in obscurity as a "city on a hill" and then promptly ignored by most of civilization, has never been more visible to the rest of mankind than now. A Beijing student says his heroes are political reformer Zhou Enlai - and basketball star Michael Jordan, because he plays with "so much heart." Serb troops in Sarajevo stopped Western reporters to ask if the Chicago Bulls made it to the NBA playoffs. More profoundly, accounts of the black Southern churches in the US civil rights moveme nt were studied by leaders of the East-bloc liberation.
The facts are grim: Some 42 percent of young black males in Washington, D.C. have been arrested; 70 percent of urban families are headed by a single parent. America can't be part civil, part no man's land. We are one civilization.
As Rodney King ended his comments: "Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean we're all stuck here for a while. Let's try to work it out."