“How will this end?”
In this terribly divided time, many are asking that question. As it happens, our current divide reminds me of something I witnessed in Panama when I was young. The divide then – between fervent Americans and equally fervent Panamanians – was as fierce as anything we see in the U.S. today. The fact that divide ended might give us hope, but that end only came after five terrible days.
I was an American 6th grader living in the Republic of Panama and going to school in the Canal Zone. On January 9th, 1964 I saw the effects of my first political experience explode into the world news and leave 28 dead and many more injured.
I was purely a bit player – a crowd extra – in what led up to that day. The fact that I was only 11 years old at the time provided an element of farce to what transpired. One thing I learned then was how quickly spirited fun and frivolity can turn to tragedy and fear.
In 1963 President Kennedy ordered that all American flags in the Canal Zone be accompanied by Panamanian flags, to acknowledge Panamanian sovereignty over the Canal Zone. This order wasn’t popular with many Americans living in the Zone, who mistakenly felt it was really a kind of American colony.
After President Kennedy’s death, the Governor of the Canal Zone decreed that as of January 1st, 1964, American flags would not be flown over schools, post offices, cemeteries, etc., to avoid the aggravation of flying Panamanian flags there as well. The Zonians weren’t happy with that order either.
Shortly after we returned to school from Christmas break that year, I became aware of a growing restiveness among many Zonians: they were unhappy about the absence of the American flags from the usual places.
The first demonstrations took place at Balboa High School, clearly visible a couple hundred yards across a green from my elementary school. Along with the one on the flag pole, there were soon numerous American flags attached to parts of the school, waving in the tropical breezes.
The sentiment quickly spread and demonstrations broke out around the Canal Zone. One such demonstration took place at Ancon elementary school, the other elementary school on the Pacific side of the Zone. Bizarrely, it was reported the students there occupied the administration office (remember, these were elementary school kids), took a flag and ran it up the school flag pole.
At Balboa elementary school, we weren’t quite that brazen. Or maybe the adults in charge were a little more…adult. But we did have lunchtime demonstrations, running up and down the playground waving flags that had magically arrived for us. (Actually, one of the suppliers was a Panamanian classmate named Ramon, who was a natural leader/instigator.) It was all very exciting and fun.
On the evening of January 9th, things came to a head. Panamanian students marched to Balboa High School, where they wanted to symbolically raise their flag and then take it back down and leave. Americans surrounding the flag pole resisted, a scuffle broke out, the Panamanian flag was torn, and soon riots were raging along the Canal Zone borders on both sides of the isthmus.
The next morning my father drove over to the border near Ancon to check out the destruction from the night before. One of the things he saw – which he later photographed – was at the burned-out Pan-American building – apparently destroyed because it had “American” in its name. (The building was owned by a Panamanian.)
On the side of the building someone had written in red paint “Johnson-you-kill-Kennedy Yankees Killers Go home Soberania O’ Muerte!” (“Sovereignty or Death!”) It was an interesting statement – Haiku-like – revealing an anger at Americans combined with a hinted sense of loss for the recently killed Kennedy. Only 7 weeks before, Panamanians had widely mourned Kennedy’s death.
The riots persisted for 4 more days. When they were over, they left millions of dollars in property damage and at least 28 people dead.
Beyond the visceral fear I experienced during those riots, I distinctly remember how the Zonians acted after they ended. After the shock over the death and destruction, they never spoke of what had preceded it, and they put up minimal resistance to the Panamanian flags flying with American flags throughout the Zone.
Eventually, canal treaty negotiations that had opened because of the riots led to the dissolution of the Canal Zone all together. The Zonian belief that they could preserve their illusory American colony from “foreign” interlopers blew up in their faces, eliminating their “homeland” instead.
I learned from those days that once a mob gets going, it is not open to reason. All too often, the only thing that quells the passions of a mob is some event – to which it is a party – that is so horrific that people are shocked back into reality.
This is what happens in Fritz Lange’s movie “Fury.” It tells the story of Joe Wilson (played by Spencer Tracy), an innocent man who is accused of murder simply because he was a stranger passing through a small town shortly after a murder had been committed. Agitated about the crime and suspicious of this stranger, the locals soon turn into a crazed mob that gets so worked up they storm and set fire to the jail. In the conflagration that follows, Wilson is apparently killed.
The mob’s passions subside with the flames, and in the cold light of the following day the shock of what they had done fills the perpetrators with shame and denial. Nobody wants to acknowledge what they’d done; they just want to go back to their normal lives. Events in the rest of the movie prove that wasn’t possible.
The self-righteous anger and passion I hear from Trump supporters reminds me of the time before those 1964 riots. As with the Zonians, the idea of any change that acknowledges the concerns and feelings of people not like themselves has inspired an unreasoning rage against all involved. Only the feelings of those who oppose such change matter. As far as they are concerned, nobody else matters.
As I watch and listen to these people, I can’t help wondering what kind of event will shake them the way the Panama riots shook the Zonians. Sadly, it seems that is the most likely way this divide ends.
If we look at the big picture offered by modern science and by current events, it’s clear we live in a diverse, interconnected and interdependent world. This fact is not welcomed by those who, one way or another, benefited from the previous world order.
Today we are confronted by a schism between those who welcome this new world and those who oppose it. With history as our guide, we can predict that someday this divide will end, and we will move forward and adapt to today’s dynamic new world. But we may have to go through some terrible days to get there.
=== Fair use for January 24, 1964 Life Magazine cover ===
The image of the Life magazine cover was taken from Wikipedia. Though this image is subject to copyright, its use is covered by the U.S. fair use laws, and the stricter requirements of Wikipedia’s non-free content policies, because:
# It is a historically significant photo of an historical event
# It is of much lower resolution than the original. Copies made from it will be of very inferior quality.
# The photo is only being used for informational purposes.
# Its inclusion in the article adds significantly to the article because the photo and its historical significance are the object of discussion in the article.
===Photograph of Pan-Am building by Donald M. Higgins===