I was eating a quick between-meeting lunch in a cheap Bogotá restaurant one afternoon in the early 2000s, probably during Álvaro Uribe’s first term. The TV under which I was sitting started playing a treacly theme song, and on came the opening sequence of Padres e Hijos, a long-running soap opera that was dominating Colombia’s daytime ratings at the time. It looked like this 2004 version posted to YouTube:
I stared at this sequence, open-mouthed. I found it so jarring that I remember it today. I’d just sat through several meetings with security experts and human rights activists, hearing of untold horror in Colombia’s countryside, and I would be hearing more before my day’s agenda wrapped up. Did the cultural artifact on the screen above me really come from the same country? A country that, at that moment, was grinding through the most intense period of one of Latin America’s longest armed conflicts?
As the intro indicates, Padres e Hijos focused on an upper-middle-class, dominant-ethnicity Bogotá family. Though they undergo soap-opera tribulations, the Franco family is an Uribe-era Colombian take on the American Dream, and the country’s armed conflict doesn’t seem to be much of a factor in their lives.
I dwelled on this memory while reading this very good, much-shared September 26 essay by Indi Samarajiva, a wealthy young Sri Lankan who lived alongside the brutal denouement of his country’s long civil war.
I moved back to Sri Lanka in my twenties, just as the ceasefire fell apart. Do you know what it was like for me? Quite normal. I went to work, I went out, I dated. This is what Americans don’t understand. They’re waiting to get personally punched in the face while ash falls from the sky. That’s not how it happens.
Samarajiva is writing for a U.S. audience fearful that America as we know it is about to disintegrate. His message is: it’s already happening, but most people are lucky enough not to feel it.
Even as he turned out lights for air raids, waited on gas lines, and saw smoke rising from bombing sites in Colombo, Samarajiva went to concerts, went out dancing, and played Scrabble with friends. There is no moment at which the conflict defined his life. What he calls “collapse” (also the name of a grim but very popular Reddit group) is always there in the background, a steady horror, but he can tune it out.
Samarajiva argues that the United States in 2020 has collapsed, though many of us haven’t noticed it yet. COVID-19 is killing 1,000 people per day. There are mass shootings and protests, crackdowns on dissent, and very long lines at food pantries.
A thousand families are grieving tonight. A thousand more join them every day. The pain doesn’t go away, it just becomes a furniture of bones, in a thousand homes. But that’s exactly how collapse feels. This is how I felt. This is how millions of people have felt, including many immigrants in your midst. We’re trying to tell you as loud as we can. You can get out of it, but you have to understand where you are to even turn around. This, I fear, is one of many things Americans do not understand. You tell yourself American collapse is impossible. Meanwhile, look around.
The science-fiction writer William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The same goes for armed conflict or social collapse.
Are you a U.S. resident with the free time to be reading this? Do you have the means to do so over a broadband connection? Are you reading the screen of one of a few internet-capable devices in your home? If so, then it’s likely that you—like the Franco family in Bogotá—aren’t bearing the brunt of the breakdown already underway here at home.
But first, back to Colombia. The late 1990s and early 2000s, when I was gaping over my sandwich at Padres e Hijos, was the most intense period of Colombia’s conflict. The data show it: this plotting of massacres, kidnappings, homicides, disappearances, and displacements, from the 2013 report of the Colombian government’s Center for Historical Memory, illustrates how badly the country was going off the rails at the turn of the century. That’s when everything peaks:
This was a bloody period, punctuated by paramilitary massacres and guerrilla mass kidnappings that still haunt the country today. About 1 percent of the population was being forcibly displaced each year. A peace process limped along for three years then failed. U.S. intelligence analysts were worrying about Colombia becoming a failed state.
For many Colombians, though—probably the majority, especially in cities—life went on. Even as displaced families begged at busy intersections and the possibility of visiting other cities by land grew too risky, life was, by and large, pretty normal.
Colombia’s economy, which rarely goes into recession, grew at a sluggish 0.6 percent rate in 1998 and dipped into a -4.2 percent slump in 1999. But then it recovered to 2.9 percent growth in 2000 and remained in positive territory; by 2004 it, and the local stock index, were booming. Cars had to be checked by bomb-sniffing dogs at shopping malls’ entrances, but the malls had lots of customers and few empty storefronts. In Bogotá, where mayors Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa were building parks and opening (in December 2000) the TransMilenio rapid transit system, homicide rates fell sharply. Mockus deployed an army of mimes to busy intersections to shame traffic violators and jaywalkers.
Even as paramilitaries massacred communities in Tibú, the Alto Naya, Chengue, and El Salado, Yo Soy Betty la Fea—which ABC would later adapt for a U.S. audience as Ugly Betty—ran on RCN from 1999 to 2001. Even as the FARC kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt and 12 local legislators in Cali, Juanes released his debut album, Fíjate Bien (2000), and followed it up with Un Día Normal (2002). Even as Plan Colombia vastly expanded aerial herbicide fumigation, Shakira released Dónde Están los Ladrones? (1998) and her first English album, Laundry Service (2001), while Aterciopelados produced Caribe Atómico (1998) and Gozo Poderoso (2000). Even as peace talks with the FARC veered toward collapse, Colombia successfully hosted, and won, the 2001 Copa América soccer tournament.
Here in the United States, we’re not going to have a traditional armed conflict or civil war, with organized armed groups controlling territory and fighting pitched battles against the security forces. Instead, as a 2017 New Yorker overview put it after the Charlottesville violence, we may face “low-intensity conflicts with episodic violence in constantly moving locales. [Diplomat Keith] Mines’s definition of a civil war is large-scale violence that includes a rejection of traditional political authority and requires the National Guard to deal with it.”
“Collapse” is even less dramatic than that. Right now, I can step out my front door in central Washington DC and, within a few blocks, see the boarded-up fronts of shops that existed before March, a growing number of tents sheltering homeless people in a park, anti-police graffiti, lines of people at public kitchens during mealtime, and a construction project to counter chronic flooding. Turn on the television or Twitter and it’s lone gunmen, police killings, and protests with some violent elements seeking confrontations that the police are quick to escalate. Out-of-control open-carry militias. Profiles of people, some of them insured, forced into bankruptcy by medical bills. Evictions, cruel immigration detentions, and parents unable to feed their families. Climate events exacerbating all of it.
All of this will keep happening, even if Donald Trump loses on or after November 3, and even if the transfer of power is peaceful. Desperation won’t ease right away, and polarization won’t stop giving way to violence. But the violence won’t be everywhere. As was the case even during the worst years of Colombia’s armed conflict, for most of us it will only be something we see on TV or in our social feeds.
We’ll still have hundreds of new hit streaming shows, reality shows, and movies each year. Especially after the virus fades, there will be thriving hipper-than-thou music scenes. People will obsess over college football, new social apps, and celebrity gossip. Books about how to declutter your house and lose weight will remain on bestseller lists. Art galleries, theaters, and opera houses will be open. There will still be pumpkin spice at Starbucks.
Many of us will be outraged at “collapse” and its causes, and will dedicate our lives to fixing it. We may even succeed. But many of us—perhaps most—won’t bother. As societies all around the world have done, we’ll go through our reasonably prosperous lives while tuning out the human suffering in our vicinity.
How so many of us manage to do that—to tune it out and stay comfortable—is a mystery of human nature that I find baffling, just as I was perplexed by Padres e Hijos during my brief early-2000s Bogotá lunch. Whatever it is, it’s not resilience, and it’s not quite apathy, either. It may, I suspect, be a form of grieving.