"Respect. Just give them some goddamn respect! They're marines, for fuck's sake! They fought for their country!"
The bartender was slamming his fist down on the bar, looking over at the two journalists in front of him. A bunch of marines stood idly by at the other end of the bar.
We hadn't been disrespectful; in fact, we'd been quite polite, asking them when they had returned, whether they were from New York – pleasantries of the non-journalistic variety.
But I understand where the bartender was coming from. Soldiers are returning by the boatload from Afghanistan and Iraq. There are very few parades, very few welcome-home ceremonies. Largely, there's simply apathy.
Every once in a while I'll see a soldier in uniform, walking down the street or at the airport terminal, a despondent look on his or her face. They're usually grunts, shipping off home for some R & R or heading back to the frontlines, wherever they may be.
Most people who walk by ignore them. America doesn't care, neither do Americans, it would seem. A record-high 52 marines committed suicide in 2009.
There's little respect for anyone in America these days. Good politicians get bashed endlessly. Good journalists get no respect either (those of us who cover wars and the like apparently just love the adrenaline, most people like to believe) and even ordinary folks I see don't seem to offer each other basic human respect. I find it amazing, saddening, maddening and infuriating all at the same time.
According to psychologists, America is in the midst of a narcissism epidemic. Corporate America is the most culpable, because it effectively breeds sociopaths. I'm not qualified to diagnose that, but I do know that in my life, the most self-centered people I have ever met in the world are average Americans. They see everything in terms relative to themselves, what they want, what they can get out of another person, what that person can offer them. ("Mutual use friendships," as one journalist I knew liked to call them.) They do not see or appreciate you as an individual, in spite of how important individuality is supposed to be in this country. Perhaps it's the power – power, as we all know, corrupts even the best people and makes them forget what they actually value. Perhaps it's a result of the way things function here in America – high stress, a lot of responsibility, a lot of pressure to conform and keep up with the Joneses), and the rules and regulations that mold people into something they're supposed to be. Every culture has its conformity and problems, its self-interest and self-centeredness, but in America, it seems stronger.
I dunno, I'm just thinking out loud. As a friend of mine recently told me, "I just wish someone would recognize that I'm a human being."