By CARLA SEAQUIST
Our neighbors across the street are immigrants, from India. Recently, after we moved in, we invited them by for an evening. Over tea we exchanged personal histories, anxieties about Sept. 11 and its significance, plans for the future and for the weekend. Altogether, it was a relaxed exchange punctuated by quiet laughter.
The next day, they slipped an envelope under our door. Presuming a thank-you note, I discovered instead a sympathy card. Not to slight the neighborliness of our cul-de-sac, it struck me that this is what the world needs more of: sympathy.
Especially in this post-9/11 period of hair-trigger tensions, when the terror at loose in too many corners abroad has been horrifically brought home, too many citizens intuit that we as the sole superpower must now act with greater collegiality and finesse, not fiat or force, with both ally and enemy. However, in the tumult and static, this recognition has not translated upward.
The result? A disconnect between the American “street” and our policy-makers. At the policy level, belligerence rules, in objective and tone. Pre-emptive strike, regime change complete with occupation, dismissal of international treaties — these are fiats of empire on their face, the diametric opposite of collegiality.
To apply the Golden Rule, how would the Bush administration react if Country X announced a change of regime for the United States? Further polarizing is the unsubtle language of labels, especially those of good and evil — a conversation-stopper and, worse, a bully’s goad to crusade.
As for war with Iraq, by setting the premise and tone of debate at the extreme — regime change, and now! — the White House has distorted discussion and inflamed it. As a final brick, and showing little sympathy for its own citizens, the administration impugns the patriotism of those dissenting from the middle ground.
How arrogant and imperial can such behavior be described? When did the republic become an empire? Franz Kafka, a penetrating mind, saw that most human misery stems from “a tragic lack of imagination,” the inability to imagine the suffering of others, enmeshed instead in one’s own pain. The administration, focused on Americans’ suffering incurred on 9/11 and heedless of the world’s, seems bereft of this humane, and saving, state of mind.
Conversely, the citizenry has expanded its imaginative powers, if I may project from our cul-de-sac and beyond. Counter to the administration’s tune of “God Bless America,” I hear the more expansive response, “Yes, but how about ‘God Bless the World’?”
Other samples, heard repeatedly, are: “The world knows us, but do we know the world?” “Where do we get off advocating ‘regime change’?” “Why do they hate us? Hel-lo . . .” “Our government has developed an attitude.”
How at odds these expressions are with the administration — moderate; nuanced; tentative and questioning rather than declarative; and, crucially for a superpower, self-critical and lacking in sanctimony. They acknowledge the world and, rather than a ruling relationship with it, a mutual connection; in a word, sympathy.
Regarding the upcoming war, as our neighbor says, “Sure, we could bomb Iraq, but should we?” — subtlety unmatched by the White House. What a shift from our earlier self-absorbed mindset. Since 9/11 we have asked ourselves “Have we changed?”; by the first anniversary the consensus was, apart from deeper attachment to family and friends, “Not much.”
But I submit that even to ask that question is significant. More than egoistic pulse-taking, it implies that, deep down, we Americans sensed we must change, that on the world stage we played to ourselves, pursuing our rights and neglecting our responsibilities, that unregulated individualism has led to excess, draining the world’s resources — and sympathy.
While the administration exhorts us in our right to shop (and we have), we’ve asked more of ourselves and pondered. Raise the issue of a superpower’s responsibilities, ask when the republic became an empire and you will get a thoughtful exploration, often accompanied with an amused recognition, “Look at me, Global Thinker.”
As the clock ticks toward war with Iraq, is it too late to reset the premise — from regime change to something far less imperial, more sympathetic? Granted, government recalibrates cumbersomely and sympathy historically has not been an instrument of foreign policy.
But in this age of easy munitions and civilian dread — of terror — the best homeland security, the most “real” of “Realpolitik,” is connection, not saber-rattling. Because as the saber-rattling increases, the American street can imagine the consequences. “Pandora’s box — big time.”
Carla Seaquist’s play “The Washington-Sarajevo Talks” will be produced in the Festival of Emerging American Theatre 2003. She now resides in Gig Harbor.