Global empathy: Will it last?
From Paris to Pakistan, a new perspective on the lone superpower.
Knocking the "lone superpower," rightly or wrongly, was a post-cold-war sport until last week. America was caricatured as a giant Disneyland, a naive society, lead by "insensitive" hypocrites who tout democracy and human rights with little understanding of the world.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But that stereotype discourse has been largely silenced - at least for now. The scale of the New York and Washington attacks showed a country vulnerable, confused, hurt - and the world responded.
In Iran, 60,000 soccer fans and players held a minute of silence. In Germany 200,000 expressed sorrow at the Brandenburg Gate - where the Germans came together after the Berlin Wall fell. In Nairobi, site of a 1998 bombing of the American Embassy, the word pole (Swahili for "sorry") is on the lips of many Kenyans.
It's too soon to say whether the attacks will bring an enduring global common resolve, put evils at home and abroad into sharper focus, or permanently alter the image of a people more complex and traditionally "decent" than critics allow. Much depends on how America responds now, say analysts and people interviewed in various cities worldwide.
"The Taliban are terrorists. I'm a Muslim but I dislike them," says Fazl Raza, a house painter who lives near Islamabad, Pakistan. "But before America attacks Afghanistan, the US must have an investigation into who did this. Then they can do whatever they want."
In many parts of the world - not all - people found themselves this past week feeling unexpected sympathy or empathy with the US.
In China, where anti-Americanism is high (and is the only UN Security Council member not to fly state flags at half staff), popular reactions mixed sympathy with a feeling the United States got what it deserved. Yet many Chinese will also recognize a call one son made to his mother, saying, "I am not a fan of America. But when I saw those towers collapse, I thought of the great hurt we would feel if a plane crashed into Tiananmen Square. I feel differently."
Such reactions may stem from the better angels of human nature, as well as fear of a new kind of warfare on display that could devastate cities from Hong Kong to The Hague. Yet as evidenced by the actions of many New Yorkers and the rescue workers, when people see themselves or others in a life-and-death situation, their negative side seems to recede, and their humanity is magnified.
"Anti-Americanism is a luxury we allow ourselves when things are going well," stated Paris political analyst Nicole Bacharen, summing up the solidarity that swept Europe. "At moments like this, we are all Americans."
A similar message, written by Canadian broadcaster Gordon Sinclair 28 years ago, was revived and ricocheted around the globe on Internet this week. "This Canadian thinks it is time to speak up for the Americans as the most generous and possibly the least appreciated people on all the earth," wrote Mr. Sinclair. "I can name you 5,000 times when the Americans raced to the help of other people in trouble. Can you name me even one time when someone else raced to the Americans?"
Yet if Americans are more multidimensional than given credit for, so may be the crisis they now face. In fact, the US may be at a more momentous crossroads than it realizes, some analysts say. It is no certainty that the current emotional outpouring for the US will translate automatically into agreement in coming months.
European leaders in NATO pledged their support for Washington's desire to retaliate against whoever is found responsible for the bloodiest day on modern America's soil. But they were careful also to distance themselves from any moves to demonize the Muslim world - and specific retaliation plans - as President Bush declared war on terrorists.
Indeed, in much of the Arab world, and in major swaths of a developing world so familiar with deep poverty and violence, the suffering of Americans may be novel and new, but is a condition all too immediately familiar for them.