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.

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.

"Maybe America will now get a taste of what we went through here," says Joseph Kitivio of Nairobi, who was injured in the 1998 US Embassy blast. Kenyans like Mr. Kitivio feel the US paid too little compensation to victims of that attack, which US investigators say was funded by Osama bin Laden.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, where the US is seen as having abandoned the peace process and given the Israeli government a "green light" to attack, a grim calculus is circulating. Mechanical engineer Mashour Abu Daka is heartsick about what he calls the "madness" on television. "I felt very sorry to see people jump from buildings," he says. But in his neighborhood there is a feeling that "what happened at the World Trade Center has settled all the accounts from the [1990-91] Gulf War to now - that's what the people here are saying."

"I'm afraid we are in the process of dehumanizing each other," he concludes. "This is dangerous."

Indeed, the US response will bear largely on whether attitudes harden into regional alliances that may bring greater retaliation on all sides.

Some Israelis, angry and fearful after a year of Palestinian suicide bombers, have taken on their own grim calculus. "All the Muslims are the enemy and I think maybe the Americans will come to the same conclusion because of what happened," says Avshalom Fisher, office manager for an alarm company in Jerusalem. Many Israelis now feel an even greater solidarity with the US. The main thoroughfare in West Jerusalem has been temporarily renamed "New York Street."

"Most of the terrorists are Arabs, most are Muslims," Mr. Fisher continues. "The next war will begin with the Christians and the Jews on one side and the Muslims on the other side."

Yet in a service at St. Paul's Cathedral in London on Friday, Pakistani Tariq Muhammad Dhamial stood out in a traditional black Sunni Muslim kurta. "I am here to show as a Muslim that we condemn these acts," he said.

Amr Koura, a Cairo television producer with the Egyptian version of the children's show "Sesame Street," says he has gained a new sense of urgency. "The kind of programs we do are now more important than before because we are trying to bring up a new generation without all this hatred and bitterness."

He notes a tendency among many Egyptians to blame the US for the way the Israelis treat the Palestinians. "Strangely enough, I feel everyone is very sad and people are shocked. I haven't met anyone who was actually glad."

For China, whose sympathetic reaction is "between the Europeans and the Arab world," says one former Chinese official, the test will be whether the US takes unilateral action, or acts in concert with others in combating a new kind of borderless foe. Since Russia took a tough line in solidarity with NATO, China has joined those stating its resolve in helping to stop future attacks.

"International notes of sympathy and empathy are fine, but what will separate those who are with us from those who are against us is military action?" asks James Mulvenon, analyst at Rand Corp., in Washington, D.C.

International relations experts often say the manipulation of old ethnic and religious disputes will create the global hot spots of the future. Yet some observers say that to overcome this kind of future, the need is to rediscover the kind of universal "spirit of humanity" that flourished in the years after World War II, and that could be the better fruit of a more globalized world.

"We are seeing something other generations have witnessed in their so-called darkest hours," says one Christian who posted a message on the Internet in response to empathy from abroad. "It isn't so much a 'crisis response' as humanity's irrepressible light breaking free. When not suppressed ... the human spirit is startlingly good, altruistic....Television and global communication are helping document this with a breadth never quite seen before."

Staff writers Cameron W. Barr in Jerusalem, Peter Ford in Paris, and Danna Harman in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.

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