BOSTON — "I don't live in the world, I live in New York!" - Michael Keaton's journalist character in the movie "The Paper."
When I first heard these lines in the early 90s, I laughed at how true they were. New Yorkers really did live in New York, and nowhere else. And New York magnified the feeling within the rest of America, that we didn't need the rest of the world, and we really didn't need to know what was happening out there. After all, what did it have to do with us?
Well, these words ring true no longer. New York and New Yorkers are now very much a part of the world. And so are Americans. The isolation that we seem to crave from the rest of the planet will no longer be possible to find. And because of that, there are some things we need to consider. And there are some unpleasant truths about ourselves that we need to face. And if we do both honestly, then we will make this country, and the world, a better place.
First, Americans need to understand the reach of this tragedy. It wasn't just an 'attack on America.' People from over 50 nations died in last Tuesday's attack. Other than Americans, the largest number of casualties came from England, with several hundred deaths, the country's greatest single day loss of life since the Second World War. But Colombia, Germany, Mexico, Turkey, Canada, China, Israel, to name a few, all lost many citizens.
Perhaps even more important for Americans to know, 350 Muslims are believed to have died in the World Trade Center last week. As they did when they bombed the American embassies in Africa, Osama Bin Laden's 'troops' did not care if they killed innocent Muslims. In Kenya, where 12 Americans were killed, more than 200 Kenyans, most Muslims, died in the blast.
Second, Americans not only need to learn more about the Middle East, but about the world in general. We need to learn why so many people see us differently than we see ourselves. We like to think of America as a beacon of 'freedom and democracy' to the world. And that is true for many people. But for many others, it is not.
Some of this anti-American feeling can be chalked up to the fact that we are the world's lone superpower and just a convenient target. But it's more than that. In countries where totalitarian governments or dictators rule with US support, or when Palestinians see the Israeli military fly American helicopters into their villages on the West Bank, or when babies die in Iraq from lack of basic supplies due to sanctions, we are not seen as promoters of democracy, or brokers of peace, but the exact opposite -- even by people who want to live in peace with Israel, or who can't abide Saddam Hussein, or who want to be our friends
If we are puzzled why some Arabs can decry the terrorist acts last week, yet still express rage at the US, think of the response of many Americans after Oklahoma City. Every American was horrified at what Timothy McVeigh did. Yet, to be truthful, more than a few Americans, particularly in the west, understood the reasons behind the attack -- the fear of "Big Government' taking over our lives, the anger over FBI attacks at Waco and at Ruby Ridge, etc. -- even if they totally disagreed with the way he chose to express his anger over these situations. Many Arabs in the Middle East feel this same kind of response over the attacks in New York and Washington.
If we wonder why groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad gain such support, particularly among the poor, we need to know that in many countries where the US supports corrupt governments or rulers, these Islamic groups often provide services to the public their official leaders don't. They give people food, provide health care, even shelter. If, instead, we were the ones providing those kinds of support, then we would not be the ones lumped in with the regimes they hate.
In order to bring an end to groups like bin Laden's we certainly will need the support of the world. We might want to think we could walk in, 'turn Afghanistan into a parking lot' (the popular refrain on talk radio), and that's the end of it. But it only works that way in Rambo movies and Tom Clancy thrillers, not in real life. If we try to do it by ourselves with brute force, we will only breed a new generation of young people who want to join Osama bin Laden, or other terrorist organizations like his.
The door for change has been opened like never before. We've all felt a renewal of what it means to be citizens of the United States. It is also time for us to become citizens of the world. If we really do work with the rest of the world, we can catch these people, bring them to justice, and ensure that the seeds that bore this bitter fruit will be sown no more.
We can engage the world, and change it -- perhaps as it changes us -- for the better.
We could give no greater gift to the generations who follow us than a world built in this way.