AMERICANS have, this week, been engaging in a simple act, the implications of which are profound, the value of which is priceless. In bustling, big-city polling stations, or in the schoolhouses or town halls of sleepy little country towns, they have been casting their votes to decide who will represent them. They have been voting, irrespective of their color, or their religion, or how much money they have, or whether they hold a high position in government.
Some chose not to cast their ballots, and that is sad, because a number of countries and unions and political parties around the world have found that apathy is a formidable enemy of democracy.
But failing to vote is their privilege, too; no booted commissar comes around in the United States of America to punish people for not voting.
And so the lineup of legislators is changed, and the character of government is determined, by this simple act of individual choice and not by the thrust of the bayonet and the clank of approaching tanks which has characterized the change of government in so much of the rest of the world.
Americans, like citizens of Western Europe and other countries that are free, can therefore thrive in democracy's embrace.
They can travel at will across their land; they can seek jobs wherever they will; they are free to leave their country, permanently if they wish; they can pray and follow the traditions and principles of their various religions; they can speak out, write letters of protest to their newspapers, even send harshly critical letters to their nation's highest officials without fear of retribution.
Such freedoms they take for granted. Yet elsewhere, although freedom has been making sturdy gains around the world, there remain countries where such personal liberty is still a dream.
In the dusty and explosive South African ghetto of Soweto, in the steaming political prisons of Cuba, in the frozen labor camps of the Soviet Union, human beings are not free, are not equal, and are without respect from the regimes that govern them undemocratically.
There are organizations that do sturdy battle on behalf of the peoples of the world who are not yet free. There is Amnesty International. There is Freedom House. Sometimes they pinpoint an individual unjustly jailed. Sometimes they speak for many - as in the case of the Afghans bravely resisting cruel Soviet occupation. Sometimes the campaign is on behalf of American and other hostages held by radical groups, as in Lebanon.
But sometimes it takes governments to get into the act.
They do it by various means.
Some make very public protests and pronouncements. Others prefer to work quietly for the release of prisoners, the emigration of dissidents, or for generally better treatment of the populace at large, by regimes of undemocratic character.
Even upon the eve of new discussions with the Soviets, United States Secretary of State George Shultz has criticized the Soviet record on human rights and warned that continuing abuses can only jeopardize an agreement on arms control. Two reasons motivate him.
One is his own deep concern for human beings. Nothing enrages him more in private than the cruel treatment by foreign governments of its citizens.
The second reason is a more pragmatic one, the conclusion that the attitudes of foreign governments toward people permeate their overall policies. How can you trust the Soviet Union on arms control, this reasoning goes, if they do not inject principle and integrity into their relationships with people?
Is this meddling by the United States?
When Washington attempts to better the lot of human beings in South Africa, and the Philippines, and South Korea, and Chile, and the Soviet Union, and Nicaragua and Cuba, is that interfering in the internal affairs of other lands? Many of these governments answer angrily that it is.
But where man's inhumanity to man is concerned, national boundaries are fading and the philosophy of the global village is taking hold.
As Americans utilize so routinely their own freedom, it is well to remember their potential, perhaps not as their brother's keeper, but at least as their brother's helper.