Is it possible for America to say sorry?

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How should the United States fight Osama Ben Laden? It could start by saying sorry. Despite two centuries of rapid immigration pulling in people from all over the world, America remains a predominantly Christian nation. It is not a Jewish one and certainly not an Islamic one. It draws its inspiration from another book, mightier, it believes, than the Old Testament or the Koran, although it shares common roots with both these religions and worships the same God.

If Christianity is not about saying sorry and turning the other cheek what, at the end of the day, is so special about it? We have a lot to be sorry for. After all, it was Christian societies that practised slavery. It was a Christian society that tolerated the long persecution and then the obliteration of the Jews. (Islamic societies, even in their worst times, have never set about the extermination of the Jewish people.) And in a more recent era, it is Christian societies which stirred up war in Africa in their quest for cold war allies, destroyed Afghanistan, the scorched refuge of Ben Laden, in a misplaced and unnecessary attempt to aid the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and allowed the legitimate desire of the Jewish people to own their own state to degenerate into the contemporary world’s worst example of military occupation and imperialistic land acquisition.

Perhaps it seems extraordinary that a political writer should have nothing better to say than “say sorry.” In a week when innocent bodies in New York and Washington are being buried, when children cry all night for their lost parents, when lonely widows and widowers ask themselves how they will ever take another step forward through life, is this the time for contrition? It is hard to make the argument, that I know. But where does hatred take us, where does revenge, where does it end if, as President George Bush says, “there are no rules”? Do we want to make the situation worse or do we want to take a momentous leap of imagination and reach out to make it better?

The military solution, however sympathetically one looks at it, appears at the very least counterproductive. As a recent publication by the hard headed International Institute for Strategic Studies argued it, going after the Taleban regime in Afghanistan will likely destabilise its friendly neighbour Pakistan and throw a nuclear-armed country into the hands of the militants. Beyond that, what would be the point of inflaming Islamic societies everywhere if it led to the fall of the fundamentalist (but friendly) government of Saudi Arabia? If Saudi Arabia were ruled in a fashion true to its Wahhabi ultra-fundamentalist creed not only would there be no US troops on Saudi soil, it would be an end to the (uneasy) coalition against Saddam Hussein, there would be a cataclysmic shortfall in Western oil supplies, and the turning of Saudi missiles from pointing towards Iraq in the direction of Israel instead. It would also probably push Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons to put on the nose of its nuclear-capable rockets it bought from China, and this to threaten Israel with. Is America going to occupy Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to forestall that scenario? Then the house would really fall in.

The reason America has reached this fork in the road is because, as with so many other issues, America has put off biting the bullet on hard problems. Politicians and the media have connived to keep the populace ignorant of what is going on in the world. Only in extreme times of emergency – such as the current one and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait – is there an intense effort made to educate public opinion, and then that is done at a fever pitch with truth and objectivity being given short shrift. Yet, all over the world, there are silent emergencies that have continued to be combated half- heartedly, whilst they have developed a head of power that in the end steamrollers all modest solutions.

This is as true of global warming as it is of the Israeli settlement policy on Palestinian land. This is as true of the spread of AIDS and other highly infectious diseases as it is of the West’s over-consumption of energy. This is as true of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, for want of a disarmament lead from the ex-cold war nuclear powers, as it is of the Western tolerance of child labour in factories making their consumer goods. This is as true of children dying in Africa and other Third World countries for want of pure drinking water and the lack of education of young girls as it is of the ubiquitous use of torture because of the ever slow response of Western governments to pre-empt deteriorating human rights situations, indeed often propping up repressive regimes with financial credits and arms sales. (And, by the way, where would America try a captured Ben Laden if not before the International Criminal Court to which it is bitterly opposed?)

To lay all these problems at America’s feet is to ignore Europe’s own culpability. The old continent, if perhaps on occasion wiser and better informed about the rest of the world, has only intermittently done much better. Now it must wake up too.

To say sorry is but the beginning. Then the work must start.

Mr. Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and author. He contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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