Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Like us or like them?

Mark Bowden in The Wall Street Journal.

Any nation is, at heart, an idea. Once people started organizing themselves in groups larger than their own blood lines, they had to invent reasons for considering themselves part of something bigger--tribes, city states, feudal kingdoms, nations, empires. Language, customs, religion, ideology and geographic proximity have all served. The idea of a state that accepts as equal citizens people from all corners of the globe, a nation founded on abstract principles, is a relative newcomer. We have been trying to get the people inhabiting a large swath of land between and on both sides of the Tigris and Euphrates to embrace the concept. It is an ongoing struggle with less-than-encouraging results...

Nine years ago, in the epilogue to "Black Hawk Down," I quoted an unnamed State Department official (he was Michael Sheehan, ambassador for counter-terrorism) as follows: "The idea used to be that terrible countries were terrible because good, decent, innocent people were being oppressed by evil, thuggish leaders. Somalia changed that. Here you have a country where just about everybody is caught up in the fighting. You stop an old lady on the street and ask her if she wants peace, and she will say, 'Yes, of course, I pray for it daily.' All the things you would expect her to say. Then ask her if she would be willing for her clan to share power with another to have that peace, and she'll say, 'With those murderers and thieves? I'd die first.' People in these countries . . . don't want peace. They want victory. They want power. Men, women, old, and young. Somalia was the experience that taught us that people in these places bear much of the responsibility for things being the way they are. The hatred and killing continues because they want it to. Or because they don't want peace enough to stop it."
I, too, have always assumed that most people, given the choice, would choose to have the things that I have had. But I have forgotten the conditions that need to be met for those things to be possible. A functioning economy, a stable and just (or at least accepted) political system, a (comparatively) large degree of freedom. When the Lebanese forebears of my father arrived in Australia, they cast off the baggage of their homeland within a generation and then married out. It was natural. But all those conditions were present, handed over by the British colonial administrators at the turn of the century. The ethnic identity that so many now insist on maintaining at all costs was cast off and a new one adopted without any trauma, as far as I know. This is very rare. So few peoples have the choice to strike off in a new direction; the road that history has laid for them is bordered by high walls and they must repeat what has always been done without deviation or hesitation.

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