Today’s Solutions: November 28, 2021

The path to peace runs right past our enemies

Jay Walljasper | April 2006 issue

One of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe, at least from a geopolitical perspective, is why America is so fixated on enemies. No other nation on Earth has faced so few threats from the outside. There’s not been a shot fired for nearly 200 years along our 3,000-mile border to the north, except in Michael Moore’s comedy movie Canadian Bacon. And with the exception of one brief incursion by Mexican rebel Pancho Villa into a New Mexico border town, things have been quiet to the south too.

Yet living in the United States all my life I have been strenuously encouraged by politicians and much of the media to worry about the menace of Russians, Cubans, Red Chinese, Viet Cong, Arab oil sheiks, Japanese businessmen, Russians again, Iranians, Sandinstas, Islamic fundamentalists, terrorists in general, Al Qaeda in particular, the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and, most recently, the French. They’ve all been targeted as mortal threats to the American way of life.

This has grown more pronounced since 9/11. But, truthfully, one notable thing about that cold-blooded murder is how unusual it is in 230 years of history. With the exception of Pancho Villa’s raid and a single Japanese shell that landed on the Oregon coast during World War II, you have to go back to the War of 1812 to find a foreign attack on American soil. Compare that to the history of Russia, Korea or the Middle East. Cities like London and Tokyo have suffered extensive bomb damage while Rotterdam, Warsaw, Dresden, Guernica, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nearly levelled.

A deep fear of hostile foreigners is a continuing theme of American politics. When I first heard that the cafeteria in the U.S Capitol had changed the name of French fries to Freedom Fries in the run-up to the Iraq war, I thought it was a silly joke. I should have known better. Many Americans, living in a nation with no clearly dominant religion or ethnic group, choose to define our national identity by a common enemy rather than by what we all share. Why?

Is suspicion of outsiders so hard-wired into the human psyche that even people lucky enough to live an ocean’s length from their nearest adversary are still filled with dread? Yet Americans aren’t unique in the world for their mistrust of others different than them. Is it simply too much to hope that people everywhere could learn to trust those who are not like them?

Happily, I found solid evidence that humanity could overcome these fears on a visit to Strasbourg, a city smack on the French-German border that’s been caught in the crossfire of nationalist conflict many times through the centuries. Overrun by the Germans in 1870 and 1940, you’d expect it to be a hotbed of French patriotism. But actually this city prides itself as a centre of international co-operation—the home of the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights (see page XX).

But the most moving symbol of what Strasbourg can teach the world is a new pedestrian bridge spanning the Rhine River. To stroll a few metres from a park in France over into a tidy neighborhood in Germany and see no soldiers, no Maginot or Siegfried Lines, no border guards—in short, no enemies—is a magnificently uplifting journey. I crossed the bridge one chilly, gray morning last winter, and as I reached the middle of the river, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, illuminating the slow-moving water in a gorgeous golden-pink light. A minute later, church bells began to ring. My first reaction was: What a cliché. But as I looked at the glowing sunrise reflected in the once-bloody Rhine, I decided I would be perfectly content if peace and trust became a cliché all over the world.

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