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Issue Date:  October 22, 2004

Not only Americans care about U.S. elections


To a citizen of a small Muslim country that is less than one-tenth the size of the United States and yet is its 11th-largest trading partner, the election of the next president of the United States has a life and death dimension it did not have four years ago. The spectacle of U.S. elections then had seemed surreal, a kind of a theater of the absurd. One personal measure of its absurdity was the disbelief with which someone like my mother, a housewife in her 70s, followed the unfolding drama courtesy of Chris Matthews et al. in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Surely, she asked repeatedly, this can’t be happening? Wasn’t this the kind of political theater that occurred in places outside the United States? Places that didn’t have the checks and balances the United States had? Places that did not have freedom of the press?

Today, the country that once seemed to stand on the brink of a golden age of Pax Americana has taken the world to a new precipice with a war that has won few friends but has influenced its enemies to rush headlong towards greater violence. Daily there is more and more evidence that those who wish to make America pay are settling for less but creating ever widening ripples of violence by hitting out at America’s friends and allies.

As Americans choose their president, non-Americans have every reason to watch and pray, for we understand only too well how these elections will reverberate not just from sea to shining sea but well beyond. Non-American admirers of the culture that America once exported so successfully to places like Malaysia pray that Americans will choose a leader who can restore America’s sense of world history and its place in it. Admirers of America’s generosity have been able to connect that to the invitation inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty and the work of Peace Corps volunteers. The systematic exporting of a Kennedy-era humanism had erased many of the features of the Ugly American. From inner cities to the inner circles of society, America had become more and more desirable, friendly, fun. The bringer of good news and good things. Over-the-top consumerism and over-the-top compassion.

Today non-Americans watch anxiously -- and defer plans to get a tourist or student or business visa to America -- because there is a new American visage. And it is that of a bully. Today non-Americans the world over watch and pray that the rhetoric of vengeance, power and presumption is a temporary aberration, a moment of collective amnesia because a great country has taken leave of its sense of what made it great.

South Africa’s response to the systemic violence of apartheid was to aspire to truth and reconciliation, as in the commission it appointed with that name. America is surely capable of a response to its enemies that is at least comparable -- a response that does justice to the imagination that has made America for so long the object of yearning. Up to now. Today that yearning has given way to a terrible sense of loss and dread. Countries once hectored by the United States for legislation allowing detention without trial have been stunned to discover similar legislation in the Patriot Act. The country that once stood for liberty has demonstrated that it can turn into an invading, occupying power. Larry King recently brought President Bush once again into living rooms all over the world, including Malaysia, so that he could tell an incredulous audience that he wanted to promote “a culture of life.” Heartwarming words -- if he hadn’t just finished insisting that waging war on Iraq was the right decision.

As Americans elect their next president, they will likely not feel the anxious hope of non-Americans that the world’s only remaining superpower elects a leader committed not to the supremacy of the already powerful but to social justice for those least able to seek it for themselves. The discussions about pro-life and pro-choice candidates is a bewildering one to an onlooker, for surely the issues are far more complex and far more is at stake than can be reflected in these labels. If a candidate’s position on the death penalty, for instance, is not a litmus test in the election of a U.S. president, why should his position on abortion be regarded as such? It is a life and death issue -- but no less so than all the other ways in which we place life at risk.

This then is the most important election of a lifetime not just for Americans but for non-Americans everywhere. Because an American president committed to social justice will find new ways that reflect the richness of the American imagination to wage the real war yet to be fought on terror: the terror of the poor and the powerless wherever they might be found -- in inner cities or in far-off lands.

Dawn Morais is a Malaysian Catholic married to an American. She writes from Honolulu where she runs a marketing communications agency.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 2004

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