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Issue Date:  January 13, 2006

Offering Pakistan a helping hand

A global disaster fund can refurbish the U.S. image


Thirteen young Americans, all paramedics from New York City, come to Pakistan to provide medical relief to earthquake victims. They become instant heroes to thousands of homeless Pakistanis who watch these “infidels” save lives by performing surgeries that only doctors would be allowed to do back home.

“60 Minutes” told this remarkable story a month ago, and it almost took my breath away. These brave men were motivated by only one thing: the desire to help out. They were risking their lives for people whose language they did not know and whose culture painted Americans as pawns of the Great Satan. How trivial my comfortable job teaching college students about religion suddenly seemed. How meaningless most of the publications I routinely crank out.

But the several hundred lives these Good Samaritans saved is not the point. The real story is the impact that such an example has had on several million Muslims living in bin Laden country. One of the men, Steve Muth, told reporter Bob Simon, “We can inoculate an entire valley, if we’re lucky, against radical Islam. And it’s so simple. I’m just a paramedic. It’s just a bandage. It’s not a $100 million ad campaign from Madison Avenue. It’s not, you know, it’s not complicated. Could something work better to change somebody’s mind? I can’t think of anything.”

Steve Muth is not a member of Congress. He is not the president of the United States. But he has a wisdom, a vision, they don’t have. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if instead of being the world’s policemen we became the world’s healers? We could. In a small but inadequate way we have already taken steps in that direction. For there is no country that gives anywhere near as much to emergency relief around the world as the United States. This holds true today in Pakistan. But what we give is a pittance compared to what’s needed.

Tens of thousands of Pakistanis will die of cold this winter unless the world rapidly mobilizes help on a grand scale. Oxfam reported on Nov. 28, “The U.N. response to the disaster is running severely short of both resources and personnel. Donor governments have committed only about one quarter of the $550 million the United Nations requested.” Just imagine what our country alone could do if we had the will.

“But we don’t have the money,” comes the predictable answer. And it’s true. But what if we decided to dismantle the war machine in Iraq -- gradually, not immediately -- and convert a fraction of the money saved into a massive emergency response? What if we overlooked politics? What if it didn’t matter if Iran, or Syria, or Cuba had been devastated instead of Pakistan? What if the point was to do the right thing, not measure the impact? If we did the right thing without calculation, if we refused to take stock of whether the country we helped was friend or foe, the impact would take care of itself.

The politics of the present administration is out of touch with human nature. Gandhi once said that every country would rather be governed poorly by its own people than well by an alien power. When will we learn that lesson? Every Iraqi civilian we kill, every home we demolish with our bombs hardens the commitment of militant Islam to destroy us. What should we be doing instead? We should be training a massive army of healers like Steve Muth to go into the field, in whatever hemisphere, in whatever war zone, in whatever weather or terrain, at almost a moment’s notice. We should be training linguists at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., not to spy but to translate a peasant’s complaint into a language a doctor, nurse or paramedic can understand. We should be turning out more medevac helicopters and fewer F-16s (at $20 million apiece). We should be equipping idealistic young Americans not with bayonets to slaughter but scalpels to heal.

The world is getting tired of U.S. jingoism. When we travel abroad, we are no longer greeted with friendly smiles. We are not looked up to as compassionate arbiters capable of seeing both sides. We are not the world’s seeing-eye dogs, but its pit bulls.

All this can change. Ten billion dollars should be enough to respond effectively to the world’s emergencies for a year. A global disaster fund of this magnitude would gradually put radical Islam out of business. It would gradually make the Department of Homeland Security obsolete. It would save us big money, for every dollar spent healing would earn back five or 10 that would have been spent on killing. Maybe most important, it would ennoble us as a nation, and the whole world would notice and follow.

As Steve Muth said, “It’s not complicated. Could something work better to change somebody’s mind? I can’t think of anything.”

You don’t have to be the Dalai Lama to see Mr. Muth’s logic. All we need is a president brave enough to act like the Christian he claims to be.

Stafford Betty is professor of religious studies at California State University, Bakersfield.

National Catholic Reporter, January 13, 2006

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