The World Looks Hard at America

by Steven R. Van Hook
August 30, 1998
Santa Barbara News-Press

It's a true joy to regularly browse the News-Press online and catch up with the news from my native home while I've been working in Ukraine so many thousands of miles and decades of development away from idyllic Santa Barbara.

Much of your news seems so remote from the fundamental issues we face each day here in Kiev in the revival of a demolished nation. Other of your stories feel right at home; small-town news with a global resonance.

So it is with the Isla Vista "3-strikes" plan, booting repeat rowdies out of local parks. A park groundskeeper's unenviable frustrated summation: "Enough's enough. We've tried to be nice to them, but what are you going to do?"

Indeed, that is the question. What do we do with those living on the edges of our civilizations, those who refuse to abide by our societal rules?

This is an issue freshly highlighted in fluorescent hues, now that our embassies abroad - small lonely pieces of American soil in roiling seas of discontent - are under ever more violent attack. For better or worse, our embassies represent the hand of America reaching out to the world. A stab at our embassies is a thrust at our heart. And now the very Heartland of America itself is in incalculable peril from all too potential terrorist threats of nuclear, biological, chemical and even cyber attacks.

Yes, Mr. Park Groundskeeper, what are we to do?

Sure, we can raise the barricades, and shift the undesirables even farther from our fine shores, or simply exterminate them. In some cases, that may be the only unfortunate resolution. Though let's not call this a solution, but an ideological defeat. And readily accepting defeat is just not the American way, as I see it from this vantage point some 180 longitudinal degrees away.

The world looks hard at America, certainly for what we are, but also for what we hope to be. It's a position that requires tremendous responsibility, whether we accept it or not.

What are we to do?

1) We must provide that everyone who wishes to enter our figurative "civilization" is granted a door to do so. It makes no sense to issue an invitation to the castle if the drawbridge goes unlowered. If we cannot do this in a spirit of goodwill, let us at least do so in enlightened self-interest, knowing we shall not escape others' misery and wrath.

2) We should maintain unflagging patience and resolve in our course. So many people live in worlds so removed from ours - even in our parks - it may take them much time to conceive such a golden society is even possible for them too, let alone plot the course to get there.

3) Let us ensure ours is a society worth aspiring to, where the ideals we profess are the same ideals we produce by. We must dust off musty assumptions, peer beyond our boundaries of comfort, and while counting our foes take stock of our own flaws.

We may shrug at such simplistic generalities as way too mushy to grip, especially when immediate fallout is in our face. But as world travelers know, when we become confounded by the constant compass changes navigating the terrain, it's the general heading that finally gets us home.

And we must be wary of a proclivity to associate suppressing the symptoms with rooting out the cause, while the disease festers into a malignancy infecting the entire body politic.

In the wise words of Uncle Remus, "You kin hide de fire, but what ya gonna do wid de smoke?"

Steven R. Van Hook
Kiev, Ukraine