Imagine you are an Iraqi who knows something of American history, and admires it.
You have read John Winthrop’s famous City on a Hill speech, about America as a community where people labor, suffer and rejoice together. You are familiar with the bold statements about human equality and the guarantees of due process in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. You have heard about Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. and others who fought to extend the American promise to all people regardless of background.
You believe America is a place where people from the four corners of the world live in equal dignity and mutual loyalty. And America – although she makes mistakes, and sometimes acts narrowly and selfishly – can help other places build democracy and pluralism as well.
Now imagine that you are watching and reading recent news reports of the Jena 6 (this is assuming, of course, that your electricity is working).
You must be asking yourself: What is a “white tree”? Aren’t nooses the ugliest symbols of a past that America is proud to be beyond? What of excessive criminal charges based on race? Aren’t American prosecutors and American judges impartial?
You see leaders from the Civil Rights era marching in support of the Jena 6, but you remember that part of what made the Civil Rights Movement great was that people responded peacefully to police dogs and water cannons. Didn’t these six kids from Jena stomp another kid unconscious?
You start to watch the various videos on You Tube related to this incident: the Neo-Nazis organizing and threatening, whites and blacks calling each other vile names, the promises of violence and the plots of revenge.
You think about Iraq. There are roving bands of young men from both sides looking for people to stomp (and worse). There are police and prosecutors and judges who are so partial that people from a different community don’t even hope for fair treatment. There are Sunni and Shia neighborhoods.
You wonder if there are Sunni and Shia trees.
“Isn’t America trying to build pluralism in Iraq?” somebody asked me hopefully at a talk I gave at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last week.
What might our imaginary Iraqi think of such a question?
Perhaps he would suggest that we build pluralism at home.