Category: Archive

Echo Opinion: In South Asia, U.S. flexes its true muscle: compassion

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Kennedy’s address is remembered for several stirring phrases, but one more obscure passage should be better-remembered today as we survey the death and destruction in South Asia.
The new president addressed himself to “those people in the huts and villages of half the globe” who were “struggling to break the bonds of mass misery.” He promised that American would “help them help themselves, for whatever period is required.”
That was a bold promise indeed. Even more startling was Kennedy’s reasoning. The United States, he said, was obliged to help the world’s poor “not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.”
Those words come to mind as the USS Theodore Roosevelt and its battle group is anchored off the battered island of Sumatra, there on a mission of mercy and not of conquest. Those words explain why American military aircraft are hovering over the beaches of Indonesia and Sri Lanka and other stricken lands.
People whose huts and villages have been washed away are seeing another side to American power. They are seeing the power of compassion, the power of solidarity, and, yes, the power of love.
The horrific tsunami has taken more than 150,000 lives and threatens to take more through disease and starvation. Many of those afflicted, many of those who mourn, are Muslims in Indonesia, the world’s most-populous Islamic nation. For many years now, men who claim to speak for all Muslims have said that America and the West wish death upon the Islamic world. But those U.S. military aircraft, those U.S. troops, arrived not to kill and main, but to help.
Why? Because it is right.
The United States has committed $350 million in government aid, but that is only the beginning. Tens of millions more surely will be raised from the American people, who have been moved by the anguish and suffering of South Asia.
Aid, too, will come from the nations and peoples of Europe. On the day I write, Europe is observing a moment of silence in memory of the dead. The British Broadcasting Corp. went dark for three minutes, and some of the European markets suspended trading for the same amount of time. It was a powerful symbol of compassion, but the Europeans also will provide more-tangible assistance.
All of this runs counter to the claims by the enemies of civilization who preach hate and death from their caves and their viper’s nests. The ideology of Islamic terrorism has it that America and the West seek the destruction of Islam and its practitioners. Their ideologues, content to let others don belts filled with explosives, demand that the young kill themselves — while, of course, killing as many infidels as possible.
If this were a just world — and experience teaches us to know better — those who receive American and European aid will remember who helped them (and who did not, like the Saudis with their miserly $10 million contribution) the next time Osama bin Laden rants about “crusaders and Jews.”
But in keeping with Kennedy’s sentiments, we should not be distributing food and rebuilding villages and donating money because we seek the support of alienated Muslims, or because we wish to be seen doing what the Saudis will not do. We are helping because it is right, and because differences of religion and nationality and race do not matter in the face of such enormous suffering.
But surely by doing right for the sake of being right, we can at least hope to change the hearts of those who think the worst of us. Our enemies and our critics at home would say that we know only how to project military power, but in South Asia, we are projecting our compassion, which must be boundless.
If we are successful, we will have a chance to build on that success and so perhaps change more hearts and minds. It has been a long time since a president spoke to people who live in “huts and villages” around the globe. It has been a long time since a president pledged to help people in faraway places, “for whatever period is required.”
With these words, John Kennedy framed one of his greatest successes — the Peace Corps. Today, America’s power and influence is defined more by the Marine Corps, and while we can never repay the debt we owe our young service men and women, we might do better to be loved rather than feared.
Only America has the power to overthrow regimes thousands of miles away. Just as surely, only America can come to the aid of mass catastrophe, and perhaps only America can address the appalling poverty and despair that so oppresses more than half the globe.
Perhaps, with time, people in huts and villages will come to welcome the sound of U.S. helicopters hovering overhead, raining down not rockets but medical supplies and food. Perhaps, with time, the beneficence of the American people will overcome the fears and doubts of those skeptical of our government’s intentions.
As the Bush Administration prepared for its second term, it would do well to remember another phrase from John Kennedy’s speech: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

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