What Can the Average Citizen Do in the War on Terrorism?
Before moving to Washington, DC, we had considered that we were engaged in the world. We did some volunteer work and much of our writing and teaching was about using age-old concepts to improve our present, individual experience of the human condition. After we arrived here and began to explore our new home, we quickly discovered there was a great deal more to Washington than politics. We began to realize that the conditions of freedom, comfort and security we had previously taken for granted were being made possible by thousands of people, from all walks of life, who were working quietly and diligently behind the scenes to bring about improvements in the human condition. The realization was challenging and inspiring. This is where the conceptual rubber met the practical road...big time.
Our thinking was stimulated toward more meaningful avenues of engagement, and one of the first organizations we joined was the National Council for International Visitors.
In September, our guide on a Smithsonian Institute tour of Masonic Washington was a fascinating gentleman who helped us to understand that America is not about nationality, but about citizenship; it is not about allegiance to any political party, but to the larger idea of freedom. And, just as freedom had been born of struggle, without ongoing citizen engagement, it could die of neglect. That fascinating gentleman was Akram Elias, and it wasn’t until we met him again in October for this interview, which we call America, The Great Experiment, that we learned he was one of the Directors of NCIV.
We would like to share a selection from that interview with Akram Elias. This one began with the question:
We often hear about citizens of other nations saying, ‘Americans don’t care about us. Americans only care about themselves.’ What can we do, as individual citizens, that will have an effect at the international level?
First of all, I believe that Americans care. However, people of different cultures express the way they care about one another differently. Some use body language, some are verbal, some use eye contact; different ways of expressing care. The reason I say Americans care is...well, simply look at how many Americans are involved in local, national and international organizations and NGO’s to try to improve their own communities nationally and also their relations within the international community.
Personally, I’ve been inspired by Voltaire’s famous sentence in Candide, ‘let everyone tend his own garden.’ It means the work has to start with me. I’ve got to work with myself to make myself a better person.
What does it mean to be a better person? The aim is not to become better than others. It’s self-improvement, nothing to do with competition. In this way you can avoid many of the destructive forces, such as jealousy, greed, envy and competition, in the sense that you have to put someone down in order to rise. You’re really competing with yourself. If everyone was to do this, while respecting that everyone else has the same right to do it, then we would have all types of flowers blooming in the garden. But that’s philosophical, and I always try to make a practical application of philosophy...which brings us to citizen diplomacy.
Citizen diplomacy is one of the most powerful and effective tools that can be used. That’s the reason why I accepted to be on the Board of the National Council for International Visitors. I truly believe in that mission.
This organization offers an incredible opportunity for the average citizen to show the rest of the world that Americans care. Our government brings people from all around the world to come here to see America as She is. That opening up and showing of all our culture takes guts and courage. When the visitors are here, they see our homeless, they hear about our crime. They see it all. And they meet wonderful people. Americans invite them into their homes, meet with them, take them around, or maybe make some contacts for them with others. We try to make these connections. Why? Because when we do that it’s a two-way street.
I’ll tell you a story. One of my favorite places is a small town about 2 and a half hours outside of Chicago. A lot of people in this small town don’t lock their doors. Now, here is someone from outside America who has been told ‘there is crime everywhere’ and ‘it’s not safe to go out on the street at night,’ and so on.
Our international visitor in small-town Illinois woke up in the middle of the night and saw someone sleeping on the couch. He had never been introduced, never even seen him before. Well, he woke up and the delegate asked, ‘Who are you?’ The stranger replied, ‘I’m a friend of the family and I had too much to drink, so I just decided to sleep here tonight.’ This level of openness was just amazing for the delegate.
They learn from us and we learn from them. Not only about their life and culture, but we have a wonderful opportunity to see ourselves from a different perspective, through their eyes. As I said, it’s a two-way street. The interaction always leads to something more, and everyone benefits.
Now, a lot of people have ‘the war on terrorism’ on their mind. And most citizens in this country feel helpless. ‘I can’t help with that. The Army or the FBI or CIA has to take care of that.’ So what can they do?
Well, terrorists don’t operate in a vacuum. They need certain protection; places to hide and sympathetic people around them to support them. They exploit the ignorance of those around them by telling them America is the Great Satan, that America stands against everything that the good citizens, the true believers in their country stand for. But, we can’t fight ignorance with guns.
I personally think this is an incredible opportunity for the average citizen to contribute. You can do something! Citizen diplomacy can play a great role in defeating ignorance. And this gradually diminishes the support of those who depend on it to influence others. We defeat this ignorance by engaging citizens from other countries and showing them who we are, by building bridges and letting them see with their own eyes. Then, when they go back to their own countries, it becomes much more difficult for them to accept the ideas of the terrorists. They may say, ‘I disagree with you, I’ve seen for myself. I may disagree with US policy in this or that area, but I don’t hate Americans. You are lying.’ That’s basically what it is; you contribute as citizens by making it more difficult for terrorists to gain support.
This is a very pragmatic and practical way of looking at it.
To learn more about the National Council for International Visitors, go to nciv.org .
The authors, Peter and Helen Evans, have published two books: Freedom Through Contemplation and Manifest Success! They also conduct classes via e-mail. More of their work can be seen at onecenter.org. They live in Washington, D.C.
Akram Elias is a Lebanese-born American citizen, a 33rd degree Mason and a consultant to the State Department. You can learn more about him at capcomgroup.com.
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This story was published on February 10, 2003.