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5 November 2001

America must learn from Mandela

What magic healed South Africa's wounds? Simple respect for others. And that, argues John Carlin, is

By John Carlin

The news on 21 October that a US bomb had killed 12 people in Kabul, including a man and his seven children as they were having breakfast, brought to mind a passage from The Quiet American, Graham Greene’s novel about American good intentions abroad. Pyle, the bright-eyed idealist of the novel’s title, is reflecting on the slaughter of a dozen innocents in a busy Saigon square, the unlucky victims of a bomb intended for a group of anti-American bad guys.

“They were only war casualties,” Pyle says. “It was a pity, but you can’t always hit your target. Anyway they died in the right cause.” When Greene’s first-person narrator asks him whether he would have reacted in the same way had his old nurse been among the victims, Pyle ignores him, and adds: “In a way you could say they died for democracy.”

How are your Donald Rumsfelds and your Dick Cheneys and the assorted Pyles who advise them reacting to the reports, vividly documented by the news wires, of the deaths of that man and his children in Kabul, of the unspeakable grief of the wife and mother who survived them? In public, at the time of writing, by ignoring the reports altogether. Privately, one might reasonably speculate, they will lament the political consequences (“Damn! That’s another gift to Bin Laden!”) more than they will the sorrow caused. As for the American media, they buried the story under the latest biological warfare scares and Pentagon-sanctioned reports on American warplanes “hunting down” Bin Laden and his sullen, joyless, miserable men.

All of which has led me to reflect on something said by an American colonel, a Vietnam veteran whom I came across in El Salvador in 1984, and on something – something quite different – said by Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela’s best friend, whom I first met shortly after his release from prison in 1989.

The American colonel, one of the two or three people running the government army during the Salvadorean civil war, said in the course of a press briefing at the US embassy that we should not trouble ourselves unduly with the atrocities going on all around because, after all, it was only “little brown men killing little brown men”. Sisulu, himself little and brown, taught me, by contrast, one of the most important lessons I have learnt in 20 years writing about political conflict. I asked him in an interview a day or two before his 80th birthday if he could sum up what it was he had been fighting for during his 60 years or so of “struggle”. “Ordinary respect,” he replied. “That is all. Ordinary respect.”

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That is all, and it is everything. The need to be respected – not admired, not flattered, not given special privileges, just to be manifestly, visibly valued – has the quality, almost, of a biological imperative. It is part of what makes us human. So that when you don’t get respect – either as an individual or as a tribal member of a collective built around a nation, a race or a religion – when what you receive is contempt, or what you interpret to be contempt, you become bitter and then angry. So much so that you can end up doing wild and terrible things. Such as putting an end to the lives of large numbers of people you do not know.

After living in Central America and South Africa, I went to live in Washington. One thing that struck me when I was there, and that has kept coming to mind since the mass murders of 11 September, was how my American colonel’s attitude towards the little brown men of El Salvador was replicated in the contempt shown by the United States towards Muslims in general, and to Arabs in particular. How woefully short not just America’s leaders, but the culture as a whole, had fallen of the Sisulu principle that what people most want, especially people who are poor and aggrieved and therefore predisposed to take offence, is ordinary respect.

Let’s look at the leaders first. I noted time and again during the Clinton years the shockingly disparate responses of Clinton himself as well as members of his administration – who really did seem to believe they should be seen as “honest brokers” in the Middle East peace talks – to the violent deaths of Palestinians and Israelis. The formula was simple and applied with uncanny consistency: when an Israeli was killed the Clinton people would denounce terrorism; when a Palestinian was killed they would call on all sides to sit down and talk. The habit of expressing more sorrow and regret over the death of an Israeli child than a Palestinian child was so ingrained that no one in Washington – not excluding the newspapers and the TV news people, for whom the habit seemed just as much second nature – seemed to notice it was happening.

Another no less insidious but even more pervasive example of American bias, which in the Arab world they have registered quite as keenly as the slights of the politicians, regards Hollywood’s relentlessly derogatory stereotyping. It’s a funny thing how, in the most excruciatingly politically correct country in the world – delicate to a fault about the finer feelings of black people, Mexicans, Apaches, Jews, women of all shapes and sizes – it has always been open season on the Arabs.

One could go on all day giving examples (for an exhaustive study see a book by Jack Shaheen called Reel Dead Arabs, published this summer), but I particularly remember the hugely successful Arnold Schwarzenegger film True Lies, in which our hero kills a sum total of 80 generically “Arab”, ludicrously Pythonesque, Islamic terrorists, not one of whom evinced the merest nuance of human kindness. If the villains – every single one of them – had been caricature rabbis or irredeemable ghetto blacks, the studio in question would have been burnt down, the mighty Arnold strung up in effigy. As it was, the only criticism I can recall was in a column by Russell Baker of the New York Times, who noted (in a boldly subversive break with his paper’s orthodoxy) that Arabs were “apparently the last people whom Hollywood feels free to offend en masse”.

There used to be another group of people whom not just Americans but just about everybody else in the world felt free to offend en masse: the Afrikaners. One man who did not feel free to do so was Nelson Mandela. He had more reason than anybody to hate them. He had particular reason to hate General Constand Viljoen, chief of the South African Defence Force at the time when the army began its chemical and biological warfare programme, and who, after Mandela’s release from jail in 1990, became the leader of the far-right umbrella organisation the Afrikaner Freedom Front. Viljoen at one point planned the violent overthrow of the South African government, but Mandela, who met him face to face on numerous occasions, persuaded him to take part in the historic elections of 1994.

At the opening of South Africa’s first democratic parliament I kept my eyes on Viljoen as Mandela walked, to tumultuous applause, into the chamber. Viljoen’s face, fixed on Mandela’s, wore – I do not exaggerate – an expression of pure love.

What had Mandela done to him? In his every utterance, in his every gesture, he had treated the general, and his people, as he himself, and his friend Sisulu, always wanted to be treated by them – with the utmost respect. Why? Because he is that kind of man, but also because his country’s predicament was too serious for him to allow himself the infantile indulgence of calling his enemy – his weakened, threatened but dangerous enemy – names.

It has often been said that the South African negotiations, and in particular the role played by Mandela, were an example to the world, putting to shame the failed efforts in the Middle East, the eternally stuttering peace process in Northern Ireland. Quite how the Mandela example might be imitated has never quite been explained. Perhaps it is because every conflict has its own history, its own complex dynamic. South Africa’s did, too. Obviously there was a lot more to Mandela’s wooing of the Afrikaners than being nice. But – and here is the lesson that applies to all – if he had not been nice, if he had not treated his rivals with respect, all the detail of the negotiations would have counted for nothing. He and Viljoen, as far apart in many ways in 1989 as George Bush and Osama Bin Laden are today, might have (in a favourite phrase of those times) drowned the country in blood.

It will be difficult for the Americans to shake off the habit of regarding Arabs, people who look like Arabs, and Muslims in general, with disdain. But the point now, as Mandela found a decade ago in his own country, is that the stakes are too high to go messing around.

Now that terrorism has struck home, literally, and American self-preservation is the issue, America can no longer afford the adolescent recklessness of that colonel playing the racist fool in the Central American backyard, the glibness of Graham Greene’s dangerously innocent Pyle. Part of growing up is learning to put yourself in others’ shoes. Next time a bomb drops on a house in Kabul it would be good if President Bush and his people, as well as America’s newspaper editors and movie directors and everybody else, paused to consider how they would have felt had the dead been an American father and seven American children.

The Americans had better wake up to the common humanity of people who live far away, have difficult foreign names and don’t speak English. Because if they don’t, the “war against terrorism” will be lost. Which is to say that it will never stop. Because – never mind al-Qaeda, which may or may not be destroyed – the central challenge of the “war” is to prevent today’s stone throwers from becoming tomorrow’s suicide bombers. Which means that the challenge is overwhelmingly political. Unless the Americans, on whom everything turns, begin to show some respect to the Muslims in general and the Arab world in particular, there is no hope. There will be nothing to be done, and we will all be locked into a cycle of tit-for-tat terrorism, a globalisation of the Israeli-Palestinian model of brutal imbecility, until kingdom come.

John Carlin was the Independent‘s correspondent in South Africa and, later, the US. He now writes for El Pais

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