BPD Update Online, Spring 2002
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by Ralph Holcomb, rjholcomb@stthomas.edu

Nobody knows exactly where Columbus and his crew touched land that fateful day, though there is no question it happened here on the Eastern edge of the Bahamas. So if it was not at this beautiful cape where I now sit, then it happened not far from this point, or on another nearby island. I choose to believe the weathered old fisherman who assured me without a trace of irony that this was the true location of the Admiral's first landing.

Wherever he landed, he was met that day by the Lucayan Indians, part of the Arawak civilization that stretched out north and east through the islands of the Caribbean from Venezuela. Eyewitness accounts from that initial voyage indicate the Indians welcomed the half-crazed men with generosity. Europeans were not ideal neighbors; within 50 years those among the Lucayan who had not succumbed to disease were enslaved and worked to death in gold mines and pearl fisheries.

I lie in the shade of a palm thinking about whether civilizations must inevitably clash against one another in a deadly game of global dominance. Hostility between very different cultures seems inevitable; is it inevitable, then, that there be only winners and losers in our present conflict with what we are taught to think of as the Evil Axis in the Middle East, plus North Korea?

I think not, but we are facing a formidable challenge. We must begin with simple human intercourse: conversation. Dialogue is a complex and distant goal these days, now that our President has taken to labeling the enemy with phrases remarkably similar to those flung at us. We also face a culture that is generally uncurious about the West. The chilling lesson of the Taliban was that cultural pluralism is at best irrelevant, and at worst, sacrilegious. I fear this is only an extreme manifestation of a more general disinterest in Western thought throughout the Arab world. Hundreds of schools in Arab nations and Indonesia are turning out the next generation of fighters, led by Mullahs who confidently teach that anti-American sentiment and action is akin to religious sacrament. Dialogue with true believers is difficult under the best of circumstances, and seems sadly out of reach at this moment in history.

Americans must begin by confessing to our country's history of exploitation of these countries, and in most cases a foreign policy that has favored right-wing martinets sympathetic to American business interests over leaders with more humanitarian aims. A humble admission that we have followed our own short-term economic interests in the affairs of other countries may perhaps spark the dialogue we desire.

I've asked Bill Whitaker and Patricia Levy to address this thorny problem, and give a social work perspective on how we can find peace in a hostile world. For myself, I need another day or two on this gorgeous beach, where Columbus may or may not have first met that gentle culture doomed to annihilation.

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