The inability to see one's self as others do is paradoxical but real. So it's understandable that few Americans understand how other peoples of the world see the USA.
The paradox is increased in proportion to power. Within a corporation, the "little people" -- janitors, clerks, etc. -- have a better fix on how they are viewed by others than does the CEO. Overtly treated with exaggerated deference, the CEO believes he is loved. Covertly, he is resented. Confronted by evidence of animosity, he is shocked and marks it down to envy.
Globally, among nations, the USA is the sitting CEO. After terrorist attacks on its financial and political nerve centers, some of its perceived subordinates in the Middle East and Western Asia revealed their true feelings. They celebrated.
Here in Prague, we watched and listened to Americans react to this painful reality. On BBC radio, we heard an American spokesman say what we've heard repeated over and again from the USA, "We are free and we are good. They [the terrorists] are jealous and they are evil."
Central Europeans -- and Europeans in general -- judge that analysis naive. They understand and greatly sympathize with the pain Americans now feel. They are willing, even eager, to cooperatively work toward the elimination of terrorism. They regard terrorists who wreak such inexcusable horror as blights on humanity.
Still, the truth is that most Europeans are not very jealous of Americans. Some envy the wealth, but most see freedom in the USA compromised and trapped by mindless consumerism. Europeans don't think the terrorists are jealous of Americans, either. They don't even view them as inherently evil; they see them as irrational people committing evil acts, a subtle difference requiring an equally discerning response.
That American comprehension lacks similar subtlety is understandable. Like the CEO confronted with a struggle within the lower ranks of a distant branch office, the average American has little interest in gruesome details. What caused the problem? What was our role in causing it? What can we do to resolve it? These are questions of little interest to the CEO. Instead, he sends down a directive: "Stop the nonsense or I will terminate you all."
A self-gratifying show of muscle makes the CEO feel better but it doesn't solve the problem and can make it worse. American political leaders seem to grasp that. Why the sudden maturity?
For one, the industrialized nations have spent decades midwifing a modern global economy based on transnational corporations and (supposed) free market values. To the extent this global economy is the "western civilization" we are told was the real target of the terrorist attacks, then it is the impetus behind the measured response we now see. The World Trade Center was the single largest nerve center of the global economy. In the subsequent stock market plunge, even autocrats in moderate Arab countries like Saudi Arabia suffered billions, if not trillions, in stock losses. Big global money losses equal big global concern and cooperation.
What the terrorists threaten is the welfare of a fluid, free market global economy -- one based on free-flowing oil. Only a measured response can manage that threat. The irony: that economic values might cause the rational response that professed political values would not. Economics outranks politics. For once, it may be a good thing.
Despite the havoc now wreaked in corporate headquarters, the average American isn't enough interested in the Middle East and Western Asia to learn the gritty details of what caused the rise of terrorism there under the guise of Islamic fundamentalism. The shameful story of American foreign policy in those regions, and of how moderate Arab states have managed Islamic terrorism by deflecting it westward, is beyond the scope of this column.
But Americans would find it enlightening to read some history. Facts will reveal that the USA has assumed the mantle once worn in those regions by Britain and France, arguably the most destructive colonial democracies of the 20th century. Will we do better than they did?
Here in Central Europe, where history is long and politics is far more complicated than a domestic pseudo-squabble between corporate-financed Republicans and corporate-financed Democrats, citizens know first-hand that global politics is an intricate, dangerous game. They've been pawns between Cold War empires, have been repeatedly invaded and occupied, have known the totalitarian boot. They also understand that the threat facing nations who embrace the Western Enlightenment -- who advocate individual freedoms, political pluralism, religious tolerance -- is not simply terrorism under the guise of Islamic fundamentalism.
Here, they know applying self-professed ideals to the foreign policies we adopt determines the integrity of our own national character. Self-deception is as corrupting as any external threat. They wonder: in an attempt to eradicate terrorism, will we abandon our own professed values to accomplish the end?
In Darkness at Noon, the powerful novel by Arthur Koestler exploring totalitarian psychology, the state inquisitor asserts, "The principle that the end justifies the means is and remains the only principle of political ethics." Central Europeans, under the tyranny of the USSR, experienced the systematic application of that principle. They intimately know the terror it produces.
And so, now, do Americans. Whether we choose to acknowledge how our own foreign policies have created terror in other parts of the world remains uncertain. When the same terrorists who crashed two civilian airliners into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 shot down a civilian airliner in Afghanistan during the 1980s, Ronald Reagan called them "freedom fighters". Then, they served our purpose: fighting the Cold War against the USSR. Now, they don't. Instead, they've turned their methods against us. Their sympathizers celebrate, and we are shocked.
The Czech Republic, like other Central European states, is a small, modest country full of well-educated, modest people. When speaking of how the rest of the world sees his nation, a Czech will say, "They hardly know we exist. They don't know much about us. We are not so important." It's an humble view, but realistic -- much like that of the janitor or clerk in a large corporation.
But the CEO is more insulated, less realistic. He is tempted to overlook how others see him. And that is his mistake. How others see him determines to a large extent how effective he is. It's in his interest, and everyone's, to pay attention to the matter. If he does, he may become more circumspect. He may realize that his behavior, not just his position of power, determines how others treat him.
Now the USA has an opportunity to learn that difficult lesson. The recent terrorist attacks are not justifiable under any civilized system of ethics or justice, but they should cause Americans to look inward all the same. We should ask ourselves a crucial question: In our own collective actions in the world, are we abiding by the same ethical principles we demand others abide by? If the answer is no, then we need to change our own behavior.
If we refuse, then our future, as well as the future of our Enlightenment ideals, is imperiled from within as well as from without. In Koestler's novel, the main character says, "The amount of individual freedom which a people can conquer and keep depends on the degree of its political maturity."
Here in Central Europe, folks are learning that lesson the hard way. They are wondering if Americans will learn it, as well. The USA, they know, is a brash, muscular, self-centered adolescent sitting in the CEO's chair. Is he up to the job?
Everyone hopes so.
Christopher Cook, a former journalist and trade union activist, is the author of the award-winning novel Robbers. His short story collection Screen Door Jesus & Other Stories will be released in November.