By Mort Rosenblum
MORONI, Comoros – Once upon a time I felt fairly safe when hard-eyed goons grilled me as one did the other day, toying with his service sidearm and an ominous bunch of keys. I’d pat the blue passport in my left Levis pocket. Goons thought twice before messing with us good guys.
Now the imposing eagle embossed on my passport might as well be a chicken hawk. Wherever I go, it is dead plain: that good-guys sentiment is a distant memory. Forget Machiavelli; we are neither feared nor loved.
Smart as we are, we forget the Internet is an open window on our lunacy. Families from Ulan Bator to Ushuaia watch in rapt disbelief each new episode of the Washington reality show. In idyllic towns they know from sitcoms, they see cops beat the crap out of citizens for doing no more than expressing themselves.
The Comoros, three flyspecks off Mozambique in the Indian Ocean, is as banana as republics get. After 20 coups and two murdered presidents since 1975, it is now peaceably mired in corruption. But at least it has a government.
“You can walk anywhere late at night with cameras around your neck, and no one will bother you,” a friend there told me. Comorans are Muslim, respectful of strangers in their midst. “Just don’t tell them you’re American.”
Far more people hate us today than before 9/11, bitter at wars we can’t justify, torture we won’t admit, and contemptuous treatment of “aliens” who stir our suspicions. Others simply watch our follies and laugh their ass off.
In nearby Madagascar, my driver guffawed as we passed Old Glory flapping atop a Fort-Apache embassy in hardened concrete with towering iron pickets around a vast open field of fire. “Like we’re a threat,” he said, and then he chuckled to himself for the next mile.
Don’t we understand anything? Forbidding embassy walls signal our fear and protect diplomats only while they are inside. Terrorists need only terrorize. A few zealots in a pickup can rain hell on shopping malls and luxury hotels. The more discreet our essential security measures, the less we will need them.
U.S. policymakers forget that a big stick impresses people only until you swing it. Then, as they remain standing, and pissed off, you look ludicrous. Just as Teddy Roosevelt cautioned, they tune out when you speak too loudly.
Of course, America is still great, with its multiple millions of big-hearted people, generous spirits eager to do the right thing. That’s the point. Why, our remaining friends ask, don’t we sound off, organize, and vote?
From the Ukraine to Chile, people storm into the streets when their elected leaders abuse power. Americans sit in placid silence when shown proof their government spies outrageously on them as if sacrificing their freedoms somehow makes them safer.
Our health-care “debate” – blackmail, really -- baffles non-Americans. Even Comoros recognizes health as a basic human right. Its pathetic 450-bed hospital is known as the death house, but European aid is helping. The country is desperately poor. What’s our excuse?
Intelligent people everywhere ask me the same question: How can so many rich Americans be mean-spirited and self-serving enough to let poor people suffer needlessly because medicine isn’t, as the law phrases it, affordable?
Since before the Vietnam War, critics differentiated between individual Americans and their government. That is changing fast as elected representatives ignore their oaths for their own narrow purposes. Friends who shrugged off our foibles now fulminate at their own brushes with a country they don’t recognize.
This incredible shrinking America impacts everyone. As European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi says, our shutdown imperils the global economy. In close focus, seemingly petty details show this is about far more than money.
At the airport in Madagascar, a uniformed policeman at the gate hefted my underweight carryon and declared it too heavy. “Give me something for a Coke,” he demanded, with breath reeking of beer. He smirked, knowing I would not miss my flight to object to a boss who’d expect his own cut. He pawed at my pocket and snatched the biggest bill, barely worth $2.
(Note to Madagascar: Air France flight, 1:30 a.m. Sept. 30; I can identify a mug shot.)
I mentioned this to a duty-free shopkeeper, who replied ruefully. “It’s shameful, but that’s how it is.” Back in Paris, I pondered pursuing the guy on principle. Then I reflected. Corruption is malfeasance that prevents a system from functioning as designed. I’m American. Talk about people in glass houses…
Samuel Jackson put it simply enough: Let’s wake the fuck up! In places like Comoros and Madagascar, citizens have to put up with whomever maneuvers into power. We don’t.
Rosenblum, former Associated Press special correspondent and ex-editor of the international Herald Tribune, jabs a Quixote lance at world failings in his spare moments. Join in on Facebook at Reporting Unlimited, add your name to this mortunplugged list, or drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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