On the plaza outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City, you’ll find a sculpture titled “Non-Violence.” It’s simple: a revolver with its barrel twisted into a knot. The image is emblematic of the principles on which the U.N. was founded. This is a place where weapons are useless, it says — a place for dialogue.
On Tuesday, world leaders will convene at this very place to kick off the opening session of the 67th U.N. General Assembly. The pageantry and lofty rhetoric that often accompany this annual gathering will occur against a backdrop of volatile global conditions — most visibly in the Middle East.
Without a doubt, this region will get the most attention as the General Assembly proceeds. Violence rages in Syria. Anti-American protests, which some have attributed to reaction to the film “Innocence of Muslims,” carry on. And the specter of war between Israel and Iran looms on the horizon.
For better or worse this year — probably for worse — the General Assembly also overlaps a season of heated political campaigning here in the United States. And by heated, I mean that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is in hot water.
Last Monday saw the emergence of a video secretly taken at a closed-door, $50,000-per-plate fundraiser held by Romney in May. In Romney’s now infamous words, there are “47 percent of Americans who will vote for [President Obama] no matter what … who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, you name it.”
However, far less attention has been given to Romney’s equally disturbing comments on the Middle East, which he delivered at the same event. Answering a question about the (to quote one of his guests) “Palestinian problem,” Romney replied, “The Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace and the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish.”
It’s worth quoting Romney at length: “I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say there’s just no way. And so what you do is you say you move things along the best way you can. You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that it’s going to remain an unsolved problem. I mean, we look at that in China and Taiwan. All right, we have a potentially volatile situation, but we sort of live with it. And we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”
Romney’s gross generalizations and oversimplifications aside, he demonstrates here an alarmingly passive, laissez-faire attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as if the “invisible hand” of the free market wields mysterious powers, too, in foreign affairs. Say what you will, but this no-can-do attitude is certainly not what I look for in a would-be commander-in-chief. Such complex problems don’t simply solve themselves — they demand dialogue. But a President Romney (I cringe writing that) would unquestionably accept — and perpetuate — the untenable status quo that exists today.
Romney would justify stalling progress with the presumption that Palestinians don’t want peace to begin with. That mindset is dangerous, but not uncommon in American political discourse. We see that backward logic at work not only against Palestinians, but Muslims in general.
As we know, protests against “Innocence of Muslims” escalated last week into violent attacks on American embassies and consulates. In Benghazi, U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three of his staff were killed.
This tragedy has become fodder for those like Romney who actively seek to portray Muslims as an inherently violent people whose lifestyle is incompatible with Western values such as free speech. Conservative Americans cite this violence as “evidence” of the backwardness of Islam to justify their claims that the promotion of peace in the Middle East is futile; that force, not dialogue, is the only currency of value, the only language they speak, the only means to ensure regional stability.
Never mind that those Muslims engaged in violence are very few while those who call for peace are many. Never mind that Muslims, like Jews and Christians, shouldn’t be treated as a unilateral group without nuance or diversity.
Nonetheless, from Fox News to friends on campus, I hear people taking the bait and engaging in the generalization game. “Why can’t Muslims take an insult? Why are they all so violent?”
These questions are unintelligent and unproductive. With the complicity of the media, which provides bloody images and sensationalist rhetoric on cue, we arrive at conclusions that confirm our preconceived suspicions. We might feel justified in spewing hateful rhetoric, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing justice to the truth.
This week at the U.N. conference, there will be dialogue in spite of violence. However momentarily, gun barrels will be tied into knots, and rhetoric will take center stage. Those knots should stay tied.
Daniel Chardell can be reached at email@example.com.