Recent events inside and outside of Tulsa reflect a growing danger to our way of life and national security. Locally, city official split on voting for river improvements based partly on geographic and racial boundaries.
Regionally, Oklahoma state congressmen responded with puzzling fear and belligerence to being presented with a Quran as a gift from Muslim members of a state government advisory council.
Nationally, our leaders refuse to engage rogue countries such as Iran and the president of Columbia University and many student leaders assailed Iran's president when he came to deliver a speech there. These events show that Americans would rather wall off perceived differences with others rather than to analyze those differences and use them to distinguish threat from annoyance.
We must spend time and money targeting true threats. Likewise, we should not waste time and money attacking differences that do not constitute threats. Indeed, targeting non-threatening differences could create threats by antagonizing and threatening people and thereby causing a violent reaction.
Finally, by going after non-threatening differences, we lose an opportunity to find common ground and improve our society. Unfortunately, as real worldwide threats and our response to those threats spread fear and distrust, people in positions of power and influence appear to be staking out positions that exacerbate rather than alleviate both of these problems.
The result is bad news for America. Let's start with the river vote.
It is a common belief that Tulsa County failed to pass the vote to improve the river because the North side of Tulsa combined with outlying suburbs to say "no".
From the very beginning when the County announced the river vote, representatives of the North side staked out positions against the plan, arguing that they were not consulted in the development of the plan, that a sales tax was a regressive way to fund the river improvements and that the river plan did not offer them any benefit.
Many South of the North side and in Tulsa's suburbs never saw it coming. And why would they? Many people in midtown and the south view the North side with a combination of fear and apathy with no basis for doing so, and their representatives often reflect this attitude.
At the same time, people on the North side often reject integration, view development in broader Tulsa with apathy and develop their own view on things without any opportunity for others to influence those views.
For both the North and the South and for Tulsa in general, this separation is dangerous because it allows prejudices and unreasonable impressions to grow without challenge and ultimately threatens to undermine the peace of our society.
Even in the best case, for those in the South seeking to improve Tulsa, it seems easier just to move forward with what seems like good ideas and assume that the North side will get the message or that it can proceed without the North side. In the long term, that attitude will not only reduce the trust and sow hatred between North and South, but, on a more practical and selfish level, it will hinder projects that each side wants to pursue.
Just as isolating Tulsa's North side reinforces potentially dangerous attitudes and prevents Tulsa from moving forward, alienating different religions will hurt Oklahoma in the long run. When Muslim members of the Governor's Ethnic American Advisory Council recently offered a Quran as a gift to members of the Oklahoma state legislature, some of the congressmen rejected the overture and one even went out of his way to criticize the Islamic religion as a whole as violent.
Assuming the Congressmen gave any thought to the matter, they no doubt saw the gifts as an attempt to integrate Islam into the everyday life of society and soften the image of Islam as a violent religion bent on destroying civilization and our way of life (although their supporters claimed it was a free speech issue).
Based on this viewpoint, the Congressmen found it necessary to show how they are blunting this perceived advance.
The truth is, of course, that the gift of a Quran is not a subversive insertion of a religion into our daily lives. No one is going to convert to Islam based on the gift of a Quran, and the gift of a Quran is not going to cause the state of Oklahoma to fall by force to the forces of Islam.
On the other hand, not accepting the gift shows hostility, alienates the Muslim community in the same manner that North and South Tulsa alienate each other, and, in the long term, allows ideas to fester within a community without appropriate outlet.
More importantly, the rejection misses an opportunity to integrate the Muslim community, make them a welcome part of society and give them a stake in the status quo. By accepting (and even reading portions of) the Quran, for example, the Congressmen and their supporters can lead our society in the crucial work of finding a way for Muslims, Christians and Jews to coexist in a society in which everyone is free to practice their own religion. (Rather than seeking to defeat Islam, which is a major, established worldwide religion and is not going to go away, we must defeat violent Islamic radicalism by attacking terrorists and rewarding integration into our society and adoption of our civic values.)
Even assuming that the Muslim community poses a threat (which I do not believe to be the case), a smart leader will want to engage them and know what they are thinking and how they are interpreting their religion, while a short-sighted leader will simply want to keep them at arms length and wish them away.
As in the case of the river vote, building a wall to isolate ideas and people that we are not familiar with will hurt us, our community and our state.
Nationally, our leaders are making the same mistake, but with even larger consequences.
Iran, a country led by religious extremists who believe Israel should cease to exist, is possibly two to three years away from making a nuclear bomb with which it can arm or deter an attack against terrorist networks that it supports. The result could be a Middle East catastrophe. Although the stakes are high, our leaders refuse to discuss these issues with Iran until Iran makes concessions, using willingness to talk (and threats of war) as negotiating leverage.
In theory, this leverage should bring Iran to the negotiating table, but Iran's leaders continue to win popular support by showing that the West is out to get them regardless of Iran's actions. In response, the United States resorts to greater threats of force and economic sanctions, both of which are unpalatable options and further back the Iranian government against a wall rather than convincing Iranians to push their government to act cooperatively.
While some pressure is necessary, the U.S. government has not taken the obvious, complementary approach of talking to the Iranian people, like Reagan spoke with the Soviet people in the 1980s.
Ironically, Iran's out-of-touch leader has never been shy about addressing the U.S. people or its leaders. Recently, he was invited to speak at Columbia University where, as in Washington, DC, rather than engaging him in a discussion, the leaders started out by lecturing and disparaging him.
Although the American people are smart enough to distinguish fact from fiction coming from his mouth, their leaders do not give them an opportunity to do so. Similarly, the Iranian people are smart enough to distinguish fact from fiction, reason from dogma and reality from fantasy, and we should give them the opportunity to do so.
Why doesn't the president speak to the Iranian people, listen to their concerns, tell them that we are not interested in harming them or overthrowing their government, explain why we act as we do in the World and ask only that Iran act responsibly in the World. We can even talk about the Shah and the Iran hostage situation.
Why not? If we do not communicate with the Iranian people, their impressions of the United States as an imperialist bully manipulating sovereign nations for their own gain will continue to fester making it more difficult for this country to achieve its national security ends.
On the local, state and national levels, our leaders are not grasping that it is in all of our interests to listen to and engage with those with whom we are unfamiliar. This is not a question of getting along with others for the sake of getting along. Nor is it a call to "hold hands and sing 'kumbaya'."
Rather, we are not going to ensure the long-term security and progress of our city, state and nation unless we act with some forethought and avoid the temptation to follow our knee-jerk reaction into isolation and hostility.
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