This past September while standing in a long tourist line to enter Rome’s ancient Colosseum I was mesmerized by a little boy held in his mother’s arms right in front of us. I had just taken out a banana to maintain my failing strength (tourism is tough!) when I caught sight of the youngster eyeing my banana as I slowly and now very deliberately peeled it with a devilish grin in my own eyes. The youngster squirmed in his mother’s arms as I teasingly ate the banana while wondering if it would be impolite or taken wrong if I offered the child a bite. Before I could make up my mind to share (or not) the young mother, alerted to her child’s awakened appetite, cleverly pulled out her own banana to give the child! As he eagerly grabbed the proffered banana from his mother I mimed my need to have a bite. He wisely ignored my growing, silent entreaties to share that which I had refused to share only moments before. We both laughed when he dramatically finished off his snack leaving me looking desperate and famished—a fun moment to pass the time in a long, boring line. Having broken the ice we introduced ourselves to the young couple. “Where are you from?” we asked. “Russia,” they replied. “And you.” “We’re Americans.”—only a slight hesitation but I could sense for both of us conflicting thoughts, “But you’re the enemy. You seem so nice.”
We parted company as the line and our brief conversation ended and we went our separate ways. Hours later I was still struck by the mixed feelings I felt from this encounter with the young family from Russia. Like many I was angered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea region and even more incensed by the downing of the Malaysian Airline’s passenger jet by Russian missiles only a few weeks earlier.
Vladimir Putin’s obvious lies and continued defiance of the European and U.S. governments’ seemingly futile demands for Russia to desist from interference in Ukraine left me feeling helpless and wishing we could take more aggressive steps to contain this crisis. Sanctions seemed ineffective. We were being bullied. Putin was seemingly daring us to do anything to stop his troops and his grab for power and resurgence of the “old” Russia. Why couldn’t we provide arms to Ukraine? Take more aggressive steps with our allies with military maneuvers / assistance in the region? Send in “advisors”? Do something about “those Russians”!
It was easier to think and talk about such actions when the “enemy” remained faceless. Much less so when the “enemy” had the face of a young couple and a child that reminded me of my own grandchildren. I was brought up short. Many years earlier while teaching in Venezuela, I had conversations with my young students discussing world events, including Vietnam and the old Soviet Union. I realized then as I do now that actions taken by a country’s government are not necessarily those supported by the people of that country. That Putin’s actions and those of the army he commands do not necessarily reflect the desires or the actions of the Russian people themselves. Condemn the government not the people or the country.
We live in very uncertain times with many enemies and many conflicts. We have just ended (hopefully) the longest war of our history after more than thirteen years in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban there and in Pakistan seem bent on imposing their ideals on the rest of the world, undoing years of sacrifice by many, not the least of which are our own troops and people. A renewed conflict in Iraq with the unleashing of the ISIS army rooted in the original Iraqi war, now reeks havoc in Iraq and Syria. The Israeli-Palestinian-Middle East conflict seems no closer to resolution than it has in over half a century (Millennia?). Africa on one end struggles with its own versions of Jihad and terrorists’ revolts and on the other with nature’s own form of warfare with the continuing plague of Ebola threatening to spread even further. Here at home we struggle to make sense of senseless killings involving young blacks, young police officers and an often aging, inadequate judicial system—an ongoing legacy of racism that continues to raise its ugly head in our society today. There are no easy answers—no simple solutions. Sending in our troops or national guard, unleashing our military should be our last recourse when no other presents itself. I believe that we as a nation have generally (but not always) taken that path. We must renew our determination to eschew use of force and pursue dialog and diplomacy whenever possible as we confront the inevitable evils of the world and those in our own back yards.
Interestingly, with regard to Russia and Ukraine, it appears that sanctions along with greatly reduced world oil prices are imposing the desired economic penalties that appear to slow if not halt Putin’s ambitions to rebuilt a “new” Russian empire. Today there is an uneasy truce in Eastern Ukraine. Time and history will tell if it holds, allowing us to move forward from there and not toward a new cold war.
Meanwhile I can only hope the young Russian boy I met one afternoon in Rome will live in a world less hazardous and more peaceful than we have seen in recent past. My Christmas wish for all—Paul Maxwell
This document edited by Carol Feickert, CeeJay Publications, Denver, Colorado. Contact [email protected]