Doing Things the American Way


Universe Column for October 2nd 2005.

by David Alton

September 11th was an eerie day on which to be flying into Washington. It was a clear day and in the distance you could see the outline of most of the notable American centres of power: the White House, Capitol Hill, and the Pentagon.  Four years ago the attacks on the Pentagon and New York’s Twin Towers shook the country to the core.  The more recent natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina, has underlined its vulnerability and its divisions.

I was in the States to give evidence – along with my friend Fr. Shay Cullen – about the incarceration and killing of street children.  It is one of those paradoxes that Europeans expend vast amounts of energy on diatribes of anti-American histrionics but America is where you  come if you really want to put an issue centre stage and get some action.

We can be very smug about our sophisticated ways of doing things – but there is an energy and open-ness about the American system. While Congressman Chris Smith was chairing our proceedings another Committee was cross-examining Judge Roberts – who has been nominated to the Supreme Court as the new Chief Justice. Can you imagine our Lord Chancellor, Chief Justice or senior Judges submitting to a similar process here?

Although Katrina has revealed some fundamental deficiencies in their system of governance – in the relationships between the Federal Government, individual states and Mayors, it has also revealed some glaring inequalities between the poor of the New Orleans ghettoes and the prosperous part of the US.  Most shocking of all, an official report published in 2001 had clearly warned of the impending disaster.

Yet, as I read the searing criticisms of European commentators, I couldn’t help wondering what would be revealed about Britain if the Thames Barrier failed or if the River Mersey burst its banks.

During my few days in the States I was struck by something else.

U.S. television did not spend all its time looking for someone to blame. The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, resigned and President Bush said he accepted responsibility for mistakes which had been made and accepted his duty to put things right.

The main coverage was about the families who had opened their homes, the churches that had sent huge amounts of relief, the plans to rebuild New Orleans.  Whatever you throw at it – and despite its self evident failings –   America has a deep sense of hopefulness and optimism which always counts in its favour.

One of the people I spent some time with, and who best sums up that spirit, is Senator Sam Brownback. He’s a Republican from Kansas who became a Catholic a couple of years ago.  During the past 12 months he has been to Darfur and Uganda and virtually his first words to me were “the world’s most under-reported tragedy today is the Congo. We must get people to focus on it.” With 3.7 million dead he has a point. He wants to go there next.

Brownback has fearlessly championed an array of human rights issues and has been the moving spirit behind much needed legislation on issues like human trafficking.

Brownback represents what people often mistakenly call “the religious right” and he may well be the next Republican President.  It’s another European error to treat America’s  right as though it were  an inseparable homogenous group. It’s much more diverse and far more interesting than that.

Brownback’s assertion that “we will fail if we become harsh” and his belief in humility and simplicity is not just rhetoric and is  more than apparent in the way he personally lives.

No uncaring zealot, he says: “the higher you go, the more time you need to spend on your knees.”

As we left his small flat a truck pulled up and a group of black activists pulled over. They had been waiting for him. They knew what day it was and had come to sing happy birthday.  That didn’t fit the stereo-type either. But it was very American,  indicative of a nation which still believes it can overcome its divisions and traumas.

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