I have lived in Southern California for many years and am a veteran of the 1992 riots in South Central Los Angeles, provoked by the Rodney King affair. My own business was destroyed in those riots and, as a result, I pulled up roots and moved my family south into Orange County.
Having been through this sort of thing, I brace when I read about blacks in Los Angeles getting ready to head for the streets should the jury in the Michael Jackson case hand down a guilty decision.
It's depressing and discouraging to see how much has not changed in the conditions that produced those riots almost 15 years ago. Our inner cities remain tinderboxes of frustration and hatred, ready to burst into flames when anyone chooses to toss in a lit match burning with allegations of racism.
Author-columnist Thomas Friedman, in his new book "The World is Flat," draws an interesting and instructive parallel between today's realities in the Arab world in the Middle East and in America's own inner cities:
"Most middle-class Arabs and Muslims, I am convinced, were not celebrating the death of three thousand innocent Americans on 9/11. But many ... were happy to see someone humiliating the people and the country that they felt was humiliating them and supporting what they saw as injustice in their world _ whether ... backing of Arab kings and dictators who export oil to it or America's backing of Israel whether it does the right things or wrong things."
Friedman then draws a parallel to black reaction to the O.J. Simpson case. "Most American blacks, I am sure, had little doubt that O.J. Simpson murdered his ex-wife, but they applauded his acquittal as a stick in the eye in the Los Angeles Police Department and a justice system that they saw as consistently humiliating and unfair to them."
I can verify Friedman's assessment. After the Simpson decision, I was asked by a Dutch broadcaster to interview blacks in L.A. and get their reactions to what happened. My findings, as I reported then, were exactly as Friedman reports.
Despite differences in particular cultures, and there certainly is a world of difference between the Arab Middle East and black urban America, there nevertheless exist common defining threads in all human attitudes. Destructive emotions, such as frustration and humiliation, touch everyone.
Circumstances have dragged the Arab Middle East into the modern global marketplace and it is impossible for it to escape the fact that it is way behind. To be surrounded by those who appear to be far more successful, and to not have the skills to immediately catch up, is indeed frustrating.
Similarly, blacks in urban America go out every day into a world in which everyone else seems to be doing better.
Cultural differences do appear to come into play in the manner in which destructive emotions and hopelessness are given vent.
In the Arab world, it appears that hopelessness translates into giving death a positive value. Hence, we see young children seduced into blowing themselves up.
In our free Western culture, hopelessness translates into nihilistic behavior that leads to the same kind of self-destruction.
In one minute, an Arab child detonates a bomb and blows himself up. He's encouraged by distorted leaders, offering up politics dressed up as religion.
Nihilism is slower. Michael Jackson, in full view of the American public, has been destroying himself for years. This destruction is the product of a general sense of pointlessness and meaninglessness. Rather than being nurtured by political leaders, it is fed by a gross materialism that transmits to a child that it doesn't matter what he does or how he lives. If you have talent, adoring fans, also driven by the same emptiness, will provide further encouragement.
When the house is burning, the first job is to put out the fire. Then you can take time to try to understand how it got started.
As destructive attitudes and emotions transcend culture, the principles that light the path out of frustration and emptiness also apply universally.
Regardless of circumstances, regardless of culture, eyes need to be refocused inward rather than outward, values and personal responsibility need to define the day, and the hard work needs to start. There is simply no alternative.