Saturday, January 29

IMAGINE IF VOTING HERE WERE AS PERILOUS AS THERE

I just finished reading this columm from STARS and STRIPES about how our troops have been preparing for the election about to take place in a matter of hours in Iraq and it gave me pause.

First, while we applauded ourselves here in America for turning out in bigger numbers than normal in this past November's presidential election, fact is while around 61% of eligible voters went to the polls, 39% did not. That means that 122 million Americans did their civic duty, reaffirming the democratic process, but 75 million -- I repeat, 75 million voters -- found excuses for ignoring the polling place and the election process altogether. Apathy was still very much the order of the day. The only good news in 2004 was that fewer eligible voters as a percentage stayed away than in any prior presidential election since 1968. But that's hardly meritorious. Not when you think of all those rows upon rows of white crosses at Arlington National Cemetary and at other military cemetaries here and overseas.

So why do so many of us engage in speculation over whether Iraqi citizens will show up in large, average or modest numbers tomorrow? The CNN website is even running a poll today asking its readers to speculate on the efficacy of the election -- whether a democratic form of government will even take root in Iraq!

Where do we get off? Because we have troops over there? Because Saddam has been captured and jailed? Because we've poured national treasure into their country? Because we've taken so many casualties and upset the world community in the process? I think none of these good enough reasons. No, this process of speculation we're engaging in seems macabre to me and more than a bit hypocritical. Where do any of our 75 million who sat out our own election, just for starters, get off presupposing what Iraqis will do tomorrow? Seems tantamount to the crowd on the street below yelling for the despondent man up on the 15th story ledge to jump.

Those 75 million in this country who can't bring themselves to get off the couch and vote -- what do they point to? Poor candidates. Lackluster campaigns. The political parties aren't all that different. The politicians are all in cahoots. Inclement weather. Gasoline prices. Long lines at the polling venue. Couldn't find the polling place. Got held up at the office. Bad head cold. Couldn't find a babysitter. The major networks declared a winner before I got off work. And on and on it goes. All excuses. All so much baloney.

And what do their counterparts have to hang their hats on over in Iraq? Car bombs. Anti-tank mines. Anti-personnel mines. High-explosive, surface-to-surface warheads. Rifle grenades. Myriad assault weapons and machine guns. Sniper rifles. Poisons and blistering agents. Bayonets. Butcher knives and head shrouds. Kidnappings. Beheadings. Torture. Rape. And on and on it goes.

They've been threatened. Their families have been threatened. Many of their polling places have already been blown-up. If their names appear on voter registration rolls, they've already been identified for insurgent/terrorist reprisals. In America, a voter gets irritated if there's no bathroom, or its locked, or the coffee pot is empty, or the coffee is cold. In Iraq, a voter gets irritated if an ambulance is not handy, or the supply of tourniquets runs out, or the Election Judge is wearing a black hood.

Voting in America is mostly an issue of convenience and one's schedule. We don't emerge from our homes or offices or universities under curfew, security cover, and with our bladders ready to empty at the sound of boots on pavement. Voting is no longer an act of courage in the United States; it's a matter of conviction.

Much of the world will be glued to their television sets, listening to their radios, or reading their computer monitors tomorrow to find out how much courage there is in a nation ravaged for two decades by Saddam Hussein's ruthlessness and for two years by a war of liberation that dissolved into a massive counter-insurgency. I pray that it does not become akin to the Romans gathered in their Coliseum to watch the Christians led to slaughter.

President Bush is calling tomorrow's election a grand moment. I pray it is that and not a bloodbath. I know this: however large or small the voter turnout, it will be a day of sublime courage that 75 million Americans ought to take to heart and emulate.