It was festive at Halloween in my neighborhood this year, as always. Hundreds of carved pumpkin faces lined the streets, their yellow orange glow framing the processions of kids and parents carrying their troves of candy in the brisk fall night.
My wife and I took my 8-year-old son, Alexander, and his friend, Spencer, trick-or-treating, just as my parents had when I was a boy. I was struck by the protective sense of community all around – parents greeting other parents they didn’t know, and striking up small conversations. Homeowners who clearly spent many hours decorating their yards with goblins and spider webs complimented each child’s costume.
People walked from unfenced lawn to lawn, from house to house, as if it were one familial property.
I have worked in 45 countries, visited 20 more and become familiar with the lifestyle of virtually all 200 as a U.N. consultant, and nowhere have I ever encountered anything like this. It would be unthinkable in most of the world’s countries for families to venture to strange houses at night. It would be more unthinkable for the children of those families to approach unfamiliar homes, and to ask for – and receive – goodies.
And it would largely be impossible, as the houses in most countries are surrounded by high walls, often topped with glass or barbed wire. There is no sense of community even close to what happens in the United States.
As the U.S. continues in its period of economic and terrorist threats, it is important to remember that this is a really unusual place. It is easy to find problems in a country of 300 million people. But this is a place where ordinary people still feel responsible for one another. Most Americans don’t look at each other as the enemy and, unlike most of the rest of the world, every life is precious. Another child’s tears cause me to be sad, and my neighbor feels the same about me.
As much of the world criticizes us, Americans must be strong in the notion that we have created a social fabric that most others would love to have. But they can’t get it with anger and violence. And we cannot expect to change or annihilate the most extreme among them.
Our best hope is to try and extend our sense of community to more and more people, incrementally, around the world. We must separate the extremists from the moderates and not lump them together. The bombs on the planes and in the cars and on the roads are the work of a very, very small group of people. We must identify which of their sympathizers want to choose another path. And, slowly, we need to show them what is possible.
I saw and heard on the Halloween streets this year, as always, a mix of nationalities and colors and accents. A melting pot does work, after all. Just as a jack-o’-lantern looks scary, it doesn’t have to be if surrounded by people who share its glow. The world we live in is the same. We must forge a greater sense of community with strangers, make connections through the protection of our children, and act together to protect our common values. This is our best chance in trying to make terror into just another Halloween tale.