12/20/2012 01:52 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Mourning and Reflection in Newtown and the Arab World

Last week's tragedy in Newtown, Conn., is a topic of intense interest and concern in the Arab world today. We are far too familiar with gun violence, and know how it feels to lose children. In a region so often at odds with the United States, even strident critics of the world's superpower choked up at the pictures of those smiling innocents.

Arab detractors as well as admirers of America, each in their own way, are marveling at the debate now raging in the United States as to how to prevent more such tragedies. Several friends of mine here in Casablanca remarked on the seeming disproportionality of it all: 40,000 Syrians and counting, including thousands of children, have been killed by the Assad regime over the past two years, yet that tragedy receives remarkably little attention in the American public discussion. To this critique I respond that it is natural for people anywhere to mourn their own children far more than they mourn distant peoples. Americans' feeling of collective loss, moreover, can be an example to many Arabs: an affirmation of the value of human life, for a part of the world in which some political currents celebrate death.

In other ways, however, we feel that the United States and the Arab world may be able to draw lessons from each other. Far from the affluence of Newtown, 15,000 Americans are murdered annually -- overwhelmingly poor people killed by other poor people in the inner cities -- and the country's gun murder rate is 19.5 times higher than in other developed countries. While the Arab world is bloody for its ethnic and sectarian strife, political upheavals, and terrorism, murder rates among our urban poor are quite rare by comparison to the U.S. The sort of urban gangs one finds on America's streets and in its prisons are rare as well. Nor do we know the phenomenon of apolitical mass killings or serial murder by emotionally disturbed individuals. What explains these contrasts?

Mass killers like Adam Lanza, so far as we can tell, have lived in isolation from the community around them. They are the dark side of the culture of individualism in America that has yielded so many vast, inspiring achievements. In celebrating the potential of the individual to attain greatness by breaking with tradition, Americans have found a way to end the old cycles of prejudice that communal identities perpetuate from one generation to the next. In the Arab world, we desperately need to follow along this path. On the other hand, our traditions and bonds of family serve a valuable function: They streamline and comfort the vulnerable among us, ensuring that a troubled mind does not have to face the world alone, and that struggling youth need not seek support in a gang. We are protected in some ways by the very culture that harms us in other ways. While we have much to learn about civil society from the United States, we know that we should preserve aspects of our traditions that serve us well -- and feel that some Americans can learn from us in appraising their own communal roots.

Here in Morocco, where homicide rates are among the lowest in the developing world, we are of course not spared the scourge of criminality, and the mentally and emotionally ill are among the perpetrators of our violent crimes. We are largely spared the plague of urban homicide, however, by overwhelming popular support for the kingdom's policy of gun control. There is little doubt within the society that gun control saves lives, and we find it hard to understand why so many civilized people think otherwise. It is heartening to see that Americans are reexamining cultural attitudes toward gun proliferation, and we pray that they will find the will to affect public policy in this regard.

Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur and president of MED Radio, a national broadcast network in Morocco, MEDTV network and chairman of the board of Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya Arabic daily newspaper.