I recently visited Switzerland, where my wife's parents live. We arrived just days before the dual terrorist attacks by Jihadist extremists in nearby Belgium.
Related Islamic militant actions have also recently beset France -- first at Paris-based publisher Charlie Hebdo with the killings of key staffers in January 2015; and then at a Paris nightclub where more than 100 people were killed by suicide bombers last November.
Other deadly Jihadist attacks have rocked Pakistan and Turkey in recent months.
In many of these countries, increasing Jihadist terror has bolstered right wing fascist movements and their leaders. People are angry and afraid.
I understand the anxieties of my European family and friends, and of others around the world who are affected by growing terrorist violence. I have had my own brushes with terrorism that have provided first-hand awareness of what is at stake.
I lived in New York City on September 11, 2001. I saw what happened that day and in the weeks following those unprecedented attacks on our home soil.
I was on a flight from California that landed in Boston the night the Marathon Bombers engaged in a gunfight with local police only a stone's throw from my hotel near MIT.
On both occasions, as with more recent incidents, it was clear to me such attacks reflect a dangerous sea change in global human relations that threatens free societies and aspiring democracies worldwide.
Given the stakes involved and the then seemingly strong "evidence" of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction (as presented by respected officials like then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair), I had no problem supporting U.S. military actions--first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq--as logical responses to the 2001 attacks on America.
But I never imagined our military engagement in those nations would effectively amount to a permanent commitment of our blood and treasure as a nation. Nor did I envision that America would create a massive new domestic surveillance apparatus, which, along with our now longstanding military commitments in the Middle East, has cost us trillions of dollars while raising important questions about the long-term effects on our civil liberties and global leadership capacities.
I also never imagined that, over time, a surprisingly significant number of Americans would embrace the kind of simplistic and fascist politics that we see playing out in the current Republican presidential primary process.
The rise of hyper-angry presidential aspirants like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz has finally made me aware of how much our emotional, rather than rational, response to the threat of Jihadist extremism has played right into the hands of our enemies.
Today, America, though still the world's unparalleled leader, is increasingly divided and broke. We have spent more time and money turning on one another and ineffectively fighting enemies we don't fully understand than we have committed to unifying and smartly defending our interests.
Moreover, we have vastly diminished our prestige across much of the globe by choosing the path of the "Ugly American," rather than the largely revered and inspirational global role our nation played in the past under diverse American political leaders ranging from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan.
Despite his most fervent detractors' claims, President Obama has helped a great deal to mitigate the worst effects of the debacle he inherited, both militarily and economically, when he entered office. And our standing in global diplomatic circles has rebounded.
But Obama's last year in office is bringing forward a hard reality; namely, that America is at a profound inflection point. Will we remain a welcoming and magnetic nation or will we become a nation of hate and separatism? So much hangs in the balance of our upcoming presidential election.
Something is changing in America that we had better put a stop to soon, lest we follow the path of Europe in the 1930s.
American power is not about bullying, bluster, and bigotry. Rather, it is and always has been about the contagiousness of our industry, innovation, and inclusion.
By giving over to the worst of our human instincts, by wasting our resources and humanity on uninformed military strategies, by blindly giving away our civil liberties, and by turning on one another, we are doing exactly what our Jihadist enemies have wanted and expected us to do all along.
In so many ways we are unwittingly defeating ourselves and, in the process, creating little need for the terrorists to do much more than watch us self-destruct.
From my own personal experiences I am well aware that the terrorist threats we face in the West are real and warrant a strong and uncompromising response.
But we can certainly do much better than unraveling over trite partisan differences that separate us as Democrats and Republicans in America.
And surely we can do more to lead with our true strengths across the globe -- which are not first and foremost the tools of force and vindictiveness, but rather those of democratic inspiration and integrity.
- - -
Henry A. J. Ramos is President of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, a California policy think- and do-tank that seeks to increase economic opportunity and prosperity sharing in America.