01/09/2013 06:13 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

Gun Violence and America's Image in the World

As someone who has traveled extensively in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Europe over the past several years, I have experienced a nearly universal opinion of America society as violent and crime-ridden. Most Americans would probably be surprised by this view, but it is no wonder, with the drumbeat of stories about horrible massacres, rampant crime and widespread gun violence. Admittedly, much of the world's perspective on our society is gleaned from sensationalist media and popular films, television and video games, but nevertheless the vision of America as a chaotic and violent place is firmly etched in the minds of much of humanity.

While there may have been a time when we could shrug off the opinion of the rest of the world, we can no longer afford that luxury. When we were the pre-eminent global economic force, we didn't have to worry about what foreigners thought of us, as long as they bought our products, which they did in abundance. And in a time when over half the nations of the world were under the yoke of totalitarian systems, America's spirit of freedom and economic vibrancy was a beacon for people everywhere, even if they worried about our penchant toward violence.

However, as Tom Friedman and others have pointed out, the world is flattening. While America is still the leading economic power, it is now competing with the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), as well as the Eurozone and many other rapidly developing nations in Asia and Latin America. Although the United States still has significant advantages in terms of productivity, creativity and skills, we can no longer assume that those advantages will put us in the strongest competitive international position.

One of the greatest dangers to our future prosperity is that the rest of the world will see us as a society in decline. In the jungle of the global economy, no one is in greater danger than the wounded lion -- everyone is out to get him. But it is not our material wealth -- or our military might -- that are coming into question. It is our health as a society. Who wants to visit or invest in or even do business with a country that is violent and chaotic, where the government is in gridlock and the public divided? One need only cite the example of Mexico, which has suffered a huge blow to tourism and a substantial decline in economic growth because of drug violence and government inaction.

For most of our history, America has had the reputation among foreigners as the Wild West, but decades of assassinations, drug violence and horrendous gun massacres (not to mention three unsuccessful wars), have pushed the United States into the category of a failing society in the eyes of much of the world community. This not only adds an air of uncertainty to our position in the global marketplace, it also provides propaganda fodder for our enemies.

So what role does gun violence play in the diminished image of the United States, which was once viewed as the shining city on the hill by much of the world? The high-profile massacres, not to mention the epidemic of gun violence in our inner cities, are a potent symbol of where America has gone wrong. What is worse, the American government and public, in the eyes of the world community, appear to be largely indifferent to this humanitarian crisis.

Piers Morgan has been criticized by gun rights advocates when he expressed utter bewilderment at America's antiquated and ineffective gun laws. Nevertheless, his bewilderment is shared by most of the citizens of the civilized world. How, they wonder, can America sit idly by while its citizens are gunned down in the streets, and even more recently, in its schools? We have to concede that they have a point.

Certainly, preventing gun violence is more complicated than gun control. The roots of the violence are clearly deeper -- in poverty, social conditions, mental health failures, popular culture and a host of other areas. However, the tools of gun violence are not complicated -- they are guns. It is beyond comprehension that civilians in a modern, civilized society must be as heavily armed as we are, often with weapons that are capable of mass killing. And it is even more unbelievable that our government has, until now, done little to address this terrible crisis.

In many ways, the Newtown school shootings represent a crossroads for America, not simply in terms of gun violence, but also in terms of our future as a nation. Because the world is rapidly changing -- from the streets of Beijing to the barrios of Sao Paulo -- we must be part of that change. The world is flat and we must become increasingly part of that world if we are to thrive and prosper. Addressing the critical issue of gun violence can serve as a potent symbol of our willingness to address the challenge of change. We can no longer afford to abstain from the standards of the rest of civilized world, nor is there any moral justification for doing so.