"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Mostly we think of that adage when we choose an apple over a donut. But, it's equally appropriate when we're faced with the roots of violence in crime, civil unrest and even war. It's far better to prevent violence than to control it. In this context, prevention itself can be heroic.
We've all been horrified and outraged recently by events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the killing of two innocent police officers in New York City. The assassination of the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, raised the bar even further in an act of revenge over nothing more than drawings. And so it goes, in escalating acts of retaliation. As Sean Connery put it in The Untouchables: "They pull a knife; you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue."
It solves nothing. I was reminded, during all of these events, of stories over the past two decades about a program called "community policing." It has been implemented over the years, with varying degrees of success -- depending, I think, on how eagerly it has been embraced by individual police officers. In smaller communities, it has been praised as a valuable technique for building trust and support and demonstrating that law enforcement is as much about preserving peace as it is about arresting and imprisoning criminals. In larger cities, it has been met with more mixed reviews, partly because officers have said they have little time to build bridges with communities, given their workload.
My view is that when people really want to make something work, it will work. Community policing is proactive outreach: It asks officers to visit neighborhoods and families who are especially in need of help, and to do anything they can do to assist these people. Go shopping with them. Bring them donated shoes. Offer rides to a doctor's appointment. It hardly matters what they choose to do: as long as it's helpful. In the end, it builds a bond that can only help when tensions run high and the temptation to give up gets stronger than usual.
Why should this be something only police officers do? In my view, it's a job anyone can do in an embattled zone, or merely a city where tensions run high. And it behooves the responsible members of those underprivileged neighborhoods to reach out to police as well, in kind: Be helpful, communicate what's needed, promote the program to others in the community, offer a free cup of coffee. Any act of friendship and caring helps -- on both sides.
What if a similar initiative were to take hold in places where political, religious and national frictions have erupted in violence: Paris after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, or Lebanon at almost any time over the past thirty or forty years. What if mere citizens were to adopt the philosophy of outreach and act on behalf of peace rather than conflict. Jewish citizens in Europe are now either leaving or contemplating a retreat to what they consider a safer home outside Europe, in reaction to the growth in Islamic extremism and anti-Semitism in general.
What if Jewish families were to take what we've always called a "care package" -- food, supplies, clothing -- on a regular basis to the homes of poor Islamic citizens in Paris, or elsewhere in Europe. What if the same were to happen in Lebanon, with citizens from Israel? Imagine, if this were to happen over and over again, weekly, monthly, one year after the next, how it would erode hostility and slowly create a sense of good will. Imagine how it would erode support for violent terrorists in Europe and elsewhere.
In a recent post, I wrote about how one philosopher/theologian described a central message of the Old Testament as the need to transform hostility into hospitality. For him, it was the central meaning of the entire Bible. It runs through not only the Old Testament, but the New, as well, in the words of Jesus: "You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also."
Those words weren't meant to be poetic hyperbole about an unattainable ideal. They are a simple set of practical instructions for how to build peace, one person at a time.