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Why a Ship Can Be Better Than a Tomahawk Missile

11 March 2002

Each year, the Japanese government shells out $5 million to conduct a unique experiment: mix 270 people from every corner of the globe, throw them on a ship and set sail for two months.

For anyone invited, it's an incredible gift, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet people from a vast array of cultures in one fell swoop. I speak from experience: Last fall, I was selected to participate as one of 10 Americans.

Floating past East Timor, having a conversation with a Bahraini Arab and an Indian about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan - it certainly brought me a new perspective.

When I first boarded the ship in October 2001, like many Americans, my heart was a heavy mix of grief and rage. I was unequivocally in support of the "war on terrorism." I wanted justice. I wanted to feel safe again.

I still want this, but my new Arab friends from the ship altered my views, softened my stance. They forced me to think, really think: What could drive someone to such blind hatred toward the United States and the West?

Although my Arab shipmates universally condemned terrorism, they also feared that military reprisals by the Bush administration would lead to an endless cycle of violence while solving nothing.

The biggest guns, they explained, might provide the United States with short-term protection, but only by addressing the deep-seated issues through dialogue will either side truly achieve peace in the long run.

This is the philosophy behind Japan's program, which is called, "Ship for World Youth."

Perhaps it wouldn't be such a crazy idea for President Bush to take a cue from the Japanese -- sacrifice three Tomahawk cruise missiles from his budget proposal and find a few paltry million to stick a few Afghans, Iraqis, Israelis and Americans at sea together for a few months.

"Absurd. Naive," cry the hawks.

Squander our defense budget so 270 young people (ranging in age from 18 to 30) can mingle aboard a ship for a few months?

Unquestionably, for better or for worse, the United States has inherited the role of cops of the world. But police protection is not all about brute power - it also entails community outreach.

Fanaticism will never be completely eradicated. But a truly strong defense necessitates a heightened sense of international responsibility - accountability to the have-nots of the world. The Japanese understand this.

Yet, even within Japan, there are plenty of critics, those who question the wisdom of such audacious spending, especially with the sputtering Japanese economy. No other government on the planet has a comparable program, footing the bill for foreigners to participate in an international exchange.

"Many people do say it is a waste of money," says Tamai Saito, who is the international exchange department chief of Japan's international youth exchange organization. But Saito also counters that the ship is not only an investment in Japan's future leaders, but is an investment in the future of the world. She has been on four trips, once as a participant.

"If you experience it, you will know how deep the relationships will be and the bonds that will be created," says Saito.

It is also a form of official assistance to developing nations, an endowment in the future leaders of Sri Lanka, Mauritius and other smaller nations invited on the ship. Further, it is a way of reinforcing ties with larger nations such as the United States or the United Kingdom.

Despite the high price tag, it's a shrewd investment by the Japanese. Especially now, the world needs programs like this more than ever.

Setting sail just a month-and-a-half after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the ship was a brilliant forum to analyze the state of the world from so many viewpoints.

I recall a conversation one night in the ship's library with a Kenyan journalist, a British teacher, a Japanese university student and myself. We very much disagreed on everything from the role of the United Nations, to the war in Afghanistan, to the purpose of the Japanese grand bath on board the ship.

Megumi Tsuda from Japan shared how the Japanese are still scarred 56 years later by the horrors of the atomic bomb. Like most Japanese I met on board, Tsuda was opposed to the war in Afghanistan. She mirrored the Japanese ethic - after World War II, the Japanese government forever renounced war as a means of settling international disputes.

Or my friend Sammy Kaboye from Kenya, who believed the United States should have acted more swiftly after the U.S. Embassy bombing in Nairobi in 1998. He felt that the United States hadn't given the situation enough serious attention because it was in Africa.

Then Jackson Griffiths, from the United Kingdom, who opposed Britain's support of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. He rationalized that the al Qaeda network was so complex, so deep, that a manhunt for Osama bin Laden was like excising a tumor when the cancer has spread throughout the entire body.

We didn't solve the world's problems that night, but new perspectives were shared and stereotypes were broken. In the end, as I headed back for San Francisco, I realized that changing the world happens one individual at a time.

Jason Margolis
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle © 2002 San Francisco Chronicle

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