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Posted at 2:33 PM ET, 01/13/2010

A message to rude D.C.: Give 'salaam' a chance

By washingtonpost.com editors

By Rich Staats
Fairfax


I recently returned from command as a colonel in Iraq. And, no, this is not a rant from a Veterans for Peace activist. I was proud to serve, to help the Iraqi people and to make life better for the 18,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and civilians I was responsible for. Since 2005, I have spent more time in Iraq than in the United States. I’ve come home from overseas on more than 20 occasions during my nearly 30 years in the Army. But this time was different.

Coming home is never easy, and it can be particularly hard during the holidays. I was really hoping for a large dose of holiday spirit, more “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.” That’s not exactly what I got.

While one expects some fairly unsociable behavior in a war zone, I was more than a bit surprised to have been met with hostility here in the D.C. area. I’m not talking about an anti-military attitude; people have been gracious and appreciative in that regard. I’m talking about a general anger and hostility that ranges from extra honking on the roadways to the more common murderous, withering glances that you get when you do something apparently way out of line — such as, say, smiling at someone in a mall.

The biggest change that I have noticed, based on a nonrandom, nonscientific sample, is a perplexing refusal of help from a stranger. During the heavy December snow, I stopped when I saw someone stuck. Without exception, my offers of aid were rebuffed — sometimes in a very hostile manner.

I’m not sure whether it is acrimony over health-care reform, anger over a slower-than-desired economy or fear of the impeding Mayan apocalypse, but something is far different this year.

I learned something during my several combat tours in the Persian Gulf region. The greeting in that part of the world is a variation on “salaam” or “shalom.” We tend to translate this denotatively as “peace,” suggesting merely an absence of war. But that misses the beautiful connotation that this word has to the people in the cradle of civilization.

To them, “salaam” or “shalom” means that everything is good and in its place. It implies a general feeling of contentedness and peacefulness. This sense of a peaceful, contented spirit is captured somewhat by our old holiday greeting of “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men” — a wish to look at the positive and to convey some extra regard and kindness to others.

Our homeland, this democratic beacon and land of plenty, represents so much to people all over the Earth. But something seems to have gone a little awry with how we treat one another. So this is my request to everyone in my adopted hometown: Let’s demonstrate a little more salaam.

I’m not looking to start a “pay it forward” revolution. This is something basic that we can all do.

I’m proud to serve and defend this great nation, and it has been a wild ride these past five years. But right now I’d just like some salaam and quiet .....

By washingtonpost.com editors  | January 13, 2010; 2:33 PM ET
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Comments

What can you say? You're in the Northeastern US, one of the most liberal and rudest parts of the country.

Posted by: liberalsareblind | January 14, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

First, thank you for your service to the country; second, thanks for for the reminder to pay more attention to how we treat others. Unfortunately, the very first comment demonstrates the bitterness that infects too many of our fellow Americans. There is a long way to go to recover the sense of community and shared purpose we need to meet the serious challenges facing the nation. "Salaam" is a good starting point.

Posted by: Michael92 | January 14, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Thank you Col. Staats - well put. As an East Coast liberal now living in sunny San Diego, I do believe geography plays a significant role in how people treat each other in public. Nevertheless, liberal/conservative east/west coast or somewhere in between, I too have noticed the growing incivility in public. I point to the media as one main culprit: controversy, hostility, talking heads yelling at one another - this is what drives eyeballs to the screen. We see politicians and pundits attack each other on TV and we subconsciously go into attack mode ourselves. And because we're bombarded with this hostility 24/7, we never get a chance to breath. I'm not excusing our behavior towards each other, I'm explaining it. I sure wish more of our so-called leaders would set a better example. Ah well. Thank you again for your service to our great country.

Posted by: sdtrueman | January 14, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

This is why I don't miss DC anymore and a number of people I know have moved back down South. What happened to that helpful spirit that used to be there? As soon as the 80's hit, it was out the window.

If people are willing to treat someone who has fought on behalf of this country in a harsh way, what else will they give someone who has not?

Posted by: jessiesdaughter | January 15, 2010 5:01 AM | Report abuse

Since kindergarten we are warned of 'stranger danger'. We read about car jackings, robberies, rapes and assaults by 'helpful' passers-by. The War on Terra demands that we look with suspicion on our neighbors, our co-workers, and those 'different' from us.

A generation has come of age, weaned on "be afraid, be VERY afraid. Be suspicious of everyone, including your neighbor, the postman, and the 'friendly' Good Samaritan. Report suspicious activity." - and you're surprised that neighborliness isn't embraced anymore?!

Oh, and btw - thank you for your service. You, and others like you, are the reason we still have our freedom.

Posted by: WilyArmadilla | January 15, 2010 8:42 AM | Report abuse

During that same snowfall I was walking back from church because driving was too treacherous. My walk took me through a small mall where, despite the weather, shoppers were congregating. The main entrance was slippery with slush and well-rutted. A car had gotten stuck there, spinning its wheels and blocking the entrance.

The passenger exited abruptly into the snow, hollering and cursing at the driver, saying "None of these f***ers standing here watching are going to help us!" and then she headed for the store.

There were five young Hispanic men standing close by on the sidewalk, hoping for some day labor -- shoveling snow, perhaps. They looked at the irate lady, the car, and immediately walked over to help. Combined, we got the car out of the slushy ruts in about five minutes and he drove on into the mall to pick up his fuming passenger -- or maybe not!

We were happy to jump in, get dirty, and help debunk the prevailing sentiment that strangers will stare but never assist, or that helpful strangers must have some malevolent intent -- the same kind of sentiment that accuses all immigrants of being welfare spongers, for example, or states gratuitously (as above) that "liberals" are the root cause of all evils in society.

Salaam and God bless you for your wise words, Col. Staats.

Posted by: laboo | January 18, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

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