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A Call for Understanding

by Matthew Arnold Stern

Where is Samantha Smith when we need her?

Samantha was the 10-year-old girl who wrote to then Soviet leader Yuri Andropov asking for peace. This was during the 1980s when the Cold War was at its hottest and many Americans believed that a nuclear war with the USSR was inevitable. In response to this fear, she decided to reach out with a call for understanding.   

I remember when she wrote the letter and visited the USSR that a number of people considered a traitor or a naive patsy. History proved Samantha Smith right. Eventually the barriers of distrust broke down between west and east -- along with the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. Today, our former enemies are our  partners.

Today, we find ourselves in a similar situation with the Muslim world. Tremendous distrust and misunderstanding exists between our peoples, and the gap is widening. We face the prospect of a war even more horrible than the one we feared with the USSR in the 1980s, where weapons of mass destruction would be used with impunity and with innocent civilians as the primary target.

Samantha Smith is no longer with us; she died in a plane crash in 1985. However, her example and her call for understanding still exists.

It's time for Americans and Muslims to reach out to each other, to tear down barriers of distrust, to demolish stereotypes and prejudices, and to open conversations. The Internet provides us the perfect tool to do this. It only takes a few minutes to visit a cultural or news Web site, send an e-mail, or go to a chat room.

We need to keep in mind that listening doesn't mean acquiescing. Samantha Smith didn't wear the red scarf of communism when she visited that Young Pioneers camp on her trip, nor should we accept statements that are bigoted or wrong. Likewise, we would expect them to correct our misconceptions and prejudices. We lose nothing by opening communications and gain everything by ironing out differences and start lifting ourselves out of the current downward spiral of accusation and invective. We don't expect to agree on everything, but through dialogue, we can work out common solutions.

History has proven repeatedly that the best way to stop your enemies is to make them your friends. So, whether you are in San Francisco, Newark, or Louisville, or whether you are in Jenin, Riyadh, or Abu Dhabi, it is time for the Samantha Smiths of the world to step forward and make their voices heard.

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