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We must learn ways to build bridges
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Forsyth County News
I’ve often felt that it would be wonderful if every young American had the opportunity to travel abroad. It’s not just for the new sights and experiences. Traveling into foreign lands and exposure to other cultures gives one great insights into one’s own environment.

For most Americans, one result is a deeper appreciation for what we have, how it came about, and what it takes to sustain a very different way of life from what most other countries experience. But there are also lessons to be learned and exposure to new ideas.

My wife, Beverly, and I recently came back from a trip to a number of countries that formerly comprised the nation of Yugoslavia. We were there as tourists, traveling by car with two friends through most of Croatia and Slovenia, with side trips into Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. We spent a delightful three weeks exploring the region, seeing the sights, and talking with the people (including some of our own embassy personnel). Among the many impressions that I took away, one stands out as especially striking -- and one from which we might learn.

The region has a complex history going back several thousands of years. At different times it was part of various empires, served as the battle ground for warring factions, and consisted of many separate political divisions. After World War II, under the dynamic leadership of Josip Broz Tito, it was forged into a single nation, but immediately after his death, in 1980, signs of unraveling became apparent. The population is largely divided among three religious groups: Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim. And in the 1990s for a variety of religious, economic and political reasons, the region erupted into violent civil war, sadly, among other things, imbedding the term “ethnic cleansing” into our vocabulary.

The 1990s were not that long ago. Although the primary objective of our trip was pleasure, we were also interested in what has happened since then, and what residue remained from these dire years.

In some ways, what took place paralleled events from our own Civil War. For example, when Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, the Yugoslavian army was ordered to attack, including the bombing of civilian targets. But many members of that Army were from Croatia and they were being asked to attack their loved ones. Racial and religious differences played a strong role, and events in Kosovo made daily news headlines here and abroad.

As we wandered through the land, we were very aware of recent history. But I was amazed at how much had been repaired. It was not just the physical, but also the psychological damage. There are still disputes in the area (for example, Croatia and Slovenia both lay claim to an important piece of territory). But the animosities we expected were in little evidence.

We were there for pleasure, not for research, so it is very “unscientific” to generalize, but we spoke to enough people to come away with both surprise and respect for how much of what took place has been relegated to unfortunate history and how much has been done to rebuild relationships.

One of the cities we visited was Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unlike Slovenia (which suffered little damage) and Croatia (where most of the damage has been repaired), bombed out buildings are still much in evidence.

One of the landmarks of the city was the picturesque “old bridge.” It was built by Suleiman the Magnificent, in the 1500s to span the Neretva River, which bisects the town. At the time, it was the widest manmade arch in the world, and it stood as a proud symbol where people of different religions lived in peace -- until 1993. At that time, battle lines were drawn on either side of the river and the bridge, which had stood for more than 400 years, was destroyed.

It has been rebuilt, closely replicating the original design. And surprisingly, at least to me, so has the spirit of the town. Tourists pour in to enjoy not only the picturesque sights but a positive and friendly atmosphere. And locals we spoke to proudly talk about the healing that has taken place, rather than expressing rancor and animosity. I’m sure that there are still residual feelings from the past, but they seem to be making an excellent effort to put this behind. The bridge once again stands in all its splendor as a symbol of that effort.

Immediately upon returning to the U.S., we were barraged in the news with the incredibly sharp political divisions that are starting to become characteristic of this nation. Republicans all vote as a block against anything supported by the Democrats and vice versa. I find it hard to believe that so many people within either group actually see things the exact same way. Many of the primary campaigns seemed to set new standards for nastiness. And despite the fact that I don’t know of anyone who condones vicious, libelous political campaigns, they go on, seemingly in escalating fashion. Why? Because the political polls show, and the politicians believe that it works, which means that you and I buy into this horrible process.

Somehow, I think there is a lesson here to be learned from the people of Mostar. We have to find ways to rebuild the bridges. We can’t let extreme partisanship tear us apart. We have to find a way to behave more civilly to one another. I am constantly amazed by the enormous number of e-mails I received, sent by educated people and people who I respect, that resonate with fabricated stories designed to stir up feelings of anger and hatred. Why is it so easy to get people to believe extremes, and fabricated extremes at that?

Again, the bridge in Mostar is symbolic. But it seems to be symbolic of a rebirth -- an attempt to put things back on the right path. Can’t we find ways to build similar bridges? Here we are, the most powerful nation the world has ever seen, with enormous resources, wonderful traditions of diverse people working together, and a personal ethic system which, for so many years, has helped us progress. But unless we can recapture some of the spirit of the past, we are likely to find ourselves on a downward path.

Next time we find ourselves (and here I am talking about each of us as individuals) in a controversial situation, let’s not try to “win,” but instead, to build bridges. My sense is that the long-term rewards will far outweigh any satisfaction that might come from a one-sided, short-term victory.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at melcopen@hotmail.com.