BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : AUGUST 16, 1999 ISSUE
COVER STORY

Commentary: Guns Are Wounding America's Image Abroad


The images are graphic, heartrending, and all too familiar. The victims' bodies. The grainy photo of the killer. The funerals. The weeping survivors. The drama of the Atlanta massacre perpetrated by a disgruntled day trader plays itself out endlessly on the television screens of America. But there's something that Americans often forget. The rest of the world is watching, too, and wondering what kind of a role model America actually is.

As Americans debate with renewed passion the pros and cons of gun control, they should remember what an impact this issue has overseas. Foreign countries love many things American. The transoceanic triumph of American marketing icons such as Nike, Coke, and Levi's is familiar stuff. Of more recent vintage and far more significant is the gradual, grudging adoption of America's economic icons. It involves the full range of shareholder rights, individualism, and the energizing, transformative power of free markets. No country has swallowed this American model whole, and many foreign leaders are still opposed to it. But it's fair to say that the rhetoric of American economic freedom is asserting a greater pull overseas than it ever has done before. This vision of capitalism's benefits is one of the great American psychological exports.

DEADLY BY-PRODUCT. But then there's Atlanta. And Littleton, Colo., where two teenagers shot and killed classmates. And other mayhem in the shopping malls, city streets, and hamlets of America, much of it fueled by the widespread ownership of guns. That vision of violent America subtly corrodes the country's influence abroad. When Europeans and Asians see these frightening images, they are not just seeing terrible tragedies. They are also seeing evidence that America's fanatical obsession with open markets and personal freedoms can have a deadly by-product that no self-respecting Frenchman or Japanese would ever want in his land. And if the American way can be fatal, why adopt any part of the American way at all?

Sure, such sentiments may be grossly unfair and simplistic. For starters, Europeans and Asians often love the graphic cinematic violence that Hollywood projects on screens around the world. And despite the horrifying events in Atlanta, crime rates in America have actually fallen to 1973 levels, gun control or no gun control. The long economic expansion delivered by free markets has helped drive those crime rates down. Meanwhile, crime is rising in Europe and Japan, although to nowhere near U.S. levels.

But in the electronic echo chamber of the global mass media, such rational arguments easily crumble before the repeated images of real-world American violence. The horror those images provoke feeds the latent fear and resentment of America that exists in many quarters of the world.

Many leaders hostile to U.S. influence are ready to exploit that fear. In Malaysia, one writer in the New Sunday Times, deflecting U.S. criticism of the trial of ex-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, wondered why anyone would listen to these objections, considering where they came from. ''In the U.S., there are as many guns as there are 7-Eleven outlets,'' he quipped, adding that possession of illegal firearms can earn you the death penalty in Malaysia.

BLOODY COVERAGE. The stakes get much bigger when you look at Japan and Europe. There are vital U.S. economic interests in seeing these trading partners embrace globalization. Yet in Tokyo, the more ghastly U.S. crime stories get more media coverage than the news of America's record gross domestic product. It's small wonder, then, that the most conservative elements of Japanese society are ambivalent about U.S.-style reform. ''We want to change, but not to the winner-take-all American system,'' says one insider at the Finance Ministry. That's the type of system, in the eyes of many Japanese, that also unleashes violence indiscriminately.

The truth is, many people overseas think there is something a bit off in the U.S. circa 1999. Yes, the U.S. economy has had a terrific run. But that doesn't expunge the revulsion at the permissive U.S. gun laws that allow deranged individuals to kill innocents. It's time for Americans, regardless of their political persuasion on gun control, to take into account how the world sees them. Europeans and Asians know they are going to have to accept American influence. But they want that influence to be as sane and helpful as possible, and they have every right to think that way. It's only natural that the tenor of the ongoing gun-control debate will have a strong effect on the American image abroad.

By Brian Bremner

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Commentary: Guns Are Wounding America's Image Abroad



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