As I watched the lines of people waiting to dip their fingers in a pot of ink and vote for the first time in their lives I could not help remembering a time long ago in West Berlin.
I wish we could all put aside our politics for just one moment and celebrate the courage of the people standing in line so they could put their finger into a pot of ink and vote for the first time in their lives. It does not matter if you think the war was a good idea or a terrible idea. It doesn’t matter if you were for Bush or Kerry. Let’s take a minute to celebrate their courage and their joy on the first day in their lives where their opinions mattered to anybody.
I was especially touched by the photos showing long lines of women in the traditional black garments I have seen so many times on my 100 or so trips to the Gulf region over the past 30 years.
I have no illusions that peace and light will break out in Iraq now they have held an election. There is too much oil wealth in Iraq; its geography is too strategically important, and its ability to defend itself is too low. Violence will continue and somebody’s army will be in Iraq for a very long time. But it is a very good day.
This is the second time in my life I have been able to witness such a day. When I was 18 years old I somehow thought it was a good idea to spend a year living in West Berlin. Temporary insanity I guess. I told my parents I was going there to study. And I guess there was a little truth in it—I enrolled in classes at the infamous Freie Universitat Berlin. According to my memory, I never actually attended a class; my schedule was too full for that luxury. The clubs opened at 6PM, and didn’t close until 6AM which, allowing for breakfast and dinner, I viewed as a full time job.
My first taste of East Germany was when my train was stopped in the night so that armed guards with dogs could search the undercarriages of the cars for East Germans trying to escape. My friends and I rented an apartment in Alt Buckow, a tiny village in the southernmost sector of Berlin, nestled right under the searchlights of the Berlin Wall. Actually, it wasn’t a wall in our sector—that was only downtown for the TV cameras. It was a 12 foot high metal fence, then a mine field, then search lights, motion detectors, sirens, guard towers with automatic-firing machine guns.
We walked along the wall every evening, trying to strike up conversations with the East German soldiers. They rarely risked a word. Some nights we were woken by sirens and gunfire. Altogether, the guards killed some 5000 people trying to cross the wall–Die Mauer–into West Berlin.
I have only been back to Berlin once. In November, 1989, I heard that students in Berlin were hacking holes in the wall. I boarded a plane, bought a hammer, and spent two days beating Die Mauer to dust. I still have pieces of colorful, asbestos-laden cement on my dresser at home so that I never forget.
So let’s take a break from politics and celebrate the courage and joy of the Iraqi people on their first election day. And let’s make sure that we never forget the freedoms we enjoy here every day.