We landed in Honduras with trepidation and curiosity about the murder capital of the world. San Pedro Sula offered us a quick, cheap vacation combining eco-tourism with the chance to swim with the elusive whale shark. But family members, even my boss at the State Department, all questioned our judgment. My own organization had recently issued the U.S. government’s 12 paragraph travel warning about Honduras being a place where “criminals operate with a high degree of impunity” and “kidnappings and extortion are common.” With so many resort towns and jungles in the Caribbean, couldn’t we pick a place where 880 people hadn’t been killed that year?
The United States government issues similar warnings and advisories for dozens of countries. It’s our government’s way of helping U.S. citizens make informed decisions about where to spend their hard-earned time and money. The list includes warnings for obvious places such as Iraq, Bangladesh, and Turkey, countries whose violent events we are all too well aware of in recent days.
So imagine the cognitive dissonance of the U.S. being the target of a similar notice this weekend from, of all places, the Bahamas, followed quickly by warnings from the Middle East countries the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and most recently our Tolkien supporting friends in New Zealand.
The Bahamians took “note of the recent tensions in some American cities over shootings of young black males by police officers.” The country, whose citizens are mostly of African descent (read: black), urged its people to take “caution generally” and “in particular young males” to “exercise extreme caution in their interactions with the police.”
The Bahamas isn’t a culture known for it’s speed and efficiency, yet how quickly they recognized and articulated something we in America still struggle to recognize today. As the de-facto policemen of the world, here we are being criticized for how we police our own people.
LOOKING OUT ON THE WORLD
The notices other countries issue about us are usually of the beware-of-scheduling-beach-vacations-during-hurricane-season variety. By contrast, the U.S. government goes beyond travel warnings about local weather and crime statistics when issuing determinations about other countries.
The U.S. runs regular audits of the status of human rights and religious freedom in countries, the latter topic an annual review mandated by Congress. The U.S. leads the United Nations system, regularly monitoring and holding to task individuals for crimes and regimes for brutality against their citizens. When the UN system fails to take action in response to these injustices, the U.S. government imposes economic sanctions that cripple individual fortunes and entire national economies. All of these are voluntary actions signaling our moral leadership to the world. We lead by example.
TURNING THE LENS INWARDS
The world takes note of what happens in the U.S. With media dubbing 2015 the year of mass shootings, other Western countries warned their citizens about travel to the U.S. The Brits are famous for strict gun regulations and having unarmed police officers. Our neighbor Canada stated “firearms and the frequency of violent crime” is “more prevalent” in the U.S. The Germans cautioned against the relative ease of obtaining guns and freewheeling nature of Americans. And the French warned “with [U.S.] police, it is imperative… not to raise your voice and avoid sudden or aggressive gestures.” (Those from cultures where people talk with their hands, beware!)
Our fellow industrialized, first-world nations are warning their people to be wary not just of petty crime in tourist hot spots, but to be afraid of average American citizens and the people expected to protect them.
The Bahamas travel advisory and its bluntness about the dangers facing American black men doesn’t sit right with our perceptions of who we are as Americans, but neither should the statistics that serve as the basis for these warnings.
It reads like something we would say about… Honduras.
Travel warnings provide a cold assessment without the lens of national pride or cultural nuance we use on ourselves. When a country as benign and reliant on U.S. tourism as the Bahamas feels it is more important to protect its citizens than pay lip-service to U.S. power, it is time to turn the lens inwards.
We’ve aired other countries’ dirty laundry for years, let’s not be hypocritical when it comes to acknowledging our own.
The author is a former White House Senior Director and State Department spokesperson.