Other people's violence is not a deep concern for most of us, particularly if it occurs in remote Africa or overpopulated Asia. But the outbreak of tribal killings and widespread rioting in Kenya hits me where I live.
Rather, it hits me where I lived. The upheaval threatens to put Nairobi on a list of foreign capitals where I once resided or visited regularly but which have become dangerous ground for foreign tourists or business people, journalists and, in many cases, the local population. A curtain of violence and of hostility toward outsiders has fallen over many parts of my journalistic history.
So when Kenya seems to be collapsing, I take it personally. It revives memories of seeing Lebanon tear itself apart around me, or watching from a distance as Algiers, Tehran, Baghdad, Mogadishu, Khartoum, Harare and a few of the other places I traveled to as a young foreign correspondent have been enveloped by long nights of horrific destruction, xenophobic revolution or both.
The list is not exhaustive, nor, as you may have suspected, is it truly just about my own experiences living or working in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. I cite it to make the point that the world increasingly needs to take the number of failing capitals personally -- and to commit more international resources and energy to helping struggling nations right themselves.
The forces of globalization and of immediate, intrusive electronic communication have connected the lives of Americans and Europeans much more closely to the people of the developing world -- on the surface. But the increase in communication has not been matched by an increase in understanding of the Third World's dilemmas or a commitment to help resolve them.
As my own accounting of "lost" places suggests, the march toward stability and prosperity that the end of the colonial era seemed to promise has lagged or disappeared in many areas. Colleagues would add Kabul and Rangoon to the inventory of turmoil in parts previously known. Islamabad is racing toward making the roll call of dysfunction and despair.
It is premature to compare Nairobi at this point to those other, more tumultuous capitals. But most of them -- as Nairobi certainly did -- originally had serious chances to succeed as workable or even important regional or international centers of governance, and they failed. Nairobi must now avoid their mistakes if it is to avoid their fate.
Kenya heralded the bright outlook of the post-colonial era by gaining independence from Britain in 1963 and adopting pragmatic economic policies that attracted foreign investors and persuaded white settlers to keep their money, skills and families there.
When I arrived in Kenya six years later on my first foreign assignment for The Post, Jomo Kenyatta presided over a country blessed with not only great natural beauty but also a relatively efficient national infrastructure.
But violence ran just beneath the surface of Kenyan politics. Kenyatta's Kikuyu tribesmen spearheaded the Mau Mau rebellion and gained a political dominance after independence that they have never been willing to share with the Luo, the country's other large tribe. (Or with dissident Kikuyu politicians for that matter, who were either assassinated or silenced by the Kikuyu establishment.) This month's revenge killings and violent street protests by Luo mobs were sparked by what independent accounts portray as the theft of the national election by President Mwai Kibaki's government, which appeared to be losing to a Luo-backed opposition party. Luo anger has been stoked by brutal police repression and the failure of foreign governments or the United Nations to bring pressure on Kibaki to deal in good faith with the Luos to resolve the crisis or to seek national reconciliation.
Unfortunately for aggrieved Kenyans, the nation's most serious troubles in its brief modern history arrive at a moment when international outrage is spread thin in Darfur, the Middle East, Iraq and elsewhere. The United Nations' unsuccessful struggle with Sudan to send into Darfur peacekeeping units that can protect themselves suggests that the once proudly proclaimed "duty to protect" abused citizens from their own governments is degenerating into something like the duty to scold.
This time developments in Kenya may herald the onset of a new, much unhappier era -- one that will be marked by the total breakdown of the post-colonial structures that attempted to recognize African, Arab and Asian nationalism while protecting Western economic and political interests. If the Kenyans cannot make this formula work, it is hard to see how other, less prosperous nations can.