adies and gentlemen:
I thought I'd begin by telling you a little about my day last September 11th. I'm a New Yorker at least by adoption. I come from the state of Michigan, but I've lived and worked in New York for the last several years.
September 11th, 2001, was an election day in New York perhaps fittingly. The gulf between the U.S. and its enemies is great, not least in the freedoms that Americans enjoy. I went to vote in the New York mayoral primary. And then I walked to work, south toward the World Trade Center or where the towers had been. The smoke in the sky was ghastly; the color of the sky was ghastly; but worst of all was that you could see sky only sky, where these immense towers, full of human beings, had been.
It was strange to be in a city under attack. I thought I might experience this once in my life as a war correspondent (something I've never been). But in my own country, my own city? No. This does something to a journalist, as well as to any other citizen: to be in a city under attack, from an enemy committed to your ultimate destruction.
September 11th was a so-called "production day" at my magazine we had to get the magazine out so I wasn't able to follow the news as I would have wanted to. But I kept receiving the most extraordinary bulletins. Nothing less than war had begun. In time, a smell a hideous, ungodly smell came through my windows; it was blowing from the towers, a couple of miles away. That was unnerving. So was the news that an acquaintance of mine a friend of many at our magazine had been on the plane that was crashed into the Pentagon. Our friend had done everything in her power, via her cell phone, to avert that attack.
You will understand that, though I may be a journalist, I'm far from a neutralist. Our president has said, "You're either for us or against us." This has been denounced as simplistic; I would call it clear.
All of us my colleagues and I were a little shaken, of course. But we were also weirdly energized. We were filled with purpose. It's almost shameful to say, but rarely had one felt so alive. We felt that we were given something truly important to cover, something truly important to think about, to struggle with. Most journalism, as you know, is mundane: We cover the most recent election, the most recent policy initiative, the most recent diplomatic contretemps. But this was world-defining, and we wanted to get it right.
I've been asked to say something about professional obligations, ethical obligations. Immediately, it seemed to me that the obvious one was to tell the truth. To discover the truth to the extent possible, and to tell it unflinchingly. This was not a time for squirming or shading or equivocating. It wasn't a time for delicacy or fear or what is known, at least in America, as "political correctness." It was a time for hard, cold realism. Feelings or somebody's notion of feelings weren't to be spared. With so many dead around you, and that stench continuing to fill your office, other people's feelings weren't the most important thing in the world.
Above all, I think that covering and commenting on this war has meant an end to pretending an end to pretending that everyone's a friend, or potential friend, that every grievance is just, that a certain kind of hatred can be appeased, that America is to be blamed for humanity's woes, that radical Islam is just another viewpoint, that there is never right and wrong, only personal subjectivity. When the prime minister of Italy said that a free, open, pluralistic society is better than a closed, stifled, lied-to one, everyone professed shock and indignation. This is the kind of pretending that gets harder to do.
It occurred to me on 9/11 and after that this was a time for true colors: Everyone was showing his true colors. I thought of the phrase "in vino veritas" after a bit of the grape, people tend to reveal themselves. So it was after the attacks. The sadness and outrage were terribly real; and the gloating and jubilation were terribly real. I will never forget the sight of people dancing and ululating on the streets of the Middle East. I will never forget the reports of Arab Americans in Brooklyn cheering that was heartbreaking. Less than a year before, I'd been in Egypt, for an extended stay. Now I was seeing cabbies rejoicing in Cairo squares, some of them shouting, "Bullseye!" I had perhaps been in the cabs of some of those very drivers. That, too, left an impression.
But understand them, people say. And one does: But sometimes understanding is not comforting, or flattering to the understood.
A further personal item: A friend of mine in Alexandria sent me an e-mail. She's as educated, as Westernized, as liberal a person as you're likely to find in that great city. Has traveled all over the world, speaks perfect English and French, lectures at the university etc. She wrote and said, "Oh, I'm so sorry. I hope you're all right. I hope you know that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda couldn't possibly have done this. It must have been the Jews."
If this woman was in the grip of such delusion, what chance did the man in the street have? It was time for a reckoning with the Arab world.
True colors appeared in America as well. Nowhere were they more visible than in New York. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there were few pacifists and anti-patriots in New York. People who didn't think of themselves as America-loving suddenly found that they were that their society and way of life were worth preserving, worth defending. Hard-bitten leftists found themselves flying the flag. One famous leftist wouldn't, but her daughter insisted on it. The mother said, "Okay, but only from your own room."
Many of us hoped that terrorism and radicalism would become less chic, and less excused. On the very day of the attacks September the 11th the New York Times published a glowing piece about Billy Ayers. Ayers is a famous domestic terrorist, a member of what was called the Weather Underground. Among their deeds, amazingly enough, was the bombing of the Pentagon. These people have been lionized by much of our elite press for many years. But now it was beginning to be embarrassing. (Incidentally, when Ayers was acquitted in our courts of law, he said, "Guilty as sin, free as a bird. What a country, America!")
It seemed to me that it was incumbent on us to reexamine a great many things: not just obvious things, like military preparedness, counter-terrorism, and intelligence; but some less obvious things, like immigration and assimilation, the character of alliances, and the state of our journalism.
It was impossible not to glance backward somewhat. Many people many of us, I might say had warned for years about Islamic extremism and militancy. Also about state harborers and abettors of terrorists. In 1993, the World Trade Center itself was bombed, but only a few died. Everyone kind of shuddered, and then promptly forgot about it. Our men were murdered in the Khobar Towers, on Saudi soil. Many more people were murdered at the U.S. embassies in Africa. Then, the U.S.S. Cole, in Yemen, was attacked. And yet these incidents were far away, and, besides, weren't most of the dead soldiers? They were in a dangerous business anyway.
But this thinking itself was dangerous. Some people said, at the time of the Cole, that this was not an act of terror there's a vague word, "terror" but an act of war, and ought to be treated as such. And yet the U.S. did little; there was a collective shrug. And that undoubtedly emboldened America's enemies for more. A colleague of mine pointed out the old French expression, "L'appetit vient en mangeant." Appetite comes with eating. So it proved.
We were forced to think about the costs of appeasement, and looking the other way. I couldn't help recalling Italy and the Achille Lauro affair. You remember: Terrorists hijacked a cruise liner, and threw Leon Klinghoffer, who was bound to a wheelchair, into the sea for the sole reason that he was a Jew. The United States managed to capture these terrorists, but they were jailed in Italy and rather quickly released, one by one, until there were no more. Mrs. Klinghoffer at least had the satisfaction of spitting in their faces literally spitting in their faces during their brief confinement.
I must warn you that Americans, at this hour, are in a spitting mood.
And then, there was that thorny question of immigration, or, more to the point, assimilation. What is a free society to do? How do you handle people who come to America, or Holland, not to be American or Dutch, but to pursue jihad? You handle them harshly, I would think. But then, you have to safeguard civil liberties. Everyone knows there's work to be done in the Middle East but there's work to be done in Michigan, too, and in Hamburg. Journalists should help investigate this problem: but to do so is to invite charges of racism and xenophobia. These charges, at this juncture, should have no sting.
One great pressing need, after 9/11, was to understand the Muslim world. Strangely enough, the United States is often accused of being an arrogant and self-absorbed nation. I must say that I don't see it that way: It seems to me that we're the most self-questioning, self-critical, self-flagellating nation on earth. If there are other candidates, I'd love to hear about them. Americans rushed to read the Koran. Classes in Middle Eastern Studies filled up. Every expert and near-expert and would-be expert in the land got himself on television.
I, for one, found it necessary to reacquaint myself with those who had been the most unflinching about the Middle East who'd been the most clear-eyed, the most honest, the bravest. There was my colleague David Pryce-Jones, the British journalist, author of The Closed Circle. There was the great Bernard Lewis, dean of Middle East historians, but always out of favor with radicals. There was the late Elie Kedouri, a Jew from Iraq, whose very life told some of the story of the 20th-century Middle East. And then there was Fouad Ajami, and Daniel Pipes, and that incredibly brave Iraqi dissident, Kanan Makiya, who wrote The Republic of Fear. It did not seem a time to pay heed to the usual suspects, the ones whose constant and only song is West-blaming.
And it was absolutely critical to discover what Arabs were saying among themselves. What was in their newspapers, and school textbooks, and sermons? What was on their televisions? For too long, the Arab world had been dark to us. It was time to let in some light. Many Arab leaders Yasser Arafat, for example had for decades been playing a double game: saying one thing to the West, in English, and quite a different thing at home, in Arabic. Take just one example: After September 11th, Chairman Arafat made a great show of giving blood, for the injured, presumably, in New York and Washington. He called the cameras in, and they duly disseminated the pictures all over the West. He expressed his sympathy. But at the same time, his official organs were hailing the attacks as a great and noble act. How did we know this?
This is where the Middle East Media Research Institute came in. This is a group, found at MEMRI.org, dedicated to the translation of raw materials from the Middle East. So often has MEMRI been referred to as "the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute," I have joked that "the invaluable" has become part of its name. Its presence means that the double game can't be played with such ease anymore. Many of us in the American media have been relying on the institute's translations: It's a way not to be ignorant.
May I cite another example? After the attacks, the leading imam in New York, an Egyptian named Muhammad al-Gameia, said all the right, soothing things; he participated in interreligious ceremonies; and he stood as an example of humane Islam. Then he went home to Egypt, to Al-Azhar University, and gave the most remarkable interview: The Jews had done this, and the media were covering it up; Arabs were being shot on the streets, with the police doing nothing; Arab-Americans were afraid to take their children to hospitals, because the Jewish doctors there would poison them; Hitler, of blessed memory, hadn't gone far enough the whole routine. This is the same man who had been all sweetness and light, in English, in New York.
He was found out we were able to find out only because of the MEMRI group. And this brought up another point: It was time to take a fanatical, murderous anti-Semitism in the Middle East seriously, at long last. No more closing our ears, as we had at Durban, only days before the attacks. A famous Middle East scholar once said to me, "You know, the Islamic world is full of Mein Kampfs little Mein Kampfs. For example, the ayatollah Khomeini wrote one. But no one knows it." Come to think of it, the foreign minister of Syria has published a book articulating the ancient blood libel. This is something to come to grips with.
I stress over and over, in my work, the need to take Arabs and Muslims seriously: to hear what they're saying, to credit them with meaning what they say. To do otherwise is to be condescending, at best. I further believe that we should do all we can to promote democrats and reformers in the Islamic world. This, in fact, is part of the mission of the Middle East Media Research Institute. Recently, a lot of us have been writing about Saad Ibrahim, the Egyptian human-rights activist sentenced to seven years' hard labor. This is in one of the more benign countries, mind you to which the United States contributes billions a year. Those who care about Arab people don't make excuses for the systems under which they live; they want them to be free of tyranny, corruption, illusions, and war.
I must say that I've become less patient in the last year less patient with an unthinking anti-Americanism; less patient with an absurd moral equivalence, or abdication, in the mainstream media. Shortly after September 11th, the head of ABC News declared that it wasn't for him to say whether the attack on the Pentagon was justified. (After criticism, he backtracked.) The New York Times published an article about a homicide-bomber and one of her victims: "Two Young Lives," said the headline, "United in Tragedy." Famous intellectuals like Guenter Grass declared that 9/11 represented the comeuppance of the rich.
This is the sort of thing for which all my patience is spent. I think a robust even bristling impatience is now the appropriate stance.
On this anniversary, I've been thinking, too, about complacency about the lure of it, and the need to resist it. There have been no additional September 11ths in the last twelve months, true. But we've had some near-misses. Has it been a matter of luck, particularly lucky police work? An attack was foiled in Singapore. The police in Rome discovered a plot having to do with the Via Veneto, where the American Embassy is. What about Richard Reid, the so-called shoe-bomber? How many minutes away was he from slaughtering hundreds of people in mid-air? How about the so-called "dirty bomber," Padilla, captured in Chicago? What about this couple in Heidelberg? And so on. I think of that chilling maxim that terrorists have long recited: "You have to be lucky all the time; we have to be lucky only once."
Many, I know, view America as obsessed and misguided. I would say that America is obsessed, but not misguided. We're obsessed with our own defense, our own preservation and our own awareness of the dangers that lurk in the world. Secretary Rumsfeld likes to say that this is not a war of retaliation, retribution, or revenge they are the three wrong R's. No, it's a war of self-defense. Our enemies have already killed us in the thousands, and they have vowed to kill thousands more. As there is no real, traditional defense against this sort of thing, one's only option is to wage war even in the face of criticism and ill wishes.
Of course, America's wars aren't for America's benefit only. Who can forget or have people forgotten already the images from Kabul, Afghanistan, where music was heard for the first time in years? Where men and boys played soccer on execution grounds? Where women could know the simple pleasure of putting one's face to the sun? I can't help thinking that Bernard Lewis is right: If America went on to liberate Iraq and Iran, the images in Baghdad and Teheran would make those in Kabul look funereal.
Back to the American scene for a brief moment. Not long after September 11th, I was moderating at a forum that included Vernon Walters, the American general and diplomat, since deceased. I asked a basic question: What do we owe the dead? What do we owe the murdered of 9/11? He answered, "That it never happen again." That is, that we take the steps necessary to ensure, insofar as possible, that it never happen again. This is what is heavy on my mind on this anniversary, and heavy on the minds of other Americans.
America is a much more popular nation worldwide than some elites suppose, or would wish. Not long ago, I heard V. S. Naipaul say that the Third World masses are united in one thing: the desire for a green card. While Americans are happy to be popular, they'd much rather be safe. And they accept the grim necessity of the war we are waging, even as they did in pivotal moments past.
I have spoken very bluntly today. As you can tell, I'm a journalist an opinion journalist not a diplomat! But I trust that you wouldn't have wanted it otherwise. There was no point in traveling thousands of miles merely to chat lightly.