N.Y. Times’ Friedman draws overflow crowd
July 3, 2002
New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman was introduced Tuesday evening as a “rock star journalist.”
And to the 500-some people left standing outside as Friedman began his free Aspen Institute lecture, it was all too clear that Elvis was in the building, but they were not.
Friedman quickly apologized to those who waited in line to hear his “Reflections on the World Today” but instead were turned away. And then the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner shared with the packed house in Harris Hall the answers to the questions he has heard the most since Sept. 11.
The No. 1 question that he has been asked, and that he has asked himself, is “Who were those 19 hijackers, what produced them, and what motivated them?”
One aspect of the answer is that the men were comprised of two groups of people, Saudis and “Europeans.” The Saudis, Friedman said, were the “muscle guys in the back of the plane” who may have only known that they were taking part in “a martyrdom operation.”
But it was the “Europeans” who flew the planes and “drove the plot.”
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Friedman explained, in his clear and direct manner that attracts so many readers to his twice-weekly syndicated column, that the Saudis were the result of a youthful culture in Saudi Arabia that has too little work and too much time on its hands. As a result, they spend time listening to radical preachers denounce the modern ways of the United States.
“There is a huge sitting-around factor in Saudi Arabia,” Friedman said, noting that 70 percent of the nation’s population is under the age of 30.
That was a micro explanation for what might have lead the young Saudis to participate in the attack. The macro explanation is that a pervasive “circle of bin Ladenism” is at work in many Islamic countries today.
That circle consists of dictatorial regimes supporting “anti-modernist religious educators” who deprive young people of the skills they need to succeed in the global economy. That leads to more poverty which reinforces the harsh regimes’ grip on power.
Friedman calls the Saudis who led the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon “Europeans” because they were not converted to radical Islam until they left Saudi Arabia and began attending mosques in segregated Islamic neighborhoods in Europe.
The reason that anti-Israel, anti-American fervor is easy to whip up in Europe, Friedman said, is because of how Islam is often positioned in the mosques against Judaism and Christianity.
Muslims believe that Islam is the most refined form of monotheism. Or to put it in computer terms, Friedman explained that Judaism is seen by many Muslims as God, version 1.0, Christianity is seen as God 2.0, and that Islam is God 3.0.
And yet, when young men from Saudi Arabia come to Europe and see that God 1.0 and God 2.0 have produced more powerful and wealthier societies, “somebody has to explain that.” And the explanation given by Osama bin Laden and others is that, somehow, God 1.0 and God 2.0 have taken something away from God 3.0.
Which leads to the second most frequently posed question to Friedman, “How do we deal with that?”
“We need to kill bin Laden,” Friedman said. “And it is very important that we … see him be killed” to show his young Arab followers that attacks on the U.S. will have consequences.
Friedman noted that violence doesn’t solve everything, but in the case of killing bin Laden, “That actually could solve a lot.”
However, killing “bin Ladenism” is another task, Friedman said. Instead of a “hateful, vengeful, backward-looking” leader, there must be a “fair, Islamic, progressive leader” to offer another vision of the future to a surging population of young Muslims.
And, he said, America can help produce that leader by being the “best global citizen we can be,” which includes taking such actions as embracing the Kyoto Accord to slow global warming and supporting international bodies such as the United Nations and an international court.
But changing how many Muslims see America won’t be easy.
“Anti-Americanism is more of a global sport than soccer,” he said. “It’s too much fun to give up.”
And he said Americans are “gonna have to grow up a little” and “accept a higher level of risk in our lives.” He suggested that Americans avoid taking in too much information about potential attacks and try and thrive, not just survive.
“We need to go on living our lives,” he said.
Another frequent question that Friedman is asked is “How is 9/11 changing geopolitics and politics?”
One way is that the attack has pushed America to an even more important place in world affairs. “We are the straw that stirs the drink,” he said. “We are a hugely important force for order in the world today.”
Of the columns he has written since Sept. 11, Friedman said two in particular have provoked the most response, “Ask Not What …” and another called “Let’s Roll.”
In those columns, and on the podium last night, Friedman said that President Bush was squandering a huge opportunity to mobilize the country to do something in response to Sept. 11 beyond just going shopping, as Bush asked Americans to keep doing shortly after the attacks.
Friedman said he believed there was no greater project the president could urge upon Americans than to embrace energy conservation in order to reduce our dependence on Islamic oil.
And, he said, “It’s not too late” for Bush to make that plea.
Many in the crowd in Harris Hall had driven large cars to the lecture, but they nonetheless heartily applauded Friedman’s call to use less oil.
In regard to the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinians, Friedman said it was imperative that Israel somehow take steps to stop making it easy for Islamic television stations to beam images of Israelis killing Palestinians to the huge number of disaffected youth in Arab countries.
“There is enormous anger at Israelis, Americans and Jews,” Friedman said. “And Israel needs to do whatever it can to get this show off the air.”
And that may mean troops from America and other countries going to the region to try to stabilize the currently explosive situation.
“I’m convinced this is where this will end,” he said.
Friedman ended his well-received lecture by reading from a diary he has kept since Sept. 11. In the diary, he recounted how he watched the attacks on New York and Washington from Israel, a place his daughters didn’t want him to go because of the dangers involved.
“My family thought I was at Ground Zero by being in Jerusalem, and it turned out to be the other way around,” Friedman said.
[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]