Tumult in the tent | AspenTimes.com

Tumult in the tent

Chad Abraham

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman speaks to a group Thursday at Explore Booksellers. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

An evening of music and words. It sounds so serene.But all was not genteel at Wednesday evening’s Aspen Institute event involving New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman.When a member of the audience asked the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer about America’s culpability in the Sept. 11 attacks, the man was booed loudly by several people in the bleachers at the Benedict Music Tent.Friedman also reacted, in a manner described as either angry or impassioned, depending on one’s point of view.Chris Walling, of Aspen, who has been a member of the Institute’s Society of Fellows for 12 years, attended the gathering. He said Friedman “went ballistic. And of course he had practically the entire audience with him.”

Another audience member complained that she and her companion had paid $150 to hear a distinguished author. What they attended, however, was “a political rally,” she said.The man who started the tumult in the tent introduced himself as a local psychologist, Walling said. While he was asking his question, “there was a lot of screaming from the bleachers. They tried to shout him down. It was ugly,” he said. “The real question the psychologist was asking was could Friedman speak to our own part in creating the current problem.”It was unfortunate that the level of discourse broke down, he said, “especially at an Aspen Institute thing.”Friedman called the incident “a day at the beach” compared to other events he has attended.Aspen Institute spokesman Jim Spiegelman said the questioner was going on too long and failing to arrive at a point. “And people were frustrated by it.”About 2,000 people paid $75 or $50 for tickets to the second annual event. The goal of such talks is to engender “civil dialogue. The ability to listen as well as talk about issues,” Spiegelman said. “[Booing] is not something we foster.”

He said Friedman was politely waiting for the questioner to finish. But he agreed that the columnist was visibly upset after the question, in which the man contended that America is responsible for the problems it faces around the world.”Tom [grew] rather passionate in his response and as a result, the audience, too, responded rather passionately,” Spiegelman said.Faulting America on every issue is a “contemptible view,” Friedman said Thursday before a book-signing at Explore Booksellers. “The view is that the people out there are just objects, we are the subjects. And everything that happens to them is what we the subjects do to the objects. The objects have no responsibility, they have no initiative, they have no aspirations or craziness of their own. It’s all about us, and therefore it’s all about Bush. I don’t buy that argument at all.”Asked if he saw any aspect of America’s global role as a cause for terrorism, he said, “I just don’t think that’s what it’s about.”The first part of his talk Wednesday centered on oil and how “we’ve been treating that part of the world as a big gas station for 50 years,” Friedman said.

In that sense – not pressing for human rights or democracy in the region – the United States is culpable, he said.”But did we produce Osama bin Laden? He’s very much a product of that part of the world,” he said.The epochal shadow of Sept. 11, the war in Iraq and global warming continue to loom over the United States, and the great friction over these issues will not likely abate anytime soon. What is paramount is the political leadership in these times, Friedman said.”There’s a real hunger for leaders who will tell the truth and not pass an energy bill that’s the sum of all lobbies and tell us that it’s going to solve our energy prices. It doesn’t even mention mileage standards,” he said. It is also not advisable to “launch a war in Iraq that you describe as a grand war for democracy and then put it on 1 percent of the American people.”This is an impassioned issue, and it should be. This is a close call about people’s lives, about our country’s future.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com