Exploring the world after September 11
By Thomas L. Friedman

A book review & recommendation

Like many people these days, I am struggling to understand the events and circumstances that have led us to the brink of war.  Like many, I'm worried that the war on terrorism will soon become a shooting war in Iraq.  I'm even more concerned that the underlying forces driving these events may be an intrinsic conflict between Islamic fundamentalism and the entirety of modern civilization.  As an American, I'm concerned that my country is leading the charge in this battle, but everything I learn leads me to believe that this is truly a fight for survival and that appeasement will ultimately only make things worse. I see many things wrong with the modern world, great inequalities and injustices abound.  But, the thought of a future in which all the progress that has been made, throughout the entirety of modern history, is overthrown and replaced by a fundamentalist Islamic culture steeped in medieval intolerance and governed by a religious theocracy fills me with dread.

So I'm trying really hard to understand what's going on and I've read thousands of confusing and conflicting pages on the topic over the course of the last year.  In the process, a handful of themes kept coming up that seemed unbiased and true.  And, more importantly, useful in piecing together a working understanding of the situation.  In February, I received a copy of Thomas Friedman's latest book, Longitudes & Attitudes as a birthday present and I was surprised to find that many of the threads I'd picked up on were reiterated and expanded in the text.  When I'd finished reading this book, I felt that I had at least a basic understanding of how we'd come to this juncture, and how grave the danger really is.  

I try to stick to original sources when it comes to understanding the news.  I find myself getting annoyed with most reporting because it substitutes analysis for fact and often obscures meaning in the process.  Wherever possible, I search out the transcript of the speech or report in question and read it instead of the news stories that are swirling around it.  I find that this approach often makes the spin the media is adding to a particular story disturbingly obvious.  Friedman takes this approach even further by using his first hand observations and interviews as the basis for his commentary, an approach that I find both laudable and refreshing.

Longitudes & Attitudes is a collection of the columns Friedman wrote for the New York Times newspaper about September 11th and its aftermath.  The book dramatically charts the evolution of Friedman's own attitudes, from a focus on domestic U.S concerns before 9/11, to the wrenching perceptual shift he experienced after the attack.  I think most Americans felt the same things as we were jolted abruptly from ignorance and complacency into horror, anger and grief.  As the chapters of Longitudes and Attitudes unfold, Friedman emerges from his initial shock and begins a quest for understanding of why this tragic attack occurred, what the psychology and politics were of the people behind it, and how a recurrence might be prevented in the future.  

Fueled by an expense account a literal carte blanc from his employer, the New York Times, this search leads him literally around the world as he seeks answers to these important questions. Friedman takes us along with him as he visits India, The United Arab Emirates, Saudia Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan, Moscow and of course Israel, and the Palestininan territories.  At every stop he recounts his experiences and slowly builds a new understanding of the post-9/11 world. The book presents two parallel accounts, the columns Friedman wrote recounting his trip and the diary he kept of his personal experiences along the way.  

In several cases the juxtaposition of the two commentaries provides some  fascinating insights.  This is particularly true in the case of an meeting Friedman had with the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz who apparently used Friedman as a conduit to express his interest in reviving the Palestinian peace process to President Bush. Friedman had reached the conclusion that one of the most important requirements in resolving the problems that led to the September 11th attacks was the need for a new peace plan for the Middle East that not only included ideas about what the Arabs wanted from Israel, but what they were willing to give in return for it in the way of normalization of relations.  He wrote these ideas up in the form of a mock letter from President Bush to the Arab League that was published in the NYT. This column apparently made the rounds in the Arab world and resulted in an invitation for Friedman to visit Saudi Arabia. In a subsequent dinner and discussion with the Crown Prince, Friedman found himself being provided with an on the record statement specifying the terms of a possible new peace initiative between the Arabs and Israel.  This column was published in the Times on February 17, 2002 and may have marked the beginning of the "Roadmap for Peace in the Middle East that still represents the best hope for an end to the violence in that tortured region.

Friedman is the winner of multiple Pulitzer Prizes, and a card carrying member of the liberal media elite. I've always felt he was too much of a liberal ideologue to pay much serious attention to.  In fact prior to September 11, I generally ignored his foreign affairs columns because he seemed so smugly self-aware of his esteemed ranking in the punditocracy.  In the post-September 11 world though, he seemed to regain a sense of gravitas and purpose.  He has emerged as a valuable voice as this book amply demonstrates.

Alright already, what exactly are these important insights?

Fair enough.  Below, using some representative quotes from the text,  I'll attempt to hit a few of the high points, but I'd encourage everyone who takes these issues seriously, and that should include pretty much everyone, to get a copy of this book and read it. 

The Real War

"If 9/11 was indeed the onset of World War III, we have to understand what this war is about.  We're not just fighting to eradicate "terrorism." Terrorism is just a tool.  We're fighting to defeat an ideology: religious totalitarianismWorld War II and the cold war were fought to defeat secular totalitarianismNazism and Communism — and World War III is a battle against religious totalitarianism, a view of the world that says, My faith must reign supreme and can be affirmed and held passionately only if all others are negated.  That's bin Ladenism."

All Alone, Again

"The Russians could, at best, be brought around to what the foreign affairs analyst Aleksei Pushkov calls "a negative neutralism" toward any U.S. action against Iraq.  But the rubles would have to be sorted out in advance.  Iraq ran up an $8 billion debt with the Soviet Union that Russia wants paid.  The Russians want assurances that Washington will back their view that this debt was incurred by Iraq, and not just by Saddam..." 

Run Osama Run

"Finally, we have to admit that bin Laden touches something deep in the Arab-Muslim soul, even among those who condemn his murders.  They still root for him as the one man who was not intimidated by America's overweening power, as the one man who dared to tell certain Arab rulers that they had no clothes, and as the one man who did something about it.

Quietly today, many in the Arab-Muslim world are rooting for bin Laden to get away.  They are whispering in their hearts, "Run Osama, run!"  That's what's really going on out there.  I just wish we knew how to change it."

The End of NATO?

"Visiting Brussels after Kabul, I found only one issue dominating the buzz at NATO headquarters, and it was this: The United States has become so much more technologically advanced than any of its NATO allies that America increasingly doesn't need them to fight a distant war, as it demonstrated in Afghanistan, where it basically won alone, except for small but important contributions from Britain, Canada and Australia.  And when you add to that the unilateralist impulses of the Bush team — which instinctively doesn't want to fight with aid from allies who might get in the way or limit America's room for maneuvers — you have many, many people in Brussels asking whether NATO nations can ever fight together again." (February 3, 2002)

The Hidden Victims

"This is the real Arab street story.  Progressive Arab states, like Jordan, Morocco, and Bahrain, which want to build their legitimacy not on how they confront Israel but on how well they prepare their people for the future are being impeded.  And retrograde Arab regimes, like Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, can now feed their people more excuses why not to reform.

The Palestinians have been experts at seducing the Arab world into postponing its future until all the emotive issues of Palestine are resolved.  Three generations of Arabs have already paid dearly for only being allowed to ask one question — "Who rules Palestine?" 

The Hard Truth

"If Arab leaders have only the moral courage to draw lines around Israel's behavior, but no moral courage to decry the utterly corrupt and inept Palestinian leadership or the depravity of suicide bombers in the name of Islam, then we're going nowhere.

The other people who have not wanted to face facts are the feckless American Jewish leaders, fundamentalist Christians, and neo-conservatives who together have helped make it impossible for anyone in the U.S. government to talk seriously about halting Israeli settlement-building without being accused of being anti-Israel.  Their collaboration has helped prolong a colonial Israeli occupation that now threatens the entire Zionist enterprise.

So there you have it.  Either leaders of goodwill get together and acknowledge that Israel can't stay in the territories, but it just can't pick up and leave without a U.S.-NATO force helping the Palestinians oversee their state, or Osama wins — and the war of civilizations will be coming soon to a theater near you."

They say that if you aren't a liberal when you are young you have no heart, and that if you aren't a conservative when you get old, there's something wrong with your head.  Longitudes & Attitudes will provide you with some food for thought either way.


Longitudes & Attitudes, Exploring the World After September 11
by Thomas L. Friedman
Copyright 2002, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0-374-19066-6

Copyright Compliance Notes

In keeping with the spirit and letter of E2's Copyright Policy, I have requested permission from Thomas Friedman to use the quoted material above in this review, and am reproducing the letter below as an illustration of the Permission Request process.  CST Approved

Thomas L. Friedman
20 August 2003 

Dear Mr. Friedman,

I am a member of an online community called Everything2. The purpose of Everything2 is to act as a database that is user created, dynamic, and - well - includes everything.

To that end, we strive to add to the database the things that we find helpful, useful, amusing or important. I found your book Longitudes & Attitudes very insightful and useful in piecing together an understanding of the events since 9/11  I have recommended your book to the E2 community in the form of a review contributed  to the database at Everything2.com.  You can read the review at:

Since it is the policy of Everything2 to abide by Fair Use rules and not simply assimilate copyrighted material, I am asking you for permission to reproduce the quotes from your book that I have used in my review on the website.

For more information, please visit http//everything2.com/. Everything2 is a noncommercial site which exists solely on the basis of the contributions of its users. Your cooperation would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,

(My Name & Email addr.)