9 September 2011

Ten Years

The idea of later was elusive.
—Don DeLillo, Falling Man

The easy question: Where were you?

Pre-calculus. I was a senior in high school when the Towers came down. The teachers said we could go home, but school was in the Bronx, and it was unclear whether you could get back into Manhattan, where I lived. The bridges and tunnels were closed, and much of my class ended up staying with families that lived near the school. But the 1 train was running, and I was determined to see what had happened for myself. I thought I would be a reporter, or help somehow. I was clueless.

At a humble Union Square barricade—the blue-and-white kind that line Fifth Avenue during parades—I watched a middle aged women argue with a police officer about continuing downtown. Others just walked past the barricade, of course, ignoring any check. I remember the burning concrete smell. And I particularly remember the look of frustration and blown-out, overstimulated sadness on the face of that cop. It was a look I had never seen before, but that’s no surprise. I was still practically a child, grown up fortunate, in a stable country without military or economic equal. History teachers explained exceptionalism in the seventh grade.

A better question: What is the right thing to do when someone kills 3,000 people in your hometown?


If you are a US citizen born when I was, in the winter of 1984, soldiers have been deployed on your behalf in every year of your life. Not just in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan—but in every region, on every continent, from Germany to Colombia to South Korea. And your parents probably have a Vietnam story, even if it’s just from the movies. And it’s probably not. And their parents might have fought and died in World War II. Are we always at war? Depends on your definition, sure, and a tour in Italy is not the same as a tour in the Korengal Valley. But we are not a nation of pacifists.

Much has been made of how we came together after the attacks—in long lines to donate blood at St. Vincent’s, under Broadway’s darkened lights, during the seventh inning stretch when “God Bless America” replaced “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” We were afraid, too. An army lieutenant I met in grad school, raised in Central Florida’s Disney-designed town of Celebration, told me that at the time, people down there said the Magic Kingdom was a likely target. She was an adolescent girl then, and has since done a tour in Logar Province, whose Dari nickname used to be “Gates of Jihad.” This is a long way from the fake snow that machines blew on Celebration’s Market Street every December, but she still thinks it would have made sense for Al Qaeda to hit Space Mountain.

Any catastrophe seemed possible. The Dow Jones had its largest one-week drop in history, and the airspace was closed, and parts of lower Manhattan became particulate and toxic, and grown men said that irony was dead, and those who lost their sons and daughters and lovers were bound even more deeply and terribly than everyone who watched the bodies fall before the towers collapsed. Maybe there were plenty of reasons to be afraid. The government was speaking a language of vengeance, us versus them, and it seemed to resonate. The President’s approval ratings approached 90 percent. He said America would bring the terrorists to justice.

Ten years on, bin Laden is dead and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says we have come “within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda.” It’s an obvious point, but that’s not the only thing we’ve done. We have also passed and renewed the Patriot Act, photographed prisoners at Abu Ghraib, kept Blackwater on contract. Everything else. This does not distinguish us historically, but there it is. A small price, if the US is freer, richer, and safer than anywhere—it’s where everyone wants to come, it’s the greatest nation in the world.

Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, if the word even makes any sense. Greatest. Either way, it was in this long moment of falling skyscrapers that I was granted the privileges of an American adult. I could drive, vote, get married, buy a pistol, get drunk, go to war. And sometimes, even when I didn’t want to, I could think about how to act like a good American, and whether this might be different for me than it was for my parents, or theirs, or theirs. Probably this generalization is no more useful than anything else that ignores complexity, like, say, a line from a presidential presser: with us or against us.


In April 2003, the United States Air Force produced a document called “Operation Iraqi Freedom—By The Numbers.” It concerned the 720 hours between March 19 and April 18 of that year. In this period, the Air Force flew 41,404 sorties over Iraq. It dropped 31,800,000 leaflets. These explained how to surrender, noted radio frequencies of pro-Coalition broadcasts, warned against the use of chemical weapons. “If you lined up the leaflets end-to-end,” the report reads without indication of irony, “they would stretch from Fort Worth, Texas, to Anchorage, Alaska; or make 120,454 rolls of toilet paper.” Nine hundred and fifty-four Airborne personnel are also accounted for, though an asterisked footnote informs the reader that “during drop, 36 personnel failed to jump.” Failed to jump. Above a landscape of leaflets, in the doorway of the plane, not jumping: a single moment in a 720-hour mission, in an 87,658-hour decade.

Bombs explode faster than men make such decisions. According to the report, of the 29,199 munitions expended (not counting the hundreds of thousands of .20 and .30 caliber rounds), the most common was the GBU-12 LGB, or Guided Bomb Unit-12, Laser Guided Bomb (produced by Lockheed Martin Inc., 2010 revenue: $45.8 billion). Each of the 7,114 of these that exploded on Iraq had at its core a 500-pound conventional warhead.

It is hard to understand what that really means. You could think about the destructive capacity of a firecracker, what it can do to your little brother’s finger, and then multiply out. Or start bigger, and think about the variety of fireworks on display over the Hudson River on the Fourth of July. Fireworks have always been tied to war; they were developed as weapons. They are the closest most Americans get to a bomb going off. Their names don’t sound like names for rockets: Chrysanthemum, Willow, Diadem, Crossette. But then, military operations don’t sound like war: Infinite Reach, Enduring Freedom, Noble Eagle, Iron Justice.

For a clearer understanding of a 500-pound bomb, you might start bigger than fireworks, but also in downtown Manhattan, on the day of the attack, and consider how some New Yorkers would thereafter be afraid of loud noises, and therefore not feel the same way about the Fourth of July. You’d still have to multiply a long way out. Shock and Awe and the events of September 11 are not easy or pleasant to think about at the same time, but history insists on the comparison. For one thing, the attendant images are all now iconic as Coke. Each was looped on television, dominated all media for weeks. The footage shows essentially the same thing—the destruction of buildings in a big city—but onscreen, the clarity of that morning at the World Trade Center is brutal compared to the opaque flashes that engulfed a darkened Baghdad. Hard to see what was going on, get a sense of scale. Fireworks in an overcast sky. At the flesh level, Iraq Body Count puts invasion phase casualties at over 6,000.

The American military disputes this, and anyway, the logic went, it was fighting a just war. It caused harm for a greater good, resulted in civilian casualties but also toppled Saddam and potentially prevented another September 11. This intuitive idea has a technical sounding, confusing name in war theory—the Doctrine of Double Effect. The “double” covers the good and the bad stemming from a single action. Writers have been struggling with the problem since Thomas Aquinas considered what it meant to kill a man in self-defense. It is not always taken for granted, and the questions it raises are as predictable and as momentarily stunning as fireworks. Consider a late night “census” mission in Mosul. Knocking on doors around bedtime, a 22-year-old American infantryman calls a man from his house and unintentionally frightens him in front of his children. I was there on an embed for a newsmagazine, and what I remember best is those kids peering out the door, and the enormous shadows the squad threw in all their gear, their full battle rattle, when the camera flashes fired. But then the census was closer to complete for a vote. Even if it was really all American intelligence collection anyway. Many double effects. A simpler example would be a GBU-12 LGB landing on a terrorist safe house with a pile of kids sleeping inside.


After it happened, President Bush thanked the heads of state and foreign peoples who had offered their condolences and aid. It seemed there was a great deal of public support for America around the world. Arafat and Netanyahu said they stood with the Americans. Pope John Paul II commended the victims to the mercy of Almighty God. “Nous Sommes Tous Américains” ran the famous September 12th headline in Le Monde.

It was easy to believe the sentiment, sometimes, even in the least American places. In Helmand Province, I met an Afghan interpreter for the US Marines who introduced himself as AJ. The interpreters, or terps, who work with the US military are a shrewd and daring bunch, and they areyoung, many about the age of the volunteers who ran Obama’s campaign. Often, they become so deeply Americanized they can fool you into thinking maybe they don’t have two wives. AJ was like that, I discovered, riding with 2nd Marine Expeditionary force to look at preparations for the Marjah offensive. In fact, in the armored convoy between Patrol Base Jaicher and Forward Operating Base Geronimo, AJ and I were so American that we didn’t talk about politics, we talked about sports: AJ was more of a baseball fan, not an NBA fan like me.

I was thus surprised when we arrived and the Marines zipcuffed AJ and took him away, against his protests. The sergeant I was standing with told me that they didn’t want to arrest him at Jaicher, where he had been working, so they told him he had some paperwork to do at Geronimo. They had found his fingerprints on IEDs used to kill Americans.

But that was in 2009, not 2001, and if we were all Americans at the beginning of the decade, we weren’t at the end. AJ probably never was, in the sense Le Monde meant it. That is, if the sergeant’s allegations were correct, and AJ was that good a liar. But who knows? Even in America, the only times we were all Americans was when America was under attack, or in the midst of a presidential campaign.


Politicians exploited it. It seemed so obvious: never forget became a kind of mantra on both sides of the aisle. As a reporter, the clearest instance of it I ever saw occurred in the hot, late summer of 2004. The 38th Republican National Convention had come to New York. We had been at war in Afghanistan for forty-six months, Iraq for seventeen, and several hundred thousand protestors marched the streets, chanting, snarling traffic, getting arrested. They overestimated their influence, mostly. Snipers stood on the roof of Madison Square Garden. Watching from above in their black tactical vests, helmeted and heavily armed, the sharpshooters were perhaps necessary for the protection of President George W. Bush and the lights of the Republican Party, but they were a surprise, and spooky.

Inside, the Garden arena was decorated like an overblown high school pep rally. The nomination, as at all national conventions, was a lock. The point was television, a bump in the polls, and, if you were not a cynic, another chance for the party to articulate its policies. I stood with the Alabama delegation, next to an overweight white woman wearing a hunting vest covered in pins and buttons. It looked like she had been collecting buttons from political events since Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter. She carried a small American flag and clapped and hooted.

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, delivered the keynote speech. At the time he was ascendant in the Republican Party—the tabloid press called him “America’s Mayor.” The nickname was born of his famously good management of the September 11 aftermath at the end of his tenure, and he cultivated it. He had been talking about September 11 a lot—every time I can remember seeing him on a talk show, in fact, or in the newspapers. So had everybody in the Republican Party, especially the President. So it was no surprise that Giuliani’s speech was about national security. He opened with two seemingly unrelated points: that New York was America’s original capital—where George Washington, the first President, took office—and that it was also where George W. Bush had stood amid the ruins of the Trade Center Towers and told the terrorists they would “hear from us.” The woman in the pins next to me cheered and waved her flag.

Her mood changed, however, about a third of the way into the speech. Giuliani was describing how he had watched people jump out of the 101st floor windows of the burning North Tower. “Without really thinking,” he said, “based on just emotion, spontaneous, I grabbed the arm of then Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and I said to him ‘Bernie, thank God George Bush is our President.’” It was at that point that the woman next to me began crying.

Four years later, I didn’t attend the convention. And I didn’t see that woman in the crowd as I watched it on television, but I think she would have liked to have been there to nominate John McCain. Again, there were tales of terrorism (Giuliani would speak), and torture, and heroism—McCain’s time as prisoner of war. So she might have cried again. That was the point. But then, I met a lot of criers on the Obama campaign trail that year, too. There was crying in Spanish in Las Vegas, New Mexico; in a drawl in Oxford Mississippi; in ironic joy in Brooklyn. And how could we not cry when we tallied up the fireman, or the soldiers? Or when we saw a particular new pin that the woman might add to her vest on her next visit to New York. I first noticed it circulating around the time Bernie Kerik pled guilty to charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, and lying to the Internal Revenue Service. It started appearing on people’s backpacks. It was tiny, but unmistakable—two towers in gold and embossed at bottom the words: never forgive.


Ten years ago is a long time in Afghanistan, too. March 1, 2001 was the day that Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban, issued the decree for the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The equivalent would have been George Bush decreeing that the army blow up Mt. Rushmore—if Mt. Rushmore was also hollow and housed the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

On one of the Taliban’s radio stations, the job of breaking the news fell to a young DJ, named Masood. He had gotten this good job in radio through a relative—but one of his duties was to announce Taliban messages. So he read Mullah Omar’s decree: “Based on the verdict of the clergymen and the decision of the Supreme Court of the Islamic Emirate all the statues around Afghanistan must be destroyed. All the statues in the country should be destroyed because these statues have been used as idols and deities by the non-believers before.”

When I met Masood in 2009 he worked for Tolo, one of Kabul’s fast growing media companies. The company complex occupied a city block, included newsrooms and editing suites and studios, and was surrounded by guards and razor wire. The company’s biggest success is a show called Afghan Star, which pits Afghan singers against each other in the mold of American Idol. Threats are consistently leveled against contestants and producers alike, but eleven million people tune in weekly.

Maybe to remind himself how far the country has come, Masood kept a photograph taken at very beginning of his career on his desk. It was of his younger self staring blankly ahead, the wispy beginnings of a beard along his jawline, a black turban wrapped around his skull. Masood’s ironic nickname for himself was still “DJ Talib.” He only made $10 a month back then, but when I met him some 700 people worked at Tolo, many for him. He had money in his pocket. Among the perks of having an important media job: his license plates sped him through checkpoints, his passport got processed in thirty minutes.

He still had problems with the government, though. He continued to host a radio show, and in one of his most popular segments, Afghans called in complaints about the state. Often, after the complaints, Masood dealt with fines and threats. Tolo staffers had been roughed up. Occasionally he was summoned to a minister’s office—the Health Minister’s, for example. That time it was because a woman had called in and said that she was raped in a hospital.

I thought about Masood when I visited Bamiyan, where it was possible to ascend a series of carved sandstone passages to the space where the two Buddha heads used to be and look out over the valley’s potato fields. The destruction of those two tall idols wasn’t why the US went to war and stayed there. Maybe Masood’s career was, though—like women’s rights or education. The interaction is complex and hard to value.

Maybe it was worth it. But back in Kabul, some of the less media-savvy Kabulis I talked with didn’t see it that way. For “man on the street” news, I interviewed booksellers—thinking that they might be better informed than most. They were not, usually. At a row of stalls close to the Ministry of Information, I got tea and unsurprising quotes, like from Mohamadjan, for example, who was 40 and spoke in an impatient baritone:
 
“We believe in fate but the situation will get worse as long as there is foreign intervention.”

“The Soviets. It is the same. I was fighting against them.” (Pulled up a pant leg to reveal a scarred, brown calf).

“Let me ask you a question” (took my hand). “Would you like it if foreigners came and occupied your country? What would you do?”

Reporter’s notebooks in Kabul are full of quotes like these, I suspect. Visiting booksellers is not an original move. One Norwegian journalist even wrote a bestselling account of life in Afghanistan called The Bookseller of Kabul. The bookseller in question, Shah Muhammad Rais, later sued her for defamation in Norwegian court. I talked with him for an hour in his shop, Bob Dylan playing in the background. He had a lot to say and could be eloquent, quoting the poet Rumi. What I remember best, though, was a flippant line: “The value of the two Buddhas was not less than the value of the World Trade Center.”


Darul Aman Palace is an enormous neoclassical building—crumbling, bombed out—that looms on the outskirts of Kabul. The rebar is twisted, the blasted bricks are scattered through puddles of rain that fall in through the rocket-shorn roofs. Through the arches it is possible to look out on the capital, under its cape of smog and dust, and see rising all around the mountains of the Hindu Kush. The palace looks like something out of a dark fairy tale and is a kind of tourist destination. Especially because it sits across the road from the National Museum, which houses, according to its captions, some of Afghanistan’s “Ironic Age Armor.”

These kinds of juxtapositions abound in Kabul and sustain the diplomatic and press corps through the constant banal frustrations and occasional moments of horror that characterize expatriate life in an occupied country. The fundamental irony, however, the weirdest fairy tale, the underlying joke for reflective Americans, might be this: what are we doing here? Because here seems very far away from America. This was part of the shock of September 11. They plan attacks from caves. Graybeards naked in the steam of a rock Hamam, or a lunch of raisined palow on the floor, or election ballots traveling by donkey—as an American outsider it is easy to feel not just from a foreign place but from a foreign time. A lot of smart Americans work hard to subvert such easy thinking. They work with Kabulis to reconstruct neighborhoods on local terms, they become Dari linguists, they date exiled Afghan aristocrats. Few of them will stay. But then, most of them don’t say they will go either.

The military is in a difficult position on that front. William McCullough, a lieutenant colonel in command of the 1/5 Marines in Helmand Province several tours ago, told me that his men had been instructed to say this to the locals: “We are not occupiers. We are not going to stay longer than your government says we should stay. We are invited guests.”

It wasn’t that simple, but McCullough wasn’t dumb. Everything about him, in fact, was sharp, cut against the dun curves and dust of Helmand’s dirt roads. The blond of his hair, the clip of his voice, the focused blue of his eyes. He was alert to the larger contradictions, but it was not his job to figure them out. It was his job to lead Marines, armed with these talking points and their M4s, through days of firefights among the compounds, canal paths, and fields of poppy. Whenever the fighting cooled they were meant to work with the locals to build bridges, schools, good governance. And here’s the problem for the Afghans: if you work with the Marines, and then they leave, the Taliban will remember and kill you. So Marines, who like to win, promise that they’ll stay until it’s all fixed.

When the 1/5 left Helmand in December 2009 ( replaced by the 1/3), McCullough presented a pair of Mameluke swords to Abdul Manaf, the local district governor. The Mameluke sword is a curved and fearsome weapon, worn by officers at dress occasions and unsheathed dramatically at the beginning of television recruitment advertisements. According to Marine historians, it became associated with the Corps in December 1805, during the First Barbary War. That war, between the US and what were then known as the Barbary States—including present day Morroco, Algeria, and Libya—saw Marines fire cannon balls across North Africa in defense of American shipping interests. This is what the Marines are singing about when the mention the shores of Tripoli in their hymn. The story about the sword is that a viceroy of the Ottoman Empire presented the original to a lieutenant who led a handful of Marines, and some 500 mercenaries, to victory in the Battle of Derne. It was the first American battle fought abroad, and a decisive victory. A handful of Marines and some 800 Berber fighters died.

Jefferson had no qualms about shipping interests as a rationale for war. The reasons we were at war in Afghanistan were not so clear, except as retaliation for what happened that September. And now, in light of the Mujahideen we armed to fight the cold war, who shelled Darul Aman Palace into pieces before anyone attacked New York, please don your Ironic Age Armor for the kind of question that might come up in L’Atmosphere (you don’t go for le cuisine), Kabul’s premier expat bar. What will Abdul Manaf do with the swords?

I wonder less about what his sons will do with the KA-BAR knives McCullough gave them, which are very sharp, carbon steel, eleven inches long, and, as any Marine will tell you, not ceremonial. Those, you carry into the next war.


Conspiracy theories are widespread, from Shar-e-Naw to Queens. Foreknowledge by the President, controlled demolition, Mossad involvement, insider trading, heroin smuggling, fighter jets shooting down United Flight 93. There is an economist who served in George W. Bush’s labor department who says that there were no planes at all.

The official account of what happened, the 9/11 Commission Report, was issued on July 22, 2004 and became a National Book Award Finalist and bestseller. It is clearly written, reads fast, and reminds you of what you saw on television. I am inclined to believe in mistakes before conspiracies. The conspiracy theorists seem crazy. But sometimes they are easy to identify with in their fury. Consider, for example, these lines, on page 370 of that report: “Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, is brave and committed. He is trying to build genuinely national institutions that can overcome the tradition of allocating powers among ethnic communities.”

I had lunch on a day of light snow in Kabul with a conservative MP, part of Karzai’s ethnic community, the Pashtun. He wore a black turban, and my interpreter, Dr. Ali Safi, informed me that the guy was tight with the Taliban. I trusted Ali. I wanted to, very badly, because I couldn’t speak the language, and he set up the meetings. To not trust him would be to not trust much of the work I was doing. That trust between a fixer and a journalist — what is it made of? Is it made of Ali telling me that a lot of the fixers are doctors because they are the best educated Afghans, and working for TIME or the BBC or Telecinco, or all three in a single day, is exponentially better money than trying to be a doctor to the Afghans? We didn’t discuss the moral-philosophical implications. Ali had bigger things on his mind, like getting married, even though he acted wry and reluctant about it. I picked up his wedding suit with him, but really it meant little between us. I ran my fingers over the cloth on offer, listened to fast Dari I couldn’t catch, picked up some details about the tailor (always small, never met a tall tailor) and didn’t tell Ali that I thought his wedding shirt looked like something a chorus extra would wear in a Broadway musical. (Sorry, Ali.) Thus trust: open-mindedness, understanding of foreign cultures, sensitivity, and also muzzling of self.

The muzzling happened for a much clearer reason at lunch with the MP in the black turban. At the end of lunch on the plastic sheet on the floor, with snowflakes falling gently outside, he cocked his head and asked me a question. Ali translated it as, “I would like to respectfully ask you to convert to Islam.”

The best conspiracies are the most intimate. This idea crossed my mind again, just this summer, when Karzai’s brother was assassinated by a man the New York Times reported to be “so trusted by the Karzai family that he would pick up and carry Mr. Karzai’s young son into the family quarters.”


Four flights.

March 2003: UA 905, London, Heathrow–New York, JFK.

The pilot announced: “There has been a threat against the plane, please obey all further instructions.” The passengers looked over their shoulders and down the aisle, put their tray tables up. Julia and Hugh, flirting onscreen, were paused and then blacked out. The plane banked and turned 180 degrees. A stewardess’ mascara ran with tears as she collected the headphones and demonstrated brace positions. The descent was much faster than we were used to, and the Irish civil servant next to me said she didn’t want to die. Later, I learned that protocol dictates a threatened plane must land as quickly as possible, but at the time we knew only what the pilot had said. A child wailed, and a man read a Bible. You could see the fire engines lining the runway. The landing was fast but fine, and we ran off the plane onto the staircases, onto the buses, into the relief of tidy Shannon airport, evacuated and still. We waited for news in the terminal, watching the plane out the great glass wall, wondering if it would explode. I ended up talking to an old Scot and former New Yorker staff writer named Alistair Reid. He said that he was a translator specializing in Neruda and Borges. One poem he translated was “Keeping Quiet,” which has since reminded me of flying:

And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

Over a megaphone, the pilot explained that someone had found a diagrammatic bomb threat in one of the meals and alerted a flight attendant, who alerted him. He received a round of applause. United Airlines put us all up in the airport hotel that night and we separated into tribes. At the bar, when the grounding of our flight rolled across the ticker, there were scattered cheers. We traded histories and speculated about what had happened. “One of the Pakis who works at the airport, must have done it,” insisted one passenger. Several others nodded in agreement.

February 2009: Baghdad, Victory Base Complex–Mosul, Forward Operating Base Marez.

In the preflight brief, an officer explained that Mosul remained kinetic. If we went down they’d assess the situation and set up a security perimeter around the crash. I watched a grunt nod, even though he had his ear buds in. In the buckle darkness of the helicopter he obscured his iPod’s blue light but it seeped between the fingers of his gloves and illuminated his white, schoolboy chin. He closed his eyes, on the way back in.

October 2009: New York JFK–Dubai, Dubai International.

I sat next to a man about my own age who, pre-takeoff, was saunaing with sweat. He pulled at his fist-length black beard, adjusted his skull cap, smoothed his shalwar kameez. He was headed to Johannesburg, where, he said, he was a student at a traditional Islamic School. Before that he was home-schooled, got his GED before he went abroad. He was studying jurisprudence—the Qu’ran, and of course the Hadithas—in order to become a mufti. This was his sixth and final year, which meant he would have gotten his GED around the time he was 12, if he was telling the truth. “Usually these schools are in Pakistan or India, but those places are too tough for someone like me,” he said, “and in Johannesburg everyone speaks English.” When I extended my right hand over the armrest to shake he would not take it, only held his own aloft, unsure, and said his name. He was named for the redeemer, but his voice shook: Mahdi Alam, from Jamaica, Queens.

November 2009: Lashkar Gah, Camp Bastion–Bagram, Bagram Airfield.

Medium altitude roar through the Asian sky. In the center of the C-130 hold, beds hung from the ceiling. Doctors worked on soldiers in the low red light. They moved with 10,000 casualties worth of practice and grace, knew exactly what they were doing there. The guys on the bed were maybe not so sure anymore.


What today defines a ‘great power?’”

This question was on the most recent syllabus of “The Development of the International System,” a required course for a degree in International Relations from Oxford. Every week, the twenty-four of us split into two groups to discuss questions like it, often wordier, more theory heavy. Week one: “Can the outbreak of the Korean and Vietnam wars be explained by the doctrine of containment?” Week three: “How far has decolonization altered the power hierarchy in the international system?” And so on.

There are seven other Americans on the course, all ambitious. It is easy to think of them in terms of their CVs: a marathon-running army officer, a violin-playing China Head, a deconstructionist political philosopher. September 11 is the subtext, a backstory they all share, “feeling vulnerable for the first time,” as another American student puts it. She is from India but grew up in West Virginia, where people said Charleston would get hit, and where she remembers American flags flying from every house on her street, and her Hindu father making sure their house had the most.

All these students are patriots in their own way. And even though they’ve come here for different reasons, I think all are curious, at least, about America’s place in the world, and how America should behave. This has to do with the kind of jobs they want to get, but I think it also has to do with wanting to know their own place in the world, how they should behave. I know that’s how it is for me. And when I started thinking about that question, “What today defines a ‘great power?’” I already knew what most defined America, for the last ten years, was what happened on September 11, 2001, and how we reacted to it. But then I looked at the question again. It wasn’t really about America.

Image: View of the East River from the World Trade Center. From panorama.com.

Subscribe!

It’s the right thing to do.

Sign up now to start receiving the magazine that believes history isn't over just yet.

Subscribe now »