The Stories behind 9-11: Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11

Understanding the world before and after September 11 is no easy task. Writers and pundits have struggled to explain the attacks and critique the response; however, few succeed as well as The New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman. As a foreign affairs columnist, the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author–including this year’s prize for Commentary–has naturally written many pieces about last September. Collected into Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11, such a book may seem like a cop-out, especially from a man who’s written two respected tomes on the Middle East and foreign policy. However, not only are his columns intelligently written, Friedman focuses on several recurring themes, giving the book a cohesive thesis similar collections often lack.

For example, Friedman consistently argues that military retaliation was necessary, but the real solution lies in Middle Eastern countries removing fundamentalism from schools and government, thereby allowing for development and democracy. However, he doesn’t support military action blindly, and especially not President George W. Bush’s rhetoric. The Afghan war isn’t a war against terrorism. He argues: "We’re not fighting to eradicate terrorism. We’re fighting to defeat an ideology: religious totalitarianism."

Friedman also notes the importance of Saudi Arabia; many of the hijackers were Saudi, prompting Friedman to question our use of their oil. "We could replace all those American flag bumper stickers with ones that read ‘I cut my oil use by a third, how about you?’"

Naturally pro-American, Friedman celebrates the strengths of the U.S. Looking to displays of multi-culturalism found in his church, his daughters’ schools, and even the U.S. Armed Forces, Friedman claims tolerance of race and gender, as the strongest American asset. Still, he willingly admits the U.S. has made huge policy errors, and suggests that while millions of starving people aren’t responsible for the attacks, they do give silent approval. If the U.S. is to succeed in its war against terror, it must give aid to these people.

With that said, he also argues that bin Laden et al didn’t act on behalf of Palestine or any other downtrodden people. Why? The terrorists left behind no list of demands–they didn’t ask for the U.S. to pull out of the Middle East or for the U.S. to stop backing Israel. They asked for nothing less than the destruction of the U.S.–their act was their demand.

Obviously, Longitudes is not sentimental anecdotes about the day in question. Rather, Friedman offers insightful critiques and observations from his own mind and from conversations withothers around the world, from Kandahar to Jakarta, Washington to Moscow. Whether you pick it up because it’s educational, because it’s good writing, or simply because it’s September 11-related, you should definitely read this book.

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