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Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman and 9/11

December 21, 2011   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

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By Belén Fernández:

This book excerpt, exclusive for NYT eXaminer, is from Belén Fernández’s The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work published by Verso.

Friedman’s reaction to 9/11 merits examination, as it is this event that propels his condescension vis-à-vis Arabs and Muslims to new heights and further convinces him of his own pedagogical role in the world. This conviction is highlighted in its earlier, less overtly bellicose stages by Edward Said, who notes in his 1989 essay “The Orientalist Express” that “Friedman has internalized the norms, if not the powers, of the secretary of state not just of the United States, but of all humanity” in From Beirut to Jerusalem, and that, with an air of “unearned egoism,” he “offers advice to everyone about how much better they could be doing if they paid attention to him.”

The details of Friedman’s 9/11 experience are found in the “Diary” section of Longitudes and Attitudes. He learns of the attacks while in the Tel Aviv suburbs, where he is in the process of retrieving his bathing suit from his taxicab after conducting an interview with Tel Aviv University President Itamar Rabinovich. Returning to Rabinovich’s office, Friedman watches CNN footage for several hours with female university staff, who “kept asking what it would mean for Israel. ‘I don’t know,’ I snapped. ‘It’s World War III,’ I thought to myself. ‘It’s much bigger than Israel.’”

It would appear from the paragraphs that follow, however, that World War III is in fact not much bigger than Friedman himself. Feeling “suffocated,” Friedman leaves the office, procures a room at the beachfront Tel Aviv Hilton, refuses his friends’ invitation to dinner, and ultimately goes into labor during a late-night walk by the sea: “It was there, massaged by the Mediterranean breeze, that my head started to clear and I finally gave birth to the thought that had been bothering me most: ‘What kind of world are my two girls going to grow up in?’”

Friedman identifies this as the point at which “I first started to get angry.” The anger progresses into “outrage” when his daughter Orly’s county youth orchestra trip to Italy is cancelled on account of 9/11 after she had “practice[d] extra-hard all summer in order to retain her chair in the violin section.” Obstacles are then erected to his daughter Natalie’s class trip to New York, while Friedman battles the “new world knocking” by “insist[ing] on going to concerts and Baltimore Orioles games[,] chaf[ing] at the extra searches suddenly imposed at Camden Yards [baseball stadium], and [getting] enraged while standing in long security lines at Dulles Airport.” None of this prevents him from hyping an impending war of civilizations, or from later criticizing Bush for simultaneously discussing the Iraq threat and playing golf—despite Friedman’s recent publication of ten reasons the Golf Channel is preferable to Middle East news, and his announcement that “the only survival purchase I’ve made since Code Orange is a new set of Ben Hogan Apex irons.”

This is a good place to point out just how convenient is Friedman’s failure to unambiguously address or unreservedly condemn the “very stupid and bad things [the U.S. has done] over the years in just about every corner of the world,” for which he compensates with statements ranging from “Without a strong America holding the world together, and doing the right thing more often than not, the world really would be a Hobbesian jungle” to “America, at its best, is not just a country. It’s a spiritual value and role model.” Slightly more colorful examples of U.S. influence occur in The Lexus and the Olive Tree: “The Malaysians go to Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Qataris go to Taco Bell for the same reason Americans go to Universal Studios—to see the source of their fantasies.”

By glossing over the recent history of the United States, a country aptly characterized by Martin Luther King, Jr. as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” Friedman is able to declare that “the U.S. is not a predatory power” and to propose that Barack Obama share the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize with “the most important peacekeepers in the world for the last century— the men and women of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.” In the hypothetical acceptance speech to the Nobel committee that he drafts for Obama, Friedman does not list as one of the century’s notable peacekeeping efforts the secret unleashing of the equivalent of five Hiroshimas on neutral Cambodia in the 1970s, although he does cite present U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan despite, for example, massive civilian casualties and continued attacks by U.S. helicopter gunships on Afghan children gathering wood.

It is presumably thanks in part to contextual amputation that Friedman is able to avoid pondering how “outraged” he would feel if Orly and Natalie, as opposed to having their travels to Europe and New York temporarily curtailed by security concerns, were instead obliterated by an airborne component of the U.S. military or its adopted Israeli counterpart. He meanwhile acknowledges that his anger over 9/11, “to be honest ... wasn’t only about my kids,” but rather about the violation of the idea that “no matter how crazy the world was out there, America was my cocoon that I could always crawl back into.” As for populations that dare not desire their own cocoons, it is useful to mention such statistics as that over seven hundred Pakistani civilians were killed in 2009 alone by U.S. drone strikes, which Friedman has previously proclaimed are “sometimes ... the only way justice gets done.”

Given that Friedman inhabits a political and journalistic circle in which the denomination “bad guys” is deemed a valid component of wartime discourse, it is logical that the term “civilians” may at times be found to be unnecessarily specific. However, Arab and Muslim civilian casualties generally have a higher chance of being advertised as such if their demise has been wrought by other Arabs and Muslims, especially if the wringing can be invoked to prove that “a death cult has taken root in the bosom” of Islam and that “this cancer is erasing basic norms of civilization.” The monopoly that Friedman and his ilk enjoy over derivatives of the Latin root “civ” means that he is not required to explain how it is that events like the Israeli slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Jenin in 2002—which Friedman quite literally encourages—does not infringe on civilizational norms.

Instead, he uses a post-Jenin dispatch to argue that, because a book by a Chinese mother about how to get your child into Harvard has sold more than 1.1 million copies in China while the “normally intelligent” Saudi ambassador to the U.K. has merely published a poem praising an eighteen-year-old female Palestinian suicide bomber, China “will eventually build Harvards of its own,” while Saudi “priorities will be too messed up.” Where Tiananmen Square lies on the continuum of civilization is not addressed.

[All quotes and figures referenced in this excerpt are properly cited in the book.]

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