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Friedman: Al-Qaida far more dangerous than Soviets

Thomas Friedman speaks at Zoellner's Baker Hall.

At a volatile time in the history of the world, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas L. Friedman tapped into the pop culture zeitgeist Wednesday night to describe America’s current international standing.

"No president or administration has been more hated around the world than the one we have right now," he told a packed audience at Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall. "It's no wonder so many Americans are obsessed with the finale of the sitcom Friends right now. They're the only friends we've got, and even they're leaving."

The New York Times foreign affairs columnist and author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization and Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11 spoke at Zoellner not only on the eve of the Friends final episode, but also on the evening before his column appeared calling for President Bush to fire Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

"What happened in Abu Gharib prison was, at best, a fundamental breakdown in the chain of command under Mr. Rumsfeld's authority, or, at worst, part of a deliberate policy somewhere in the military-intelligence command of sexually humiliating prisoners to soften them up for interrogation, a policy that ran amok. Either way, the secretary of defense is ultimately responsible," his column stated Thursday morning.

Friedman was the inaugural speaker in the College of Education Speaker Series: Leaders of Practice, supported in part by Michael and Anne Golden and the Ruth S. Holmberg 2003 Charitable Lead Trust. In her introduction speech, Sally White, dean of the college of education, said, "Tom helps us comprehend 'them over there' (in the Middle East) and helps us understand culture in its truest form."

Instruments of our daily lives as weapons

According to Friedman, "them over there" are a force to be reckoned with. He compared the situation in the Middle East with the Cold War, when the Marxists tried to use the engine of the Soviet Union to impose the reign of a perfect class, the working class.

"The al-Qaida threat is far more dangerous than anything the Soviets ever proposed. With the Soviets, we shared bedrock values, and they loved life more than they hated us. Al-Qaida is a different enemy, an enemy who hates us more than they love life."

And the means al-Qaida uses to attack the U.S. are far more dangerous than the Red Army's 50,000 tanks. "Not only are they ready to commit suicide, but ready to use instruments of our own daily lives—an airplane, a car, a garage door opener, a cell phone—to create a weapon that is undeterrable, undetectable, and inexhaustible."

Al-Qaida's use of these weapons threatens our freedom, he added.

"We're facing an enemy out to attack the very essence of what keeps an open society open—trust. We trust that when we board a plane, the person next to us isn't strapped with dynamite. We trust that when get on a shuttle, the person next to us isn't wearing a bomb in his tennis shoes. Without trust, there is no open society because there aren't enough police to guard every opening in an open society."

Change from within

Friedman's lecture drew a capacity crowd to Zoellner.

The only way to confront that kind of an enemy is to change the society from within. "The only people who can control the Palestinians are the Palestinians—the parents, community leaders, educational leaders and spiritual leaders. Unless the social and cultural milieu changes so people deem this behavior shameful, there will be no results."

Friedman also repeatedly referred to both the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism as "wars of ideas," similar, he said, to the American Civil War that was fought because some people thought it was acceptable to enslave people because of the color of their skin. This modern-day war of ideas stems from "people who believe bad things about what is required to have a global community in this day and age, like the people behind the September 11th attacks."

Some of the politics behind the September 11th attacks, Friedman said, are a result of the U.S. turning a blind eye to the massive deficits in freedom, women's empowerment and modern education that was fueling the rage of our enemies.

"We used to treat the Arab nations as a series of gas stations—if they kept the pumps open and the prices low, we didn't care what went on out back. Well, on September 11th we got hit with everything that was going on out back."

A marathon, not a sprint

While Friedman argued that the war in Iraq is not a justifiable retaliation to the September 11th attacks—even going so far as to call the war "criminally negligent"—he added that he does not view the war as a complete loss. But we are losing, he said.

To win, he said, the following must happen: "First, the people responsible for the prison incident--not at the bottom, but at the top--have to be held accountable. We have to tell the world we will not tolerate this behavior. Second, we have to get more support from the United Nations for what we're trying to do. The people who planned this war thought it would be a sprint. Well, it turned out to be a marathon and to complete it requires time and legitimacy."

On a more positive note, Friedman added, "The majority of Iraqis basically want what we want--a legitimate government that can pave the way for a free and fair election. We must create the framework where the overlaps between us and the silent majority can emerge."

Friedman then took questions from the audience, which ranged from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to relationships with Arab Americans.

On the question of Israel, Friedman likened the situation to a 5,000-piece puzzle. "It's like we only had a few pieces left and somehow we knocked over the table, there are pieces all over the floor, there's coffee spilled on them and the dog is chewing on them—a mess that I'm ready to put to rest in my columns," he said.

In response to a question from a former administrator in the Philadelphia School District on how to relate to Arabs in this country, Friedman told him to listen to them.

"It's amazing what people will listen to if you just listen to them first. Let them get it off their chests," he advised. But don't be afraid to dispense criticism if you're using it to help people succeed, he added.

When asked why he thought the Bush administration started the war in Iraq, he said, "I can't read their minds--we're not tight."

From blogs to budget deficits

The morning after his talk, Friedman spoke with a group of about 25 students who are majoring in political science, journalism and international affairs at a gathering organized by Jack Lule, professor of journalism, in Coppee Hall.

During the hour-long session, Friedman fielded questions from the students that ranged from the role of 24-hour cable news networks to the future of the Asian economy, and offered views on a variety of topics.


--Elizabeth Shimer

Posted on Friday, May 07, 2004

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