It’s September 11th. 11 September in most of the rest of the world, but still 9/11 to everyone. One of the discussions I remember from the days immediately after the attacks in New York and Washington was just that: what would we call it?
The other questions were more important, and with four years’ experience to reflect on, it’s easy enough to see that there were two paths to take. Much of America, and certainly many in its political leadership, took one: seeing the attacks as a justification for any demonstration of American power, however misplaced. Others thought we might learn some lessons, that we should try to understand Islamic fundamentalism, have our security and diplimatic representatives learn some Arabic, and maybe find new ways to ally ourselves with countries and peoples around the world in order to deal with the threat of terrorism.
As publishers, our responsibility is to present different points of view accurately and fairly, and to provide the background data and analysis that will enable even students to come to an informed position, to be able to discuss a topic with some knowledge and context. (I use the word “student” broadly: when it comes to international policy and the realities of terrorism, most of us are students. We have a lot to learn.)
But we do publish from a principled position: that we Americans need to understand the world we live in, to recognize that our perspectives are not universal or inherently correct, and that for safety’s sake, as well as out of a sense of common humanity, we ought to listen more. Berkshire’s also intriguing by the idea of helping those outside the United States understand it better; we have the privilege and pleasure of working with colleagues around the world, and it saddens us to see how much many of them now distrust the institutions of the United States.
In October 2001, this position got me into trouble at a dinner in New York.
It was a business dinner at the elegant Four Seasons restaurant, held every month by Marty Edelston, publisher of the Boardroom Reports newsletters. I’m invited every year because they ran a piece once about one of my environmental books (read the tips they published). It was also my first trip to New York after 9/11 and I wanted to go, to be in the city again, even though the timing was difficult and I arrived in New York with just enough time to drop my bags and go to the restaurant.
I remember saying to myself that I should just enjoy the food and keep my mouth shut. I was tired, and it was a business crowd (most of the Boardroom newsletters focus on tax-planning and investments). But as we went around the room–a high-ceiled wood-panelled private dining room–introducing ourselves I found that there were a number of former military men in the group of 30, and men involved in security systems. After dinner Marty, as usual, started the conversation by asking what was going on in the world we thought he should know about. The military and security men started talking about defense, and about how much money there was to be made in it.
It was the guy promoting defense systems for individual homes that got me riled. I don’t know exactly what I said, but I made a pitch for improving our security by understanding our enemies, and our neighbors in the world at large. I probably started by mentioning my Army veteran husband, my brother who was in Delta Force–thus trumping the former Navy Seals in the room, and establishing that I was a good American too. (I know this is silly, but it’s amazing how much extra credibility I have with certain people because my husband was in the Army during Vietnam. Ironic, isn’t it, that the US hawks of today never went through basic training?) I felt completely ineffectual, though, outnumbered and trying to convince people whose minds were locked into a particular point of view, a way of reacting to threats.
When the discussion that provoked was over I went back to my food, feeling foolish. But as the evening proceeded, at least two people commented that they agreed with me and as we were leaving a couple of people came over and thanked me, amongst them Dan Burstein, an investor and author with whom I have a number of interests in common, from technology to China (he’s a very successful publisher, too, of books about the Da Vinci Code). And one of the former Navy Seals even invited me out for a drink.
And, yes, I have been invited back.