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Turning a Page in History

Can a great power wounded learn to treat others more gently?

September 11, 2002|PICO IYER | Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of "The Global Soul" (Vintage, 2001) and, coming this winter, "Abandon," a novel about California, Islam and the dialogue between them.

America is still, a year later, shaking a little on its foundations, but its sense of itself and its pride in the traditions it upholds seem more strongly defined (and sometimes more narrowly so) than ever before in my lifetime. Nothing, alas, so concentrates the mind as a head-on assault.

Yet even as this sense of "us" seems to intensify--all those flags murmuring, "You can't destroy us. We stand tall and firm"--so too, inevitably, does a sense of "them." As a grateful immigrant who has long found this nation to be the most accommodating of places (and ideas), I worry that the John Wayne stance it's projecting outside its borders is taking it further away from a world that it needs desperately to get closer to.

In recent months I have traveled across Bolivia, Vietnam, Tibet, Peru, India and many other places, and everywhere I go I come away with the same impression: It's not Islam that's on trial worldwide, but the USA.

The United States is the cynosure of every eye, the country that every other looks to with a mix of admiration, resentment and envy. Radical Islam is in most places just a muttering in the corner.

A year ago, of course, we saw a great outpouring of sympathy around the world for what Americans were going through (and, among more hardened types, a sense that the world's great protected superpower was at last experiencing what is a daily fact of life for most humans). But with every passing month it feels as if the U.S. is growing more isolated, to the point where now it seems in many places just as it seemed to me in Yemen, six weeks before Sept. 11: another planet.

It's in the nature of an empire, of course, to be unpopular--the Russians were nobody's favorite in the 1980s (least of all, I found, among their supposed comrades in Cuba and Vietnam); the Raj, burnished in such golden hues on PBS, seldom seemed so benign when it was a center of world power.

In the case of the U.S., inevitably, the image is complicated because the youngest kid on the global block happens to be the strongest. This is hardly a consoling state of affairs for those older hands who believe that power comes only with experience and the truth lies in a distant past that the young can't even remember.

Many people abroad seem to feel that U.S. leaders are much less sophisticated and worldly than the leaders of much smaller places, while the American people (whom everyone seems to like) are less interested, at times, in learning about the world than in changing it. Certainly the world knows more about us than we know about it.

And when, in Hong Kong this spring, I saw a sign scrawled near the Star Ferry terminal, in Tagalog and English, saying "U.S., Go Home!" and in La Paz saw a similar message scribbled across an elegant colonial building ("U.S., Out of Afghanistan!"), what I really felt I was seeing was the same message I've been seeing for as long as I've been traveling: "America, leave us alone!" A sentiment complicated by the fact that it is often accompanied by a cry, just as urgent, of "America, take us in!"

In the year since the attacks on the U.S., people here have learned to live with a much keener sense of frailty and fallibility and a much sharper understanding that we need to learn more about a world that is larger than our notions of it. With American dreams come responsibilities.

Yet in the rest of the world, the U.S., everyone's favorite scapegoat, remains more a target of skepticism than ever before; when everything goes wrong, after all, people blame the person on top. For many around the world, I suspect, the shock of the attacks is gradually being eroded by the image of Washington's response, which allows them to say: "They're doing what they always do. Taking their frustrations out on the poor."

Today is the first day when Sept. 11 no longer has to signify a particular traumatic incident; it can refer now to a new day, Sept. 11, 2002. The United States will always be, to some extent, imprisoned by its power. But if it can show the world that it can be humble and ready to change, some good may yet come of all it has suffered. Perhaps the best thing we can learn from older nations--Vietnam, say, or Japan--is that the most useful response to loss is to start looking beyond our wounds and toward how we can avoid hurting others, and getting hurt, again.

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