America, as seen from afar

by Seth Green
Princeton Alumni Weekly

I was reminiscing with an old roommate in Scully Hall when two jetliners hit the World Trade Center. I had come to Princeton that morning in the hope of gaining comfort before embarking on a two-year postgraduate trip to England. I left Princeton days later even more confused and shaken.

Still horror-struck by September 11, I arrived at my new home, an international student dorm in London, and was overwhelmed by the diversity of my new surroundings. Against my better judgment, I found myself worrying about the feelings of my Palestinian and Egyptian neighbors regarding terrorism.

But I could not have found a more supportive and friendly environment. From the dining hall to the classroom, my peers from around the world displayed constant sympathy in the aftermath of that horrific September morning. Several times, strangers in the streets of London heard my accent and stopped me to express their grief. Everyone I met, from Parisians to Pakistanis, seemed to be a New Yorker at heart.

Over the year that followed, that immense goodwill vanished. Instead of being seen as a defensive ally protecting the world against terror, the U.S. came to be viewed as the aggressor. President Bush’s talk of a “crusade” against terror, his “with us or against us” worldview, and his “axis of evil” angered many of my international peers, who saw that logic as too simplistic to win a war on terror in a complex and globalizing world. The administration’s unilateralism – its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, its rejection of the International Criminal Court, and its insistence on going it alone in Iraq – led many of my peers to ask why the international community should support the U.S. if the U.S. was not willing to support the international community.

At the same time, mistaken stereotypes of the U.S. overseas added to the anti-American furor. In the eyes of many foreigners, all Americans were S.U.V.-driving, unilateralist cowboys. Americans were seen increasingly as a monolith embodied by President Bush. The backlash at times was directed at ordinary Americans like me: I was spit at by kids yelling, “Don’t attack Iraq,” and harassed by a drunkard who declared that he gladly would blow himself up to kill me.

Deeply concerned by America’s diminishing image abroad and its consequences, in October 2002 I joined with fellow Oxford University graduate students David Tannenbaum ’01 and Jason Wasfy to establish a nonpartisan organization called Americans for Informed Democracy (AID). We initially endeavored to inform Americans about foreign views of the U.S., by publishing op-eds in U.S. newspapers about rising anti-Americanism, and organizing e-mail campaigns to representatives in Congress about how Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine was undermining America’s credibility in the world.

But as the war in Iraq heated up, and negative stereotypes of Americans ran rampant, we also saw a need to paint a more realistic picture of Americans. Many students in England saw filmmaker Michael Moore’s distorted picture of Americans in Bowling for Columbine as confirmation that America is replete with gun-toting, warmongering fanatics. We sought to get beyond these stereotypes. We organized forums where Americans of all political persuasions could discuss issues ranging from Iraq to Islam with their international peers.

In one particularly memorable forum at Oxford, in June 2002, we brought together American, European, and Muslim students to discuss the U.S. media. Many of the students felt American television was devoid of both fact and global content. We began the discussion by showing clips from a variety of American television networks. We included outlandish segments of cable TV shows such as Hannity & Colmes and Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, as well as segments from Meet the Press and NBC Nightly News. The non-Americans in the audience expressed surprise at the diversity of views displayed. After watching Meet the Press host Tim Russert grill a Bush administration official in the lead-up to war, one woman said she had no idea there was such a debate in America over Iraq.

Heartened by that experience, we organized “town hall” meetings on relations between the U.S. and the Islamic world on more than a dozen college campuses across America last September 12. Among the participants were former Attorney General Janet Reno and numerous congressmen, ambassadors, journalists, scholars, and military officials. More than 1,500 people attended – about half of them Muslims, primarily from the U.S.

At times, the meetings were tense and emotionally charged, especially when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came up. Generally, though, they were surprisingly agreeable. I particularly felt moved hearing Sue Rosenblum, who lost her 28-year-old son, Joshua, in the September 11 attacks. “It is entirely possible that a member of the Islamic community sitting here today might have a distant relative who was directly or indirectly involved with the 9/11 attacks that killed my son,” she said. “It is also possible that as an American and as a Jew I might have a distant relative who caused pain to a member of his family. But even if that is the case it will not stop me from reaching out my hand in friendship.” Muslims were equally committed to coexistence. One Muslim woman noted, “Ninety-nine point nine percent of Muslims condemn the bombings; it’s just that only the other 0.1 percent gets media attention.”

In all the meetings, participants generally found consensus. Non-Muslims and Muslims agreed that America should tread more lightly in the Islamic world, and that the Islamic world needed democratic institutions and human rights. Several Muslims said they understood the heightened scrutiny at airports, while many non-Muslims pledged to fight the Patriot Act and its sequel after hearing personal stories of Muslims’ post-September 11 treatment by the Justice Department. Overwhelmingly, Muslims and non-Muslims expressed a determination to eliminate terror, a belief in freedom and democracy, and support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I never will forget my pain in the weeks following September 11, or my comfort when strangers on London streets shared my grief. Restoring that international cohesion will not be easy. America must be ready to embrace the world, and the world must be prepared to accept American involvement. I hope that AID can play a part in bringing the world together, as it was in that fleeting moment after the attacks.

About AIDemocracy

Americans for Informed Democracy (AIDemocracy) is a 501 (c)(3) organization that relies on public donations to help our organization and keep our student-led programming focused on pressing global issues with timely events and activities. We'd love to see you make a donation or join out student network, and thank you in advance for doing so.

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