Four years ago on New Year’s Day, while contemplating the intricate battle of good and evil depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, I saw two of the Khmer Rouge’s chief killers—Pol Pot’s lieutenants, in effect—walking, unprotected, through the country they had devastated. Having turned themselves in to Cambodian authorities under an amnesty agreement, they were now free to enjoy a sight-seeing trip to their national monument, heedless of the people all around whom they had orphaned and whose lives they had reduced to zero. One of those victims, spotting the murderers strolling in the sunshine, turned white. But another, next to me, said: “Let it go. If we harm them, the cycle of violence will only continue.”
It is a sentiment you hear often in Asia, and one that humbles many of us who visit from the West. In Vietnam, people who lost daughters and brothers to the American war now embrace returning American veterans, if only because they sense that the patriotic thing to do is to embrace the (U.S.-dominated) future. Japan, a country reduced to ashes by America’s bombs, responded to defeat by throwing its arms around its conquerors, having decided that if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them—and do what they do even better. Whether out of pragmatism or real moral clarity, the old cultures of Asia, famous for their worship of ancestors, have often shown themselves ready to learn from their descendants.
To many on this side of the world, therefore, America’s dwelling—and dwelling—on its losses of two years ago appears unseemly. The firemen who gave their lives in the World Trade Center are heroes to inspire the world. And most Muslims regard the assault of a few fanatics as a blot on their religion, not a triumph. Yet America, determined not to look up from the event and to keep brandishing its wounds before the world, looks at times like an angry child who lacks the perspective of his elders. When a troublemaker tries to provoke you, even schoolboys know that you get the best of him by turning away and going about your business. Each time the U.S. revisits its sorrow, it provides Osama bin Laden with another victory and lives down to the terrorists’ caricatures of it.
The very tragedy that should have propelled America closer to the rest of the world, and made it more sympathetic to cultures that have suffered catastrophes of their own, has only pushed America deeper into itself. And at precisely the moment when it should be thinking about a global future—if nothing else, the attacks reminded us that the grievance of one place is the sorrow of every place—the U.S. is retreating into the past and a vision of “us” against “them.” America has acted in recent years as if to be on the receiving end of evil is, in itself, to be good. That being opposed to wrong is not the same thing as being right, that being a victim is not the same as being an innocent are ideas not warmly entertained of late in the land of the free.
Everyone who suffers a terrible loss grieves over it and remembers its anniversary; not to do so would seem scarcely human. And in the case of America, which has been shielded for so long from terrorism at home, the 9/11 attacks possessed a force that more weathered cultures have forgotten. But the older cultures, having extended a hand toward America at its time of need, can reasonably feel now that the U.S., in its rage, has swatted them away. And the imbalance of the world—whereby so much power and money lie with one of its youngest nations—is compounded by that deeper imbalance whereby almost every nation knows more about America than America knows about every other nation. Each reiteration of the 9/11 tragedy can make it seem as if the U.S. is stressing its losses to the exclusion of those in Bali or Bombay or East Africa; when more than 120,000 people died in a flood in Bangladesh in 1991—40 times as many casualties as on 9/11—I do not remember my neighbors in California showing much concern.
It is said that the Buddha, walking through a park one day, came upon some picnickers who were furious at a woman who had made off with their goodies. “What is more important?” he asked them. “To look for the woman, or to look for yourself?” We are the shapers of our own destiny, he was saying, and it is up to us to reflect upon what we may have done to invite calamity, and how we can prevent it from happening again. Whether Buddhist or not, that spirit is still visible in Asia today. The older cultures on this continent learn daily from the enterprise, dynamism and evergreen hopefulness of the world’s youngest power. But they can be forgiven some wistfulness if the U.S., in return, shows no signs of wanting to learn anything from them.