Momentous events have a way of connecting individuals both to history and to one another. So it was on September 11. Even before more than 4000 people died in less than two hours, there were farewell messages from the sky. In their last minutes, doomed passengers used cell phones to reach loved ones. A short time later, office workers trapped high in the burning towers called spouses, children, parents. Never had so many had the means to say good-bye. During the hours afterward, the survivors scrambled to make contact with family and friends. "Are you all right?" they asked. As the enormity of it all began to sink in, the question hanging in the air was, Were we all right? Since September 11, many have noted a humbling irony: the more time we'd spent in the old world and the better we thought we understood its organizing principles, the less ready we were for the new one. Suddenly, familiar terms and concepts were inadequate, starting with the word terrorism itself. The dictionary defines it as violence, particularly against civilians, carried out for a political purpose. September 11 certainly qualified. But American's earlier encounters with terrorism neither anticipated nor encompassed this new manifestation. Commentators instantly evoked Pearl Harbor, that other bolt-from-the-blue raid, sixty years before, as the closest thing to a precedent. But there really was none. This was something new under the sun.
This latest entry into the post September 11 publishing frenzy (edited by former Time contributor and deputy secretary of state Talbott and Chanda, his colleague at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization) relies on top-notch academics to probe behind the headlines. While all of the essays taken together provide a primer on some of the most pressing issues that have emerged in the past few months, the strongest pieces provocatively explore new ground. Scientist Maxine Singer underscores the necessity to extend ties and funding between government and researchers, in part to support "off-the-wall" ideas that might help in U.S. domestic defense. Oxford historian Niall Ferguson explores the non-Muslim antecedents of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon; individual elements of the attacks were not new, he argues, only their combination was. Yale professor Paul Kennedy compares the situation currently faced by the United States with Britain's in the 19th century, concluding that the United States is in a more difficult predicament mainly because of the openness of today's world. These essays often explore ground already covered by journalists: the difficulties of maintaining good relations with a Muslim world, in which the United States is unpopular; the diffuseness of the enemy; the need to protect civil liberties while simultaneously protecting American security. But even where the scholars go over familiar turf, they do so in a comprehensive and thoughtful way that is sure to feed some readers' newly whetted appetites for information on the post post Cold War world.