Reporter’s Notebook: Mulling Revenge, via Shakespeare, After 9/11

“Thank you for coming,” Prof. David Kastan told the half-full auditorium. “You did not have to be here this morning. I did. It means the world to me that you came.”

I looked around at my fellow students; we were all tired and dazed. The night before, the acrid, unforgettable smell of melted steel, atomized concrete and human remains had drifted seven miles north, from southern Manhattan up to Columbia University’s campus.

It was Sept. 13, 2001, and I was 21 years old. Two days earlier, I had walked into Kastan’s Shakespeare class before the attacks began and walked out after the second tower had already fallen. Columbia cancelled classes for two days. On Thursday morning, the first class back was Shakespeare.

“I will not make a political statement today,” Kastan continued. “But I will say this. This play we will discuss today is about revenge — and what demanding revenge can do to a person. I only hope that the people who will be making decisions on how to respond to Tuesday’s attacks read ‘Titus Andronicus.’”

Nine and a half years later, I found myself outside a large house in Pakistan. It was 1:00 p.m. on May 2, 2011, and I was a correspondent for ABC News. The United States had finally taken its revenge. I was the first American reporter to arrive at Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. My team and I aired the first video from inside the compound and filed 11 stories in five frantic days.

It was only after I had returned to my home in Islamabad that “Titus Andronicus” and Professor Kastan’s warning came to mind. I was sitting with a group of American and British friends, journalists, NGO workers and diplomats, having that familiar, melancholic conversation about 9/11: “Where were you?” And, because we now lived where 9/11's plotters had fled: “Did you imagine you’d be here, 10 years later?”

No, I said. I hadn’t imagined, sitting in my Shakespeare class a decade ago, that I would end up in Pakistan reporting the death of Osama bin Laden. But perhaps Shakespeare might have imagined the United States would be “here,” 10 years later.

“Titus Andronicus” is a play about revenge. It is about how a general fighting for an empire – Rome – finally defeats the “barbarous” Goths and returns to his capital with prisoners: the losing queen and her sons. Despite the queen’s pleas, Titus kills her oldest son to avenge his own sons’ deaths, beginning cycles of brutal violence that end in the death of nearly every major character.

At its core, “Titus Andronicus” is a play about how good people can become unhinged and, indeed, overwhelmed by the need to avenge. It is about how powerful people surrender themselves to cycles of violence, how tribal and religious customs unequivocally demand retaliation and how two tribes or two religions’ speaking past each other rather than with each other can lead to chaos.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, where I have lived for the last three years, I’ve often wondered: Has the United States made many of the same mistakes that Titus Andronicus and his fellow tragedians made? Prioritizing revenge and killing the enemy over helping the local populations? Choosing allies who help produce short-term gratification (security gains) but long-term trouble? Refusing to truly engage with a population that seemed so different from themselves?

Read Nick Schifrin’s full story in Foreign Policy, here.