"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 classmates; 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 canceled classes for two days. I spent my time at the daily student newspaper, the Spectator, where I was managing editor. 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."
When he finished, the class gave him a standing ovation.
Nine-and-a-half years later, I found myself standing outside a large house in Pakistan. It was 1:00 p.m. on May 2, 2011, and I was a correspondent for ABC News. Twelve hours earlier, the United States had finally taken its revenge. In the middle of the night, Navy SEALs shot the man who ordered the 9/11 attacks in the head and chest. After loading his body onto a helicopter, they flew it to Afghanistan and then to a ship at sea, where they dumped the prepared body in the ocean. 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, about a 90-minute drive away, that Titus Andronicus and 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 vanquished 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 rather than with each other can lead to chaos.
"Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,/Blood and revenge are hammering in my head," one of Titus's enemies says before the bloodletting begins.
Kastan was right to worry. The United States has 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.
Had the Americans learned from Shakespeare's epic of vengeance, might Afghanistan and Pakistan, where I have lived for the last three years, been less violent and more welcoming of the United States today?