God Knows Why

     by Greg Bayer

A chapter from the unpublished novel Story from Baghdad

Philosophy Department, Iowa State University, 10 October 2006. 

 “Professor Stillman?” Madge said to the person on the phone. “Which one?” Sitting behind the long reception counter, she looked up at the two Professors Stillman, who stood at opposite ends, sorting through their respective stacks of mail. “It’s for you, Professor,” she said, handing the receiver to Richard.

He listened for a minute, said “OK…no problem…fine,” then handed the phone back to Madge. It was a dissertation student saying he’d be late for his ten o’clock appointment this morning. Stillman was hardly upset: it meant less time with the kid, one of his least promising students. He went back to sorting mail.

An embossed invitation to a faculty function he never attends, the novella-length minutes to last week’s faculty senate meeting, announcements for conferences on everything from queer theory to fuzzy logic, glossy fliers from publishers selling new textbooks, requests from re-sellers to buy textbooks back—most were flipped through, then tossed into the bin beside the counter for discarded mail, barrel-sized for that purpose. A film buff since his own college days, he held on to a flier about an upcoming series of early Hitchcock films, sent to him as faculty advisor to the university film club. Items ambiguously addressed to “Professor Stillman” or “R. Stillman” he slid along the smooth countertop to a small pile in the middle.

A few pieces slid from the opposite end. Also flipping and tossing was Associate Professor Rebecca Safire—her official name once again, though not everyone had gotten word about the divorce. Just happening to arrive at the same time this morning, the two professors were busy sorting the glut of mail from the long Columbus Day weekend; in the wall behind them the grid of faculty cubbyholes was stuffed. When she finished her pile, Rebecca quickly glanced through the ambiguous one in the middle, then grabbed her backpack and left for her office. Richard had more mail to sort; as chairman of the department instruction committee, he was inundated. When he finally finished his pile, he made short work of the middle one, sliding it all across the countertop into the bin. Grabbing his brown leather briefcase, he passed behind the counter to his large corner office.

As usual, he switched on his computer before sitting down at his desk. He leaned over the screen waiting for it to boot up, his fingertips galloping on the desk. When the Iowa State home page appeared, he tossed his briefcase onto his reading chair across the room, sat down and started scrolling through emails, glancing at the From line in each. After zipping through the few dozen received this morning, he stopped. Tapping out one last gallop, he sat back in his desk chair.

No, nothing from Paul Bernstein this morning, again.

Outside, nine o’clock was grandly chiming on the campanile across campus. The crisp light of an autumn morning filled McMaster Quad, just outside his window. Clusters of students were rushing to classes, or lounging among auburn leaves under the tall elms. He got up, took off his tweed jacket, and carefully draped it over his desk chair. Sitting down again, he wheeled himself forward on the chair’s casters to his massive walnut desk. Continuing his morning routine, he began scrolling through today’s news reports about Iraq—direct from the State Department. A few months ago, Bernstein had given him special access to a DoS listserv. His old grad school friend had at least done that much for him.

He had known Paul since Chicago. After grad school there, the two had gone their separate ways, but over the years still kept in touch. Bernstein went to work in Washington, first at a think tank, then with the State Department, rising up the ranks in the Political Affairs section—“flirting with power,” Stillman once kidded him, though with a touch of envy. Richard, meanwhile, had to take a string of one-year visiting positions around the country, as an “itinerant academic,” Paul put it, before finally landing his tenured job at Iowa, “your safe haven in the hinterland”—Paul emphasized safe. But to Richard, Bernstein showed hints of envy as well, or at least regret. When they ran into each other at philosophy conferences, Richard would always ask him what a government bureaucrat was doing there, if not trying “to keep one foot in the clouds.” On such encounters, after trading greetings and gossip, the two would find themselves discussing the grand arguments of political philosophy and how they played out in current affairs—as seen from the perspectives of their two careers. Through the years, at conferences, in their correspondence, on long phone chats, they were in effect keeping alive the same friendly argument: whether power can only be studied by pursuing it, or if pursuing it precluded a dispassionate study. For both, the news and views from the other were like dispatches from the road not taken.

After 9/11, Bernstein moved over to Cultural Affairs, a surprise for his friend—“away from the action, isn’t it?” True, Paul agreed, but “you do no harm doling out money for books and concerts and scholars.” To Stillman, this didn’t sound like the ambitious diplomat he’d known since Chicago. In fact, Paul gave mixed signals about the move. While insisting he was “happily ensconced” in a senior position with the Fulbright—in a book-lined office on the top floor—he also complained about “being kicked upstairs,” as far away from real decision-making “as the faculty lounge in a philosophy department.”

At an APA convention three years ago, Bernstein told Stillman about the job managing the Fulbright in Iraq. Paul had mixed feelings about it. He explained that since the State Department couldn’t interest enough of their own people to work in a war zone—especially as part of the intervention in Iraq—they were looking outside career ranks, for people with special qualifications. Still, the controversy surrounding the American presence there hardly extended to helping Iraqi academics with Fulbright scholarships, Paul assured his friend, which had been part of our relations with much of the Mideast for decades. And as a prof who’d worked with the Fulbright committee at his university, Richard might have an inside track for the job, maybe for an upcoming sabbatical year. “Though why you’d want to spend it in a war zone,” Paul said, “is beyond me.” To Paul’s surprise, Richard immediately showed interest—perhaps surprising himself a bit as well.

Getting the job, however, turned out not to be so simple. Richard hadn’t acted quickly enough to grab it when it was first posted. Then bureaucratic crossed wires on Bernstein’s end allowed an FSO to get it; this guy held onto it for two tdy’s, the last two years. But recently, the stars seemed aligned. Bernstein’s messages since mid-summer, that the job might be opening up again, rekindled Stillman’s interest. He got himself put back on the university’s Fulbright committee; he enrolled in an intensive Arabic class; he chose to teach only intro classes this fall—substitutes could be found quickly, if he had to leave. In recent weeks, Stillman was tempted to write Paul for news, but dropped the idea. He didn’t want to appear too eager—as eager as he actually was.

Though he had plenty of work to do this morning—like reading through the latest dissertation chapter of his student coming in at ten—Stillman stayed at his computer. Though he used to regard most daily news stories as little more than a kind of national gossip, in the last three years he’d developed an obsession for reports from Iraq. Tucked away in a corner of the office was a tall stack of newspaper articles about Iraq, numbering into the hundreds. Now, thanks to Bernstein, the State Department’s listserv on Iraq satisfied that craving even more: fifty pages of articles every morning from everywhere, virtually everything in English on Iraq. Though he knew he should be skimming over his student’s latest misguided take on Spinoza, he remained at the computer, clicking away.

There were a dozen articles on yesterday’s top story. A car bombing at Mustansariyah University: sixty dead, 169 injured; “I saw arms, legs, body parts flying in the air,” said one student eyewitness; both Shi’a and Sunni extremists suspected. Several articles on last week’s mass kidnapping story at the Higher Education ministry; a dozen victims yet to be found; Sadrists suspected, despite denials from their leader, the Shi’a firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr. Two or three pieces on Saddam’s trial, as tedious as the trial itself; bogged down for months, now, finally, reaching its predetermined end, three years after his capture.

Before Stillman knew it, the campanile chimes were striking ten.

He slowly rose from his desk and went over to one of the high, elegant bookshelves lining his office. Though he was a tall, lanky man, he had to stand on a footstool to reach his Latin copies of the Ethics and Theologico-Political Treatise up near the fluted molding at the top. Settling into his high-backed reading chair by the window, he unclasped his briefcase, pulled out the student’s Spinoza chapter, and began skimming through it.

After several minutes, he heard a familiar chime from his computer: an incoming email. He stared over at the screen on his desk. Finally, he got up and walked over, the student’s rolled-up Spinoza paper clenched in his hand.

There it was. “From: Bernstein.” He stood staring at the subject line—“Latest.” He hesitated, then clicked the message open. The moment he read the first short sentence, he thumped the desk with the base of his fist, crumpling the student’s paper: “Richard, your ship has come in.” A grin flashed across his face. He sat down in his desk chair, wheeled forward, and read on:

The job you’ve been waiting for—God knows why!—is ready and waiting, finally. Here it is, posted just an hour ago. No need to read the fine print. No need to fill out the app form—just send your cv, asap. My guess is you won’t have any trouble getting it. People aren’t exactly lining up for jobs in Iraq these days.

There was a link to “USAJobs,” which had a detailed description for “Fulbright Program Manager Iraq: Recent opening, for immediate deployment; one year tdy; open to N-CX; BBA or FSO preferred but not required; phys/drg exam req,…” He quickly skimmed through it, translating from the governmentese he’d learned from months of glancing through similar postings.

It was everything his friend promised. A one year tdy, tour of duty, running the Iraq Fulbright program, now an important diplomatic initiative. Since he’d only been studying Arabic the last few months, he would hardly qualify as a BBA, Bilingual Bicultural Assistant, but after a total of two years on Iowa State’s Fulbright committee he could consider himself an N-CX, a Non-Career Expert—non-career, since he had no intention of starting a career in the State Department, as an FSO, foreign service officer. He would arrange for a physical and a drug test, immediately. Was he ready for immediate “deployment”? He began compiling a mental to-do list: finding substitutes for classes, a house-sitter, someone to look after dissertation students. In each case, there was a responsibility he was being freed from. He realized how much he wanted to go—asap.  

He clicked back to his friend’s email, mentally composing a friendly thank-you note—“good thing I have friends in high places”—when he saw the PS at the end of Bernstein’s message. “Maybe you ought to take a look at this,” it read. “Just came in, after the morning wires. Not that it’ll change your mind.” There followed another link.

Stillman stared at the words “change your mind.” He looked at the link itself. In its long line of blue characters, two items caught his eye. First: “CNN.” A news story? Bad news? And: “FulbrightKillings.”

There was a barely audible knock at his office door. “Damn!” he said aloud: Becker, his dissertation student. He managed to tear himself from the screen, but kept glancing toward it as he walked to the door.

There were apologies from Becker for being late this morning, for handing in his latest chapter late, for mistakenly putting it into his wife’s mail box—

“My wife’s?” Stillman said, finally paying attention to him.

Yes, Becker explained, he had put it into her cubbyhole, but he was glad to see the paper had finally gotten to him, since he was holding it now, and hoped he liked this version better than the earlier draft, because he’d been working on it morning noon and night for the past month, but he wasn’t sure if he got Spinoza’s concept of freedom right, all things are necessary, but—

“This version’s better,” Stillman interrupted, reminded of Becker’s nervous chattiness—and that the non sequitur was his favorite mode of communication.

Calmed by Stillman’s quasi-compliment, Becker grinned, and stopped talking. He quickly unharnessed himself from his backpack and immediately went over to sit down in one of the white plastic chairs Stillman had on hand for students. Taking one last glance at the computer screen, Stillman decided he’d have to wait to look at Bernstein’s link; it was probably a newspaper article or a long-winded State Department cable, which would take a while to read and, if bad news, might take even longer to digest. He walked over to his high-backed chair, and sat down to face his student.

The two were both tall and lanky, but Becker’s tangle of dark red curls, thick as a Brillo pad, was a foil to the professor’s thinning gray-brown hair; likewise his standard jeans and t-shirt, to Stillman’s tweed jacket. The Professor tried not to stare at bright bold drawing adorning the t-shirt: a large red tongue hanging out of a huge red-lipped mouth. He looked up at the ceiling as Becker began hunting in his pack for his Spinoza chapter. When he found it, he primly set it on his lap and looked toward the professor.

Stillman began to explain why this version was “better” when Becker said, out of the blue, “Must be interesting, two philosophy profs married to each other.”

Stillman looked at him. Not knowing quite how to answer, he was about to correct him about still being married. But Becker wouldn’t be interrupted. “I mean, the two of you…the two of you must never have a trivial conversation.”

Stillman smiled. Then he burst out laughing. “Oh no,” he said. “Never.” He laughed some more. Never in their five short years of marriage—nothing trivial, nothing trite. Their conversations were always serious, deep—about Rebecca’s career. About what papers she should publish, conferences she should attend. He was still her mentor, after all. Mentoring makes for strange bedfellows, he once quipped to a colleague. And for a lousy marriage.

Not sensing the edge to Stillman’s bout of laughter, Becker giggled himself. Emboldened, he went on. “I heard you’re going to Iraq, Professor.” Everyone in the department was wondering about it, though few had gotten up the nerve to ask him.

Still thinking of his ex-wife, Stillman only nodded. But then he realized where Becker’s remark was leading.

“Working for the Fulbright?” Becker asked. “Handing out scholarships in Baghdad?”

“Well, not out in the street, exactly,” Stillman said, remembering Rebecca had described it the same way. “But yes, I’m considering working as Fulbright manager there.”

“You can just go there? Into a war zone?”

“I’d be at the embassy. Yes, technically it’s a war zone, but—”

“Technically?” Becker asked.

“Well, the embassy is well protected.”


“Why is the embassy well protected?”

“No-no. Why are you going there?”

Ah, yes. There it was—where these questions always led. “Why am I going?” Stillman repeated, pretending the answer was obvious.

It was the question Stillman always tried to avoid. How much it had to do with a failed marriage, and his own deeply unsatisfying career, he was unwilling to speculate, even to himself. “I think I can do some good over there,” he said, his standard answer. “I’ve been an advisor with the Fulbright committee, and I know a lot about the program. I think I’d be able to do a lot of good over there.”

“What good?”

Stillman looked at Becker, disarmed by his wide-eyed stare. “The universities there are becoming very dangerous places, you know.”

Becker nodded Yes.

“And Iraq’s future,” Stillman went on, “of course depends on its intellectual capital.”

Becker nodded.

“The Fulbright, you know, has sponsored future presidents, prime ministers, Nobel laureates…”

The nodding continued.

“Anyway,” Stillman said, “if we can help the Iraqis at all, it’s liable to be through things like the Fulbright.”

“Yes,” Becker said, for the moment done with his nodding.

“Anyway,” Stillman said, picking up his copy of Becker’s paper—their discussion of Baghdad was concluded. He began paging through it, looking for a place to begin. But his mind was elsewhere. 

Already sound like a diplomat, don’t I? Already got the talking points down: Be able to do a lot of good over there… Future depends on their universities…  Presidents, prime ministers, Nobel… Just listen to yourself!

He glanced again at the computer screen on his desk. By now the Iowa State screen-saver had replaced Bernstein’s message.


It was a real chore concentrating on “Spinoza’s World: Is There Room for God?” Or was it “Spinoza’s God: Is There Room for a World?”? Stillman had to check its crumpled title page to be sure. After discussing it with him for thirty minutes or more, he saw Becker had read much, but understood little. He was struggling with what everyone struggles with, Spinoza’s notion of freedom.

 “You say, Mr. Becker,” Stillman read aloud from the second page, “‘According to Spinoza, we should strive to be free of the passions, so that we can choose the life of understanding.’ Choose? Really?”

Becker looked puzzled.

“As if when we do X,” Stillman went on, “we could have done Y or Z—if we had chosen to?” As if poor Becker could have done anything but misunderstand; or he himself could avoid being obsessed with that damned link in Bernstein’s PS. “But you yourself, Mr. Becker, quote Spinoza’s grand thesis. ‘In nature there is nothing contingent. All things in nature necessarily follow by the same necessity and in the same way as from the nature of a triangle it follows, for all eternity, that its three angles are equal to two right angles.’” Stillman looked at his student. “Can a triangle freely choose the sum of its three angles?”

Becker looked at the floor. “No.”

“I had German measles as a boy,” Stillman said, “a very dangerous disease.” Indeed, his younger brother had died from it, during the same outbreak. He often used this as an illustration of brute necessity, though he never mentioned his brother. “Nerves linking one of my ears to my brain were destroyed by the virus. Which is why I’m deaf in this ear.” He pinched his left air lobe. “Now, can severed nerves ever freely choose to transmit aural messages to my brain—or not transmit them, for that matter?” 

For a moment, Becker regarded the professor and his ear with a look of curiosity. Then he looked down again. “No.”

Pointing over at the stack of newspapers in the corner, Stillman said, “Could any event in those papers have turned out differently—for Spinoza?”

“Well,” Becker said, hesitating, “Spinoza does talk about the free man, doesn’t he?” He began paging through his paper.

“Yes,” Stillman said, “But does the free man have free choice? Free will? Again, you have the right quotation.” He opened to Becker’s page three: “‘In the mind there is no free will, but the mind is determined, foreordained, to will this or that by a cause determined by another, and that by another, and so on to infinity.’”

Meantime, Becker found the passage he’d been looking for. “But he does talk about ‘the life of the free man—the one lived by the guidance of reason rather than under of the sway of the passions.’”

“Yes. So how can he say this when he denies the possibility of free will?”

Becker looked at the professor, then squinted. “I had trouble with this.”

“Well, what is his notion of freedom? That’s what we have to find out.”

Becker paged through his paper. This time he came up with nothing.

“Mr. Becker, you have all the elements here,” Stillman said striving to be patient, holding up his wrinkled copy.

Becker began jotting something on the back of his.

“Look, it might help to say what the opposite of freedom is, for Spinoza.”

Becker looked up from his paper. “Necessity?”

“OK. That’s the usual opposition, freedom vs. necessity,” Stillman said. “But for Spinoza?”

Becker squinted again.

The professor set Becker’s paper on one armrest of his chair and picked up his copy of the Ethics from the other.“Spinoza makes things difficult for us, doesn’t he,” he said, paging through it. “Here, he defines freedom,” he said, raising his index finger. “‘That thing is called free,’ he says, ‘which exists solely by the necessity of its own nature and is determined to act by itself alone.’” He repeated, “by the necessity of its own nature.” He closed the book. “So not only is Spinoza allowing freedom and necessity to co-exist. He is defining one in terms of the other. A neat trick, right? If they’re supposed to be opposites.”

Becker went back to writing notes on his paper.

Stillman looked at him, tapping out a few fingertip gallops on his armrest. “So freedom must have another opposite besides necessity, right? At least for Spinoza. What would that be?”

Becker continued jotting.

“As I say, Mr. Becker, all the elements are here,” Stillman said. “You just have to put them together.” He opened to another page. “For example, here, on page four. Conatus. I’m glad you mention conatus.”

“Right. Conatus.”

“Meaning what?”  

“Exertion, impetus, striving,” Becker said quickly, like a dictionary entry.

“Well, yes. Exertion, striving. But striving for what? To do what?”


Stillman waited. “Well,” he said to help, “in the case of physical bodies, you remember, their conatus is inertia, right? Striving to continue moving in the same direction, or stay put.”

Becker jotted that down.

“So… What is conatus, generally?” Stillman asked—striving not to grab the pen right out of Becker’s hand.

 “Striving to… exist?”

“OK,” Stillman said. “OK. To exist. To persevere.”

This time Becker turned to the right page: “A thing’s conatus, he says, ‘is the very essence of that thing.’”

“Yes,” Stillman said, encouraged. “Yes. Its striving to be what it is. Its power to be what it is.”

Becker nodded thoughtfully.

“So what is our conatus—as human beings?” Stillman asked. “What do we strive for, as human beings?” He paused. “What is your conatus, Mr. Becker?”

“To be free?”

“OK. But what does that mean? That’s what we’re trying to establish.”

Becker nodded, with a blank look.

Stillman set Becker’s paper back on the armrest and leaned toward his student. “Look. All is necessary he says, right? Nothing is contingent. Why? What would it mean for Spinoza if an event were contingent?”

Becker hesitated. “That it has no cause?”

Exactly. And what would that mean?”

Becker paused. His eyes widened, mouth opened—but he said nothing.

“Well, you quote Spinoza here,” Stillman read again, “‘The knowledge of an effect depends on, and involves, the knowledge of its cause.’ OK. If an event were contingent, it wouldn’t have a cause. And so?”

Becker paused. “You wouldn’t be able to know it?” he said uncertainly.

“Bravo. You wouldn’t be able to understand it. So…” He waited again for Becker to take the ball and run with it. He waited some more. No—not quite yet. He went on coaxing: “All is perfectly necessary, foreordained, right? All cause and effect. And so?”

“And so,” Becker said, nodding slowly, “all perfectly…understandable?”

“Exactly. Perfectly comprehensible. So: perfect comprehensibility goes hand and hand with perfect necessity.”

“Yes,” Becker said. “Yes!” For the first time a lightbulb lit. “Adequate ideas. This—this is what Spinoza means to have adequate ideas.”

“Say more.”

“Well,” Becker said. “Well, you understand something if you have an adequate idea of it.”

Stillman nodded. His eyes widened at Becker.

“And,” Becker continued, “you have an adequate idea of it if…”

Nodding more, Stillman made a slow twirling gesture with his hand…

“…if you know what caused it.”

…as if trying to reel in the line of thought from Becker’s mind.

“And,” Becker went on, “you know what caused it if you know why it had to be the way it is because of its causes…”

“Yes,” Stillman said, still reeling in.

“…or why an event had to happen—because of its causes.”

 “OK,” Stillman said, smiling at his student. “Sounds right. Sounds like Spinoza. So—what’s an inadequate idea?”

Becker answered quickly. “It’s just our normal ideas about things, events,” he said. “I mean, that they’re all just chance events, things that just happen.”

“Exactly. Can we understand—”

“No,” Becker answered before Stillman finished asking. “No. We could never understand them if they were only chance events.” He paused. Lifting his head slightly, he seemed to be peering into the distance, just over Stillman’s high-backed chair. He was thinking. He smiled. Turning to a page in his paper, he read:

We are driven about in many ways by external causes, and like waves on the sea, driven by contrary winds, we toss about, not knowing our outcome and fate.

“This,” he said, raising his index finger, “This is how Spinoza describes someone with only inadequate ideas. With no understanding. He just reacts to what he sees and feels.”

“Like most of us, most of the time,” Stillman said, himself nodding.

“And so,” Becker said, eyes widening, “this is the opposite of freedom. ‘Driven by contrary winds.’ Like a cork in the sea. Just sitting around waiting for things to happen. Just reacting, with pleasure or pain.”

Stillman smiled. “Not a bad way to put it: ‘Cork in the sea’” He waited a bit, for the right moment. “So—freedom?” he asked. “What is freedom?”

“What you quoted, Professor.” Becker read from his paper. “Something existing ‘solely by the necessity of its own nature.’ By its own conatus.

“So, again, what is our conatus? How do we persevere, as human beings? How do we have power over our surroundings, ourselves—to be what we are?”

Becker quickly turned to a page, and read:

What we strive for is nothing but understanding; nor does the mind, insofar as it uses reason, judge anything to be useful to itself except what leads to understanding.

“But understanding means knowing the necessary chains of cause and effect, right? Knowing why. Knowing the whole…the whole causal story.”

He turned to another page. In a clear voice, he read:

For insofar as we understand, we can want nothing except what is necessary. Nor absolutely be satisfied with anything except what is true.’

“Yes,” Professor Stillman said. “Yes. You remember his famous formulation. Viewing the world sub species aeternitatis.” He looked out the window at the quad. “And accepting it.”

Something now clicked in Stillman’s mind. He was enjoying this. He allowed himself a quiet laugh. The campanile chimed eleven. “Well, we’ve made progress, Mr. Becker.” Stillman enjoyed it more than he’d expected. Or—should he have expected he would?


Once Becker left, Stillman sat thinking. As often happened after a meeting with a good student, his thinking on what they’d talked about was only beginning.

Conatus. The drive to persevere. The power to remain what one is. But be careful: it can’t be an end. Not for Spinoza. Nothing in nature acts for an end. Inertia’s the model. A body just keeps going in the same direction, same speed. No goal, no destination. Just conatus. Drive to persevere. But persevere as what?

“To become what one is?” Stillman asked aloud. He couldn’t help thinking of Nietzsche—who was pleased he’d found a “precursor” in Spinoza. Conatus was one way Spinoza anticipated him. To become what one is: Nietzsche’s expression of the paradox of human life—willing without a free will, without a prior choice, but willing nonetheless. The same problem Spinoza faces, isn’t it—almost? Finding freedom in an necessary universe. What Becker quoted—“we can want nothing except what is necessary, nor be satisfied with anything except what is true.” Like Nietzsche’s phrase, amor fati, right? Amor necessitatis could be Spinoza’s. They amount to the same thing, don’t they? Both, as compelling as they are…incredible.

And both involve a kind of expression, don’t they? Yes—“story,” Becker called it. For Spinoza, the necessary causal story of nature—which for him is one and the same as God. A kind of divine message for us to decipher, understand, attend to. For Nietzsche, there is only one’s own interpretation. One’s own perspective. For Spinoza, perspective must disappear with understanding. For Nietzsche, perspective is all there is. No objective truth, no single story.

But evil? How does one deal with evil in the world? How does one “attend” to it? “Accept” it? But one must, if it is part of the same cosmic story, the same divine message—

Damn!” Stillman said aloud. He’d completely forgotten Bernstein’s email. Glancing over at the computer, he sprang up and rushed over. With a quick slide of the mouse, Bernstein’s letter reappeared—with the PS at the bottom.

The link—about “FulbrightKillings”—turned out to be a video, a CNN story aired in the last few hours by Peter Tacito, an Australian reporter noted for controversy. Stillman recognized him from his Aussie accent and ironic grin.

“I’m standing in front Madrasah Mustansariyah, some say the oldest university in the world,” Tacito said, “where an American diplomat was gunned down just hours ago. J. Charles ‘Chip’ Morton, the Fulbright program manager for Iraq, was killed, along with an Iraqi professor, Professor Sulieman al-Wissam, Professor of Western Studies…”

Stillman laughed out loud, remembering the ad: Recent opening!

“Extremist Shi’ite fundamentalists are suspected,” Tacito continued. “All universities in Iraq have been targeted by various sectarian groups, with Iraqi academics bearing the brunt of the attacks. Dozens of academics have been reported killed in recent weeks. The fundamentalist groups take umbrage at any professor who has the temerity to teach anything American, anything Western, or have at any contacts with Americans. Sulieman had also worked with the Fulbright committee and the Fulbright manager.

“Fulbright manager Chip Morton was a natural target for fundamentalists. Giving Iraqi students the opportunity to study secular subjects with the infidel through Fulbright scholarships is considered a crime by such groups. In fact, even Fulbright applicants are potential targets. Two Fulbright candidates I talked to spoke with respect and affection for Morton, who in effect gave his life to present the Fulbright message of opportunity and understanding throughout Iraq.

“The State Department is considering all possible leads for these assassinations. Though most believe they were motivated by sectarian hatred, some have suggested other reasons, ranging from anti-American sentiment in general to resentment with the Fulbright program in particular.

“Anyway, the killing of an American diplomat and an Iraqi professor are just two more signs of the deteriorating conditions here in Iraq.

“That’s the story from Baghdad. This is Peter Tacito for CNN.”

Stillman clicked off the CNN window. Bernstein’s email was still open on the screen. “God knows why!” it said about anyone wanting the Fulbright job in Iraq. He smiled. He wasn’t sure God knew why. He wasn’t sure he knew himself. What he did know was that if Bernstein had sent him the link to discourage him from taking it, he failed. No—now he was even more eager to grab it.

Still, something in Tacito’s report caught his attention. One motive for the killings: “resentment with the Fulbright program”? What the hell was that about?

Stillman was about to write Bernstein to ask, but decided against it—he’d wait until he got the job first. He began another message.

“Many thanks,” he wrote Paul. “I’m the best man for the job, right? I’m the only one who wants it.”