From Across the Ocean: On September 11, 2001

Coby Lubliner

I happened to be touring Europe at the time of the September 11 attacks. I got the news, with a genuine expression of grief, from a passer-by in Salzburg who overheard me speaking American English with my companion. The next day, at our Viennese hotel – saturated by CNN – we received a sincere note of condolence from the Vienna Tourist Board. And it was most moving to see and hear similar expressions of sympathy, both public and private, as we traveled from Austria to Hungary, the Slovak and Czech Republics, Germany, and France.

This is a part of the world, from the Danube to the Marne, that has known plenty of misery and devastation. Many of the cities we visited have been rebuilt from rubble, some after World War II (Munich, Nuremberg, Ulm, Heilbronn) or World War I (Reims, Verdun), others back in the 17th century (Budapest, Prague, Heidelberg). There is, moreover, a persistent memory of Americans as liberators and as sponsors of reconstruction. And so, given the palpable sense of history with which the people here live, it was quite natural for them to feel compassion with the destruction and suffering visited on our cities.

But after a while the mood seemed to change; the compassion became tinged with puzzlement, at the very least. It seemed that Americans did not, after all, see themselves as being like other people, as part of suffering humanity. The attitude, arrogantly and belligerently expressed by our leaders and acclaimed by the people, seemed to be “how dare they do this to us, the bastion of freedom, the world's leading nation?”.

The speechifying struck one chord that, at a distance, seemed particularly dissonant: the peculiarly American blend of jingoism and religiosity. American patriotism is seldom simply love of country; it is the assertion, most often accompanied by Christian pieties, that “we're number one,” “the greatest nation in the history of the world” – the very pride that Christian doctrine condemns as one of the deadly sins. Living in the USA, one knows better than to confuse American Pop Christianity, with its Jesus-as-quarterback imagery and its pre-mayhem prayer, and any of the historic versions. But, from across the ocean, the dissonance is jarring indeed.

It became clear that the US is not joining the rest of the world, a world in which – from Spain to Sri Lanka, from Sierra Leone to Northern Ireland – terrorism has been rife for decades, in the common cause of eliminating it. We are, instead, going to wage our “war” or “crusade” against the terrorists who attacked us (and not any others), and we demand that the rest of the world join us, or else (“you're either with us or against us”).

To someone who has experienced war first hand and who finds it intrinsically evil, it seems unfortunate enough that we Americans like to designate any major governmental enterprise as a war, whether it be against poverty, drugs or cancer. But in this case it's far worse: calling the attacks a “declaration of war against the American people” gives their instigators precisely the validation they seek. All terrorists think of themselves as warriors in some holy cause (nation, religion, or whatever), not as the vile criminals that they are. And the peoples in the world, weary of both war and terrorism, would undoubtedly sympathize with a criminal-justice operation, even if carried out in part (as it must be) with military means, far more than with having yet another war thrust on them.

September 26, 2001

© 2001 by Jacob Lubliner

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