The View from Afar: Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop, and Hoping

Like thousands of other Americans, I watched the aftermath of September 11 from afar, stranded overseas by the airline shutdown that followed the worst terrorist attack in history, an attack equally incomprehensible in its scope, violence and sheer reality.

Finally, after numb 18-hour days spent watching CNN and the BBC, I'm trying to shift back into gear.

But "getting back to normal" is no simple task. When the anger and despair over the big picture looms so large, the little things of daily life irritate and seem unworthy. Politics, the relations among countries and people that protect the simple elements of day-to-day life, have failed, leaving us raw and holding our breath.

For any day, any moment, the other shoe will drop. The frame will change from a grieving nation grasping to make sense of what's happened, to one conducting a war, with all that war implies. Desert Storm will pale in comparison. The propaganda will be overwhelming, the need for accurate information acute. The nature of America's new war, as some media commentators have glibly labeled what lies ahead, remains frightening and obscure to virtually all of us.

Fortunately for me, during this time of contemplating what's to come, I've been stranded in Holland, a country known for its sensitivity and sanity. The Netherlands, like all of Europe, demonstrated enormous sympathy for all of us Americans. On Friday, major European nations held a three-minute period of silence. Traffic, media, work, conversation stopped across a continent.

The demonstrations of condolence were huge events. Two hundred thousand people came to Germany's Brandenburg Gate. Ireland shut down for an entire day, at an estimated cost of $250 million pounds. (Ironically, a number of U.S. firms in Ireland stayed open, according to the Irish Times.)

I'll never forget the emotions that washed over me as I joined thousands of Dutch in The Hague, streaming from all directions to pay their respects. That day and in the days that followed, hundreds laid bouquets on the plaza in front of the American embassy, commemorating the devastation in the States with flowers of such color, variety and beauty as only Holland could provide.

Why did they come? I wondered. I met one woman who broke into tears as she explained that her son had worked at the Top of the World travel agency, on one of the towers. She waited 10 dreadful hours before discovering that a midtown meeting on the fateful day had spared him. Though he is okay, the trauma of not knowing his fate is still with her. A tall, handsome man in his 60s pointed out Prime Minister Wim Kok and members of his cabinet as they laid the first commemorative wreath. He said he had been a diplomat in New York for eight years and loved the city. A young TV journalist added: "You liberated us 60 years ago -- that still stands for a lot."

While the Dutch have had little use for George Bush, especially because of his environmental positions, they love Americans. Their devotion to our country is warm and enveloping. Once people hear you are "stranded Americans," free desserts appear and checks are forgiven. Everyone wants to talk about what will happen, to understand the psyche of George Bush.

Like other Europeans, they are appalled at what has happened. They want desperately to halt terrorist acts. They, too, want action. But they want to get it right. Many Europeans have seen just how disastrously counterproductive impulsive retaliation against terrorists can be: witness the British in Northern Ireland, the French in Algeria. They understand that brute force alone doesn't eliminate terrorism, but can inspire and exacerbate it, creating martyrs and inspiring new recruits.

Thus, as the war drums beat louder, European leaders are busy trying to slow the Bush juggernaut. For example, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said that Americans should not be out for "simple revenge or punishment," but should try to treat the roots of the conflict. As France's President Jacques Chirac visits Bush, he carries the anxieties of the EU that hasty military action could trigger a wider conflict. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the U.S.'s most active ally, has been cautious.

Blair is a whirling diplomatic dervish: he has made a quick trip to the U.S. this week, huddled with German, French, Italian and even African leaders, and criticized Israeli ones for their hard-line attitude. Blair's activities point to his goal of creating the biggest coalition possible before action is launched, which will be essential for a long-term victory against terrorism

Whether we like it or not, as the only reigning superpower, the U.S. is like a super parent, and a single parent at that. A good parent does not condone terrible behavior. But the parent who does not want to raise an enraged child who behaves out of fear and waits for the chance to strike out, also works to understand and ameliorate the reasons for the child's fury.

This horrible set of acts must be punished. Mass murder, mass violence, cannot be tolerated. Our tremendous power and influence in the world, however, also oblige us to try and understand why an alarming number of zealots believe that harming the U.S. and its interests is worth the cost of their lives.

Bin Laden and his suicide warriors are not likely to change. But many of the millions of Muslims he is trying to appeal to have legitimate aspirations and grievances stemming from physical, cultural and economic repression, as well as from brutal poverty.

Reports from New York describe a peace movement that is struggling for visibility, but being shouted down by those understandably screaming for revenge. Although I admire the people with the conscience and courage to fight the powerful tide toward vengeance, there seems to be no way that a massive retaliatory effort will be halted. I personally would be happy to see bin Laden eliminated.

Yet the weak and the innocent always suffer the most in war. For example, bombing Afghanistan into the stone age is not really an option. Between the Russian invasion and the accumulated toll of civil war, it's already been done.

I have some hope that we will try to do the right thing. The longer we wait, the more countries we engage, the better our chance of getting it right. If the U.S. can commit to addressing worldwide poverty, particularly in Muslim countries; if we can make distinctions between blind, hate-filled zealotry and legitimate aspirations -- like those that once inspired Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, those of the Zionists in 1948, and, yes, those of Palestinians today -- we will be taking a significant step toward making the world a safe place.

Mature politics requires us to join wholeheartedly in the fight against terrorism, while keeping vigilant watch that the effort doesn't trample our rights and harm innocent people.

The whole world is watching whether the super parent will inspire or inflame. Can we punish intelligently, without bludgeoning whole countries and murdering innocent people? Can we bring countries and cultures together to contain terrorism significantly? Or will our desire for vengeance ensure more death attacks?

Ultimately, we as a country need to go beyond what Edward Said describes as formulaic expressions of grief and patriotism. Continues Said: What is most depressing "is how little time (in the U.S.) is spent trying to understand America's role in the world and its direct involvement in the complex reality ... that has for so long kept the rest of the world extremely distant and virtually out of the average American's mind."

As I've learned over and over during the past week, many residents of foreign countries know much more about American foreign policies and our strategic alliances than we do. That's a shame. Let's hope that one of the lessons learned form this terrible tragedy is that Americans need to pay closer attention to how our country conducts itself abroad and how it can blow back in our faces.

Don Hazen is Executive Editor of AlterNet.


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