On the morning of September 11, 2001, at almost precisely the time when my wife and I landed at the Barcelona airport, suicidal murderers flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, and neither our country nor its citizens will ever be the same.
While millions all over the world watched television screens in transfixed horror, people leaped to their deaths, bodies fluttered down like falling leaves, and the twin towers sank into a cloud of smoke and dust. Almost three thousand people were murdered before our eyes.
In the hours following the attacks, at the request of the editors of El Mundo I wrote an article giving one American's reactions to the terrible events. Now, a year later, El Mundo again has invited me to share my thoughts on how the attacks have affected my life and those of my fellow Americans.
OUR SENSE OF SECURITY
From the windows of our home, the view includes lofty skyscrapersthe skyline of Boston. Much of the time when I look at the tallest building, the Prudential Tower, I cannot help but imagine how it would look with the great tail of a passenger airliner disappearing into one of the upper stories.
Several weeks ago, a group of fighter planes flew over our house, very low and very loud, and a moment later I heard a series of booming thuds.
Dear God, I thought. Convinced we were under attack, I telephoned the police department, and the desk officer reassured me. "It's only a military exercise, near Boston University," he said.
All of our military forces are watchful and alert. There is not a great deal that civilians can do to protect themselves against the future attacks that will almost certainly occur somewhere in America. The anthrax scare, thought by law enforcement authorities to be the work of a homegrown madman rather than a foreign attacker, appears to have run its course. The government has tried, rather clumsily, to sharpen civilian vigilance, but it sends conflicting messages. One day Washington tells people to help the economy by going shopping and taking vacations and getting on with their lives, and the next day exhorts us to be nervously watchful for anyone who looks like a subversive. They have set up a bizarre warning system based on a series of colorsa "Green Day" supposedly has the lowest risk of terrorist attack, rising through "Blue," "Yellow," and "Orange" days, with a "Red" day having the greatest likelihood of attack. I have never met anyone who has the slightest confidence or interest in this system or knows what color any day happens to be. But no one is making jokes about the foolish system. Attacks are too real a possibility to be a source of humor.
THE COST OF TERROR
Our economy is in a slow recovery. The September 11 attacks cost U.S. businesses hundreds of billions of dollars and caused the largest single loss in the history of the insurance industryalmost $40.2 billion in property, liability, life, and workers' compensation claims. Several companies have compiled databases of public and private properties most likely to be targets of future attacks, and many American corporations are buying insurance against acts of terrorism, just as they have always insured against fire, theft, and severe weather.
The American stock market, already softened by a much-needed correction following the collapse of overvalued technology stocks, took a second blow after 9/11. Following boom years, American unemployment at this writing is at 5.9 percent and is expected to reach 6.1 percent or higher by the end of the year.
While many young people have substituted graduate school for job search, a number of former employees of corporations, unable to find work, have fashioned alternate ways to support their families. "One cannot dismiss the emotional response to September 11, which has led to a renewed 'life is too short' mentality," employment expert John Challenger recently told Money Magazine. "Before September 11, many young would-be entrepreneurs might have postponed their dreams...Now we are seeing [them] proceed with their dreams, throwing caution to the wind." Every day I read about corporate executives who have gone into teaching, opened restaurants, planted vineyards, become consultants. But not everyone is resilient or fortunate enough to start his or her own business, and rising unemployment is an unwelcome reality in America.
Airlines have suffered terribly since 9/11. Following the attacks, they experienced immediate and terrible losses and laid off 130,000 employees. Despite an after-tax benefit of $4 billion in federal assistance to the airline industry, this trend continues. American Airlines terminated 7,000 workers last week. U.S. Airways has declared bankruptcy, and it is rumored that United Airlines soon may follow. Fearful passengers have discovered that they get along fine without flying. Recently my literary agent came to Boston from New York, sitting on a train for four hours instead of flying for less than an hour. Rail travel in America is not as comfortable as it is in Europe, but he was quite happy, and there are large numbers of travelers like him.
I am willing to fly, but I am disturbed by the carelessness of security in American airports. Three months ago my wife and I made another trip to Spain. In Boston we were waved past the checkpoint without search or challenge, a benison that robbed me of confidence. Only at the Frankfurt airport, where we changed planes, was everythingbaggage, wallets, shoes, clothing, and bodiesthoroughly, painstakingly searched. I was delighted by the delay. Since last September, the more my fellow passengers and I are searched, the better I feel in the air.
In the days and weeks following the attacks, the United States became a vast garden of red, white, and blue. It seemed to me that everyone in Boston displayed three or four American flags. There were flags affixed to almost every automobile, flags decorated businesses and town streets and porches, flags were draped on walls. People were shocked, frightened, angryand I loved their unity. The first effect was almost overwhelming. All of America had chosen to show its cohesiveness in the face of attack by displaying the American flag.
And then I began to like the display less.
I'm very grateful to America, which offered a haven and lives of freedom and safety to my grandparents and to my father, who came from Russia. When I was a young soldier, each evening it was special and meaningful to salute while the flag was lowered during the slow, solemn bugle call of Retreat. The American flag has represented wonderful things to me. Still, being surrounded by countless American flags day after day, spoiled something for me. Even the most important symbols are trivialized when they become ubiquitous and are seen en masse.
There is strength in mass patriotism, and there are dangers. Since all the terrorists on 9/11 were Arabs, Arab-Americans became immediate objects of suspicion and some have been treated unfairly. Some of us remember how shoddily Japanese-Americans were treated during World War II. How does a country search for hidden terrorists in its population and still remain fair to the vast majority of Arab-Americans? Certain security measures have infringed the civil and constitutional rights of all American citizens. There is a growing awareness that we face a major challenge to provide for everyone's security and protection while selfishly guarding the freedoms that have made America a synonym for democracy.
Most Americans continue to feel strongly patriotic, but gradually most of the flags have been put away. Last week I went to see the Boston Red Sox play in Fenway Park, where a single flag has always had an honored place. In a pre-game tradition as old as baseball, before the game everyone stood while a vocalist sang "The Star-Spangled Banner," our national anthem. With a salty breeze blowing in from Boston Harbor, in the stadium the flag waved and snapped, handsome in the bright sunshine.
My baseball team won the game last week, but my political teamthe Democratic Partylost the last presidential election. In some countries, that might have given me a choice between joining the Republican Party or seeking out a revolutionary organization. In the United States it just meant that for the next four years I would be a member of the loyal opposition. As a citizen of a democracy, I can safely express respectful dissent about how my government acts, diplomatically and militarily. I can say that I would prefer to see the United States participate in the International Criminal Court, and sign the Kyoto Global Climate Accord, and practice fuel conservation instead of drilling for oil in wilderness areas, secure in the knowledge that the American Constitution endows me with freedom of speech even though my political party is not in power.
At this moment, some countries which have long been friends of the U.S. have had critical things to say about American foreign policy. I believe that both American citizens and international friends can benefit the United States greatly by offering constructive criticism to our government. When our friends in Spain and other countries of good will disagree with my government I would hope that your advice is made in a spirit of friendly opposition. Your good will and friendship are critically important to the people of the United States. For many of us, this is a difficult time. We value peace, and we need safety.
It's clear that peace in the Middle East is vital to any hopes of stability in the world. Peace won't come until the United Nations, NATO, or the United States sends troops to the Middle East to make certain that Arab suicide bombers stop killing Jews and that Jewish settlers abandon the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The longer both sides kill each other, the harder it will be for them ever to live as neighbors.
There has always been a certain amount of resentment of American power in the world, but it is sad to contemplate that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were made out of such venomous hatred of my country.
What happened on September 11, 2001, was an evil event that will live forever within many people. Some survivors still dream they are trapped in the burning buildings. Rescue workers cannot forget the jumpers. A woman who fled down 103 flights of vibrating stairs in her bruised bare feet, holding her sandals with spike heels, now will wear nothing but flat shoes that allow her to run. A man listed among the dead has just been discovered in a psychiatric hospital, where he has been since the attack. Hundreds still suffer from their injuries.
And they are the fortunate ones. More than 2,800 persons died in the World Trade Center. Another 125 died at the Pentagon, not counting the more than 60 passengers, crew and hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 77, which was flown into the building.
In the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine, writer Samuel Freedman reminds us of a Jewish mourning ritual. "At the one-year anniversary of a loved one's death, it is expected that you resume your former life and, at the same time, mark the grave with a headstone." In New York, authorities are having difficulty deciding what kind of monument to raise as a memorial to the victims at the World Trade Center site. Perhaps the most fitting memorial would be for each of us to work ceaselessly to bring peace to a world too long battered and bled by the insanity of war.