9/11. Unbelievably, its only seven years since 3 numbers became the idiom by which this century will be defined. I moved to the US in the late 1990s but in fact was in England on September 11th, 2001. My mother and I, like millions of others around the world, stood in the kitchen in front of the television. We wept as the Twin Towers came down, the Pentagon burnt and 45 heroes on a plane over Pennsylvania paid the ultimate price for stopping a third, brutal attack on US soil. Why 19 men, some with wives and children, did what they did has been exhaustingly debated. That their actions changed America inexplicably and permanently is without question.
When I arrived here in 1997, I met an Englishman in Chicago who said that the most overriding characteristic of the American people was their optimism. When I asked him why he thought Americans were so optimistic compared to the arduous cynicism of the English, he replied quietly, ‘they have no idea what’s going on outside their own state lines. Wouldn’t that make you optimistic?”
For the next four years, the halcyon days of pre 9/11, I thought about his words long and hard. Although of course he dealt in stereotypes, I thought perhaps that old cynic was in some ways right. It seemed to me that the basic tenet of so many of the Americans I met was endearing optimism. It defined America – shaped its personality – from the way in which its media reported domestic news, its cheerful magazines at the checkout to the happy-go-lucky attitude of its citizens, north, south, east and west. You were a nation of proud immigrants whose hard work and determination had rightly earned you not only the status of sole super power but an outlook on life which to a spectator such as myself was enviable.
But while US optimism was unquestionable, I struggled with the contradictions upon which it was based. Morality comes in different forms and for many Europeans the American model can sometimes be baffling. I thought about that Englishman in Chicago and wondered – does that insularity also shape the ethical backbone of America? A sixteen year old can buy a gun but can’t buy a drink for another 5 years. A woman’s reproductive rights can be tirelessly debated and in some states even denied, but execution remains legal in over three quarters of the US. South Carolina waits until 1998 to remove a state ban on interracial marriage but with the highest divorce rates in the world perhaps they thought they had nothing to lose.
Then came 9/11 and while I wrestled with the moral contradictions of America, others in the outside world came here to make damn sure all Americans knew what was happening outside their states lines – in New York, Washington, a lonely field in Pennsylvania, Europe, and of course, inevitably, the Middle East. Although I think the whole world changed on that sorry day, here in the States you paid the ultimate price. You paid with lives of course, but for me just as sadly you were robbed of your greatest gift – your optimism. With its demise came fear, caution and worse: resentment, paranoia and ultimately war. The European immigrants who arrived in the US long before me escaped religious discrimination, the ominous mix of church and state and ethical discrimination for the New World. Sometimes when I watch the news post 9/11 something sounds strangely familiar….but geographically and historically misplaced.
I think a lot about that man in Chicago. He claimed that optimism was based on ignorance – ignorance of a world beyond US shores – but how pompous of anyone from a continent the same size as this one nation to assume things should be the same here. England fits some five times into the State of Texas. Can we really expect a nation of this geographical magnitude and relative geographical isolation to be so in tune with matters overseas? 9/11 of course has changed that. The repercussions of those attacks resonate throughout US media some seven years later. US foreign policy is global news. The world beyond these shores have been taken out of the proverbial closet and shoved unceremoniously down your throats. And what of ignorance? I prefer to think of this nation as having lost its innocence rather than its ignorance. Vietnam may have set the wheels in motion but 9/11 determined its course. Post 9/11 there was no going back and so finally, reluctantly, you have become one of us – tired, cynical and suspicious.
My husband says that my ramblings don’t make me a European, they make me a bloody democrat. Maybe he’s right – but from this post 9/11 gloom of war, recession, rising energy prices, ethnic tension and sometimes sinister government policy, I think there comes some light. I never thought I’d see an African American take the Presidential Vows on the lawn of the White House with perhaps a woman as his running mate. Or a Republican fight for the rights of the illegal alien who despite the obvious is playing by the rules. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t but what gives me the greatest pleasure is seeing that with these changes comes hope and with that hope comes optimism. It is a more seasoned optimism, a weary optimism but it is here and this I believe.