September 11 Remembrances: London, England
Xenophon Strategies, Waszyngton, DC / PRGN, 12.09.2011
The moment that, for most Americans, marks the beginning of this era is often described in news accounts as a bright and crisp September morning. In London, it was mid afternoon and I had just two more meetings on my schedule before I would be free to set off in search of a pub for a pint of beer and dinner. My colleagues and I had gathered in the lobby of our hotel for a last-minute review before we left for our next meeting, but the television in the gentleman’s bar located just off the lobby soon began attracting attention so we broke from our discussion to see what all the fuss was about.
The television screen showed what is now an iconic image for me: monstrous flames and thick black smoke billowing from several floors of the World Trade Center. It was a genuinely surreal moment. Even as we watched in utter astonishment as the second plane hit the second tower, I couldn’t imagine that the events unfolding on that television screen were anything other than a tragic but freak accident. As an American who came of age during the Cold War and witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was so confident in our national security that I rarely gave it a second thought. It was simply unimaginable that the United States would be attacked by a conventional army, much less a transnational band of murderous fanatics. In fact, my sense of security was so strong that I didn’t hesitate to turn my back on those compelling images and go to my next meeting.
Of course, that meeting didn’t last long; as the day continued to unfold it became apparent to all, even the most blithely confident Americans, that the plane crashes were deliberate acts of violence. On the drive back to the hotel, we used a television set built into our minivan to watch the collapse of the second tower. The coverage was difficult to watch so I tried to find my emotional footing by looking out the window. What I saw was Londoners standing four and five deep outside shops with television sets. They were almost pressed against the glass, watching the news reports come in and watching America… us… as we reacted to the attack.
Being on the other side of the Atlantic, I was mercifully shielded from the worst of the fear and anxiety that beset so many of my friends and co-workers that day. Unfortunately, that physical distance soon proved to be problematic. Back at the hotel, one of the television news reporters indicated that the U.S. airspace had been closed and all planes ordered to land or turned back. The doors to the United States had effectively clanged shut and I was on the other side.
I never made it to a pub that night. Instead, I watched Tony Blair give what I thought was a superb speech in which he said that Britain stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the United States. His words comforted me and put an off-kilter world back into perspective. Days later, my colleagues and I would finally be able to return to the United States. We flew into Newark after passing over a still-burning Manhattan. It was my first glimpse of a United States that was changed, perhaps forever but perhaps not.
During my trip across the pond, a word previously associated solely with distant lands had catapulted to a place of prominence in our national lexicon: terrorism. The major events that would follow – the invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq, the nearly continual loss of life, and the expenditure of almost unimaginable sums of taxpayer dollars to combat terrorism – have worn on all of us but I remain optimistic about the future. I think that sense of tomorrow being a new day with limitless possibilities is one of the defining traits of the American character. I’m certainly ready for a new day, aren’t you?
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