Six months before the 9/11 attacks, I knew something bad was going happen to the United States. I felt it in my bones. My heart was so heavy at times, I couldn’t breathe. And I knew…didn’t know what bad thing would happen. But I saw it coming.
How would I know? I’m a writer from Chicago. I’m not a diplomat or an elected official. But I am an educated observer of life. And at the time, I was in graduate school at DePaul University’s Public Services Administration Program, and had taken advantage of two treasured opportunities to study overseas. My first trip was to Dublin, Ireland, in July 2000. In the grand tradition of céad míle fáilte (a hundred thousand welcomes), our group had been honored guests of the St. Vincent DePaul Society and other NGO’s (nongovernmental organizations,) the city fathers of Drumcondra, (the Dublin suburb that houses Croke Park football stadium,) and the local Cat and Cage Pub, where we made nightly visits.
As we met with leaders and lecturers in our discussion groups at All Hallows College, numerous people cited the work of President Clinton in helping bring about peace and economic progress in Ireland. And we were loved, as representatives of the United States, for it. At one point, my husband turned to me and said, “Alison, forget buying a house in Chicago! Let’s live here….”
Well, we bought the house in Chicago, and I continued my grad studies. At home, the governmental instability following the oh-so-controversial, convoluted 2000 election that brought George W. Bush to power had also de-stabilized the United States. History records a deep divide between “blue” and “red” states, causing the polarization of economic and social proportions that certainly still exist today.
It was in this de-stabilized, highly charged atmosphere that I traveled in April 2001 to Brussels, Belgium with another DePaul group to continue my education at the seat of Europe’s power. The European Union and NATO were both allowing us in to tour their facilities. We could even sit in on Committee sessions. We were excited and honored to be offered a seat at the table of power, even as observers.
However, the reception given us this time represented a 180-degree turn from the remarkably warm embrace back in July in Dublin. Our first inkling of trouble in Europe was the day we were introduced to a Dutch member of the European Commission on Climate Action. In one of his first acts, President Bush had pulled the US out of the Kyoto Protocol, which regulated and reduced greenhouse gases worldwide, dismissing it as an “unrealistic and ever-tightening straightjacket.” Clasping her hands, nervously, yet forcefully, she told us “Your President Bush has just set back environmental change many decades. Please tell your representatives…whoever can get to your president, to return the Kyoto Agreement to prior Administration levels. Europe’s future depends on it.”
That was much the same reaction we had on the streets of Bruegge, Leuven (where our college was located, ) and Brussels itself. Our American accents were heard. And unless we were with students who could speak French, German, Dutch, or Flemish, we were treated, well…without warmth. Without an embrace.
Only in Amsterdam, where I took a one-day trip, did I breathe freely and without fear of disdain. As I walked up the narrow stairs that led to Het Achterhuis (The Secret Annex), at the Anne Frank Center, I thought of Anne’s most famous sentence in her diary…”I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Would she still feel that way, viewing the world in 2001?
For the first time in my life…and I’d traveled to the Bahamas, to England, to Canada…and had never heard criticism of our government before. Not like this. Well, maybe in Montreal. But I don’t speak French-Canadian.
The Dutch environmentalist’s reaction was mild compared to our reception at NATO a day or so later. A baldheaded young man from Canada led our tour. At a question and answer session, the man led off by saying…or spitting, “You people in America think you’re so powerful. You’ve got all the money in the world. You think that because of that, you can just waltz in whenever you want and do whatever you want to do, anywhere you want to do it. You have treated us as children when conflicts arise.”
We were shocked. As university students, we hadn’t expected this. But he wasn’t through yet. The man sneered, ” Let us grow up. We are adolescents in dealing with our own conflicts. Save your money and firepower for big conflicts, like Kosovo. The smaller ones, leave to us.”
I can’t speak for the others, but I was shaken. And I started thinking–America’s lost the European Union. Worse, we’ve lost NATO, the protector of civilization as we know it. If we get into conflict, who’s going to come with us and fight along with us?
Throughout the summer of 2001, the deep polarization of the country continued as Bush implemented the “Compassionate Conservatism” agenda he promoted during the presidential campaign. Congressional battles broke out over spending the surplus of government funds (everybody remember the $300 check we got? And are we nostalgic for surplus government money?) If that weren’t enough, immigration, healthcare, Social Security, and economic policy vied for battleground space throughout the year. And in the chaos of this environment, a document entitled “Al Queda Wants To Attack The United States,” was disregarded as mostly historical.
And in the instability of that moment in time, we as a nation were vulnerable. Because of my observations during the Brussels trip, I felt the vulnerability. But I disregarded my own gut feelings. Surely, people in government knew
Until September 11, 2001.
Painfully, my greatest fears were realized as the Twin Towers were hit, as our country lost nearly 3,000 patriots. And that millions more suffered so much collateral damage to their lives. Some of my family members were trapped that day–two on airplanes. One was on Air Force One. Another worked right across the street from the Pentagon. Others were near Pennsylvania. I prayed that day for America, and I haven’t stopped praying ever since.
What do I pray for? For the families whose lives were forever altered. For conflict resolution . For the better angels of our nature to take over and lead us to greater wisdom, understanding and tolerance of each other. And that the lessons we learned that tragic day in American history would not be forgotten in the annals of time.