Witcover: Twenty years later, on watching 9/11 from abroad
WASHINGTON — On Sept. 11, 2001, my wife and I were outside Paris watching reports on French television of the two hijacked planes that crashed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center.
We canceled a visit to Versailles and rushed back to Paris in quest of the first available flight home, with no immediate success. So instead we attended a solemn memorial service at Notre Dame Cathedral amid a host of mourning Parisians and Americans.
Racing then to the Paris airport, we witnessed a spontaneous moment of silence there for the fallen passengers and heroic firemen who had rushed to put out the horrendous blaze. They included a young nephew of mine who survived serious respiratory damage.
I wrote then of “staggering long lines of travelers in a babel of anxious voices (who) suddenly fell quiet upon the signal of public-address announcement that a period of silence was about to begin. Travelers and ticket agents of all nationalities and races stood still, with heads bowed in prayer, for the 180 seconds of utter mid-day hush that seemed in a previously bustling airport to last much longer.”
Later, again on French television, similar scenes flashed from around the world. They underscored that what had happened in New York and Washington (where the Pentagon was similarly attacked) was not merely an American tragedy but a worldwide watershed, a sign that a new and fearful era had begun. I wrote: “It suddenly erased the American assumption of security that had set America apart from the rest of the world until that fateful morning.”
Upon arriving home, I went up to New York to see for myself what the terrorists had wrought. I reported in the column that for all the immense destruction and shock to the City That Never Sleeps, “its citizens seemed to have responded remarkably quickly to President George W. Bush’s urging that they ‘get back to normal.’ ”
I also noted then that “t is not normal in New York, to be sure, for taxi drivers to take it easy on their horns, or for pedestrians to say ‘Excuse me’ when they inadvertently jostle a stranger on the always bustling sidewalks. But in other ways, particularly in the pursuit of commerce, the city does seem to be getting back the hurly-burly rhythm for which it is famous.”
There were, however, perceptible differences. I observed “signs of and an air of unabashed patriotism everywhere, from an epidemic of American flags looking down from skyscrapers that escaped the fate of the twin towers, to flag lapel pins that have sprouted here like shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day.”
Or course, I could not resist adding: “Never mind that they are being hawked relentlessly at nearly every corner, especially at what is now known to everybody as Ground Zero. Hey, as they say here, ya gotta make a living.”
For a time at least, political partisanship was put on hold, as President Bush rallied the country to a “war on terrorism” and its perpetrators. They have since been identified as al-Qaida, masterminded by Osama bin Laden from camps in Afghanistan and protected by the rogue Taliban regime there. The leader is gone, but the terrorists remain and are being remobilized today.
President Joe Biden has talked tough, saying of the recent American military personnel killed at the Kabul airport, “We will not forgive, we will not forget,” and “We will hunt you down and make you pay.” How he will do so and when, though, are open questions now.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.