image continues to come to mind this past week, so much so that I stopped
in at an English bookstore today to again look at the cover of Don DeLillos
1997 novel, Underworld. The cover photograph is a gravestone in a cemetery
in the foreground, with the looming presence of the World Trade Center Twin Towers
behind it in the distance, the tops of the buildings consumed by a thick fog like
a mushroom cloud. It is an ashen day, and one of subtle prescience.
been over a week since the terrorist attacks, and Paris, from what I can surmise
as an outsider, has for the most part returned to normal. Much of the evening
news continues to be devoted to New York and Washington, DC, and flowers are still
being added to the makeshift shrines at American locales around the city. But
despite added security, particularly outside the government buildings, business
as usual goes on. Still, an uncertainty hangs in the air, and I dont know
what to make of it. For many, there is a disposition away from the melodramatic,
an attempt to balance out the reactionary, shrill cries of a coming world war,
of the ubiquitous oversized magazine covers depicting the destruction and death
that line the newspaper kiosks every few blocks. Last week, one of the major French
news magazines carried the headline, "The Islamists Declare War on the West."
In a city of many Muslims, this kind of generalization strikes me as a bit of
This movement away from
the dramatic is a call for cooler heads to prevail. It is heard in the United
States, too, from what Ive read and seen. But in France, I think it comes
from a different state of mindthat of a country, and a continent, that has
seen more terrorism than the United States and has had two world wars fought on
its soil. Though it is probably being said in many other places, it seems that
it is in a nations best interests to always be in the wake of a Vietnam,
not a Gulf War, from a sense of humility, not invulnerability. The French people
Ive spoken with are concerned. And although they do want a retaliation of
some sort eventually, they seem wary of the price. Still, backpacks and purses
are randomly searched at department stores, and automated warnings are heard on
the subway every few minutes instructing commuters to report unattended baggage.
Out on the streets, public garbage bins are sealed. Rather than seek out the translucent
bags that can be found every few blocks, people have placed their garbage atop
the cans, resulting in a sloppy city with, despite clichés to the contrary,
a population that has eating habits as unhealthy as those in the United States.
realized that although Ive been in Europe for three weeks now, Ive
spent the last week clocking in on USA time. I wake up each morning to see what
has transpired in the American evening that has just ended with the dawn on this
side of the Atlantic and likewise feel a lull until the day opens up around 3
p.m. when the East Coast begins its morning.
have written to me about the ubiquitous patriotism in the United States beyond
New York and Washington, of the country as a community. In the images Ive
seen on the French news, with the aggressive chants of "USA, USA!" it
appears to be an uneasy, bull-headed jingoism. Ive received letters from
some that say it isnt that way at all; instead of jingoism, there is an
air of tempered resolve.
has been a concern, and the Europeans Ive spoken with have said that had
the same kind of attack happened here, it would not have been met with the same
kind of flag waving. France is not a flag-oriented country in the way the United
States obviously is, one friend told me. This is quite clear; our national anthem
is about the flag itself. It is more than a symbol; it is practically a diplomat
had limited access to CNN and have watched the French news, becoming accustomed
to the male and female French counterparts of Tom, Dan and Peter. I cannot quite
understand their words, but I can sense that they dont serve as the nations
father/mother figure and surrogate to world events in quite the same way. I watch
the correspondents reports from New York and Washington, sitting close to
the television to hear the English that has been dropped back in the audio mix
to accommodate the French translation laid over it. Theyve played a video
several times that was shot by someone in an office on the other side of Manhattan
at the time of the attacks. You can hear a woman say, "Wait a minute, what
is that?" just as the second plane comes into the frame and then crashes
into the other tower. She begins to wail, screaming profanities in fear and disbelief.
Because it is in a foreign language, these words have not been bleeped outas
I assume it must be in the U.S. due to FCC regulationand it is absolutely
The implicit concern both
at home and abroad is that the Bush Administrations rhetoric is going to
get us all into trouble. And because Chirac was the first foreign leader to travel
to the United States to show support in combating terrorism, some French people
have come to the conclusion that this country will be the first after the United
States to be attacked.
thought that has been suggested to me by some French people is the rather cynical
idea that the attacks are receiving such endless coverage because they occurred
in New York City. Several people at a recent dinner agreed that much of it has
to do with the worlds fascination with New York, in France in particular.
Had there been an equal number of people killedbut with the attacks taking
place in Nebraska, Idaho or Oklahoma City, for that matterit would not have
garnered the attention and fascination in quite the same way from the average
citizens around the world. Thats because so many have been to Lower Manhattan
and seen those buildings with their own eyes, seen them from the Statue of Libertya
gift from the French.
here have asked me what it has been like to be an American away from home this
past week. The one moment that continues to come to mind occurred on the evening
of the attacks when I joined some friends to watch the news at their hotel room.
After several hours of seeing the same footage over and over and not getting any
new information, we went to a restaurant. Our waiter asked where we were from.
When we said the United States, he paused and said with a grim sigh, "Im