The Way We Like to See Ourselves

Author: Andrew Nagorski

On the morning of September 11 when I emerged from Grand Central Station after my regular commute into the city, I saw people staring intensely at the TV screens in a bank window that normally are tuned to news about the Dow. The screens featured the headline that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. I looked back down Madison Avenue and saw a huge cloud of smoke high across the sky of lower Manhattan. My first reaction was to think that this was a terrible accident.

By the time I reached Newsweek about 20 minutes later, I was disabused of that notion by one of our photographers, who was charging out of the building with his gear. “They’ve hit the other tower, and there are more planes in the air,” he shouted. Upstairs, I found a couple of colleagues in my office watching my TV, and I walked in on the breathtaking replay of the second plane crashing into the South Tower. But I was still in a state of semi-denial; I wanted to disbelieve my eyes. It was only when the towers collapsed that I recognized the magnitude of what was happening.

In many respects, my reactions to the events of that morning were no different from those of most people. Like so many Americans, I was shocked by the scale of the horrific assault. And I was as grimly intrigued as anyone by the subsequent outpouring of stories about the mind-set of the 19 men who hijacked the four planes. But I quickly discovered that I was often out of sync with other common reactions to the tragedy. One of the colleagues who was watching TV in my office, a domestic reporter who has never worked abroad, asked me: “Andy, you fly all the time. Would you get on a plane after this?” It wasn’t any false sense of bravado that prompted me to reply, “Of course.” It’s just that the sense of vulnerability instilled by terrorism was real to me long before September 11, and I’ve learned to I live with it. I also found myself somewhat puzzled by the tone in which people posed the most frequently asked question: “Why do they hate us?” It was one of stunned disbelief, as if the idea that many people do hate us was a novel one. Although I had been as surprised as everyone by the enormity of the terrorist attacks, I was hardly surprised that the United States could trigger a broad range of emotions that included pathological hatred.

I can only attribute those differences to the fact that I’ve spent much of my life abroad, first as the child of a Polish refugee-turned-American diplomat and then as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek. For about 20 years, I called such cities as Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Warsaw and Berlin my home, while covering stories that took me to every continent except Antarctica. Those kinds of experiences left no doubt that terrorism isn’t something that happens only to strangers in remote places and that the United States both fascinates and repels much of the rest of the world, sometimes at the same time.

My father’s first diplomatic assignment was Cairo when the Cold War was stirring angry passions. Convinced that the United States was responsible for the murder of the Congo’s leftist leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961, Egyptians stormed the embassy, shattering windows and putting all Americans on alert. I recall the odd sense of adventure I felt when my mother told me that we had to leave the house for at least a day, since embassy officials weren’t sure we’d be safe. But I never felt any hostility from individual Egyptians. The same was true in our next post, Seoul, when out of curiosity I accompanied South Korean students protesting the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee — and, by extension, American support for his regime. True, in those early days of the 1960s, overt anti-Americanism was still rare in South Korean student protests, but it was beginning to germinate.

Elsewhere, it was far more advanced. This was the same time that Algerian psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon published his screed of a book The Wretched of the Earth, which quickly became the inspirational tract of a new generation of radicals, particularly in the West. It endorsed the use of violence against colonialist rulers and left no doubt that not only such traditional colonial powers as France and Britain but also the United States should be considered the enemy of the poor and oppressed. Fanon dismissed American talk of support for self-determination for African nations as a sham. And, using language that is still echoed by many radical groups today, he wrote: “The fundamental duel which seemed to be that between colonialism and anticolonialism, and indeed between capitalism and socialism, is already losing some of its importance. What counts today, the question which is looming on the horizon is the need for a re-distribution of wealth. Humanity must reply to this question, or be shaken to pieces by it.”

Beyond his Marxist arguments, Fanon’s verdict on the United States contained the broad cultural condemnation that would easily fit into the reasoning of today’s terrorists. “Two centuries ago, a former European colony decided to catch up with Europe,” he wrote. “It succeeded so well that the United States of America became a monster, in which the taints, the sickness and inhumanity of Europe have grown to appalling dimensions.” Not surprisingly, The Wretched of the Earth contained a fawning preface by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who was already part of a long tradition of European intellectuals who reveled in anti-Americanism and often extolled the virtues of the Soviet Union. This isn’t to say that they represented the views of most of their compatriots, but such diatribes from the early 1960s demonstrate that vitriolic anti-Americanism is nothing new, even if terrorist attacks on targets within the United States are. (European countries Germany, Italy, France and Britain, on the other hand, have had to live with terrorism within their borders for decades.)

While nothing on the scale of September 11 ever occurred against them, Americans living abroad were accustomed to frequent warnings that they could be targets. Terrorism of all sorts was a very real fact of life that touched lives close to our family. In 1985, Palestinian terrorists seized the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and threw Leon Klinghofer, a wheelchair-bound American passenger, overboard; he and his wife had signed up for the cruise along with the parents of good friends of ours from New Jersey, who luckily survived unharmed. Later that same year, another group of terrorists unleashed a bloodbath at the Rome and Vienna airports; one of the victims in Rome was Natasha Simpson, the 11-year-old daughter of our friends Victor and Daniella Simpson of the Associated Press.

Then, too, there was the spate of kidnappings of foreigners in Beirut in the 1980s, including the Associated Press’s Terry Anderson, whom I had gotten to know earlier when we were both reporting from Asia. He was snatched in 1985 and finally released in 1991. The last time I had run into him was in 1983 at the bar of the Commodore Hotel in Beirut, the watering hole of correspondents throughout Lebanon’s many civil wars. I had come in to report on the U.S. Marines pinned down at the city’s airport. Already, two Marines had been shot by snipers, and a couple of weeks later a suicide bomber would crash his truck into their barracks, killing 241 of them. This is only a partial, personal list of the hijackings, hostage-takings and bombings that marked the last few decades. While American disbelief at the scale of the September 11 attacks is perfectly understandable, we shouldn’t have been as surprised as we were that terrorism would eventually strike our country directly. Our embassies had been repeatedly hit already. Why presume that the terrorists would stop there?

But it’s important to remember that we’re talking about actions sparked by the most extreme hatred of the United States. Many people in the world view us with everything from uncritical admiration to a resentment or even hatred that still falls far short of endorsing terrorism. Sometimes the same person who hotly denounces the United States in one breath asks about the chances of getting an immigration visa in the next. Our prosperity, openness and democracy is both envied and loathed, often at the same time.

The most clear-cut example of the admiration, even the adulation, the United States can inspire was Poland during the Cold War era. For Poles longing to be free, Ameryka represented the antithesis of everything their society lacked. Ameryka meant wealth and success, a notion that was fueled by the stories of relatives who prospered as immigrants there. If someone managed to buy a new car, his neighbor might say: “I see that Ameryka has opened up to you.” Ameryka also meant democracy and civility, often in a highly idealized version. When a Pole demanded that a bureaucrat treat him or her with respect, the bureaucrat was likely to bark: “What do you think, that this is Ameryka?” The assumption about the meaning of Ameryka was shared by both parties in such an exchange.
When the American press writes about Western European views of the United States, it understandably dwells on the criticism we so often inspire. But while living in Europe, I also encountered frequent reminders that many Europeans remain deeply grateful for our role in liberating them from Nazi occupation and for then blocking further Soviet advances as we did by mounting the Berlin Airlift a few years later. Equally important is the widespread admiration of what the American experiment represents, despite its myriad failings. Germany’s best-selling writer Bernhard Schlink, a constitutional law professor who is fascinated by utopian societies, calls the United States utopian in its origins — “the city on the hill, shining into the world.” He adds: “This is the idea that gets all utopian communities into motion. They don’t just want to be for themselves; they want to shine into the world and show the world a better way to live together in peace.”

There’s a danger, though, when we are seen as too idealistic. Idealism, as many Europeans see it, can lead us into reckless behavior, based on the premise that our good intentions are enough to prevent us from blundering into situations where we may make things worse instead of better. No one did a better job of expressing these reservations than Luigi Barzini, the late Italian writer who both admired and fretted about the United States. In his famous 1983 book The Europeans, he devoted a chapter to “The Baffling Americans,” extolling the virtues of “the noble experiment” across the Atlantic. This didn’t decrease his unease with the can-do mentality there. “[P]ragmatic Americans consider the very existence of problems intolerable and life with problems unacceptable,” he wrote. “They believe . . . that all problems not only must be solved, but also that they can be solved, and that in fact the main purpose of man’s life is the solution of problems.”

Barzini added that such attitudes mean that the United States can either overreach or become frustrated and withdraw — in other words, become interventionist or isolationist — at any time, sometimes exhibiting both forms of behavior simultaneously. It’s easy to see why American policymakers are often frustrated by what they see as the damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don’t position they find themselves so frequently in. Take the Middle East. By the end of the Clinton Administration, the outgoing president was widely held up to ridicule for his micromanagement of the peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and his frantic efforts to reach an agreement before he left office. When I traveled around the region early last year, I heard this kind of criticism often, especially from Arab officials. Yet the same officials were bitterly complaining within a couple of months that the new Bush Administration was dangerously disengaged from the peace process.

American optimism that we can solve intractable problems where others have failed has led us to some of our greatest disasters. Pyle, the anti-hero of Graham Greene’s brilliant novel The Quiet American, demonstrated the combination of arrogance, ignorance and recklessness that led us into the quagmire in Vietnam. But when we have held back, we have found ourselves saddled with moral responsibility for allowing gruesome situations to spin out of control. Think Rwanda or Bosnia. In the latter case, the Europeans should have been able to take an effective stand to stop the shelling of Sarajevo and the massacres elsewhere — at least in theory. After all, this was their backyard. But it wasn’t until the United States finally took the lead that the Western allies took effective action.

By and large, American leaders kept visionary goals alive even when many of our allies doubted they could ever be achieved. When Ronald Reagan traveled to Berlin in 1987 to deliver his “Mr. Gorbachev, bring down this wall” speech, most Germans scoffed at his supposed naivete. As far as allegedly sophisticated Germans were concerned, there was no chance of anything like that happening in the foreseeable future, if at all. On the 10th anniversary of his speech, I was driving in Berlin and listening to a popular radio station. Suddenly, the music ended and Reagan’s voice came on with his famous challenge. The announcer then admitted that most Germans had underestimated the American president and praised him for his prescience and resolve. We are still often seen as the beacon of freedom and democracy in the world, the way we like to see ourselves.

But when our visions are fulfilled, there’s another danger: We can be seen as all-powerful. In 1992, another American correspondent and I were driving outside of Moscow searching for a supposedly secret meeting of the briefly banned Communist Party. Along the way, we picked up a Russian hitchhiker who, it turned out, was an aide to the ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky and was looking for the same meeting. When he realized he was sitting in a car with two American correspondents, he told us: “I have to congratulate your President Bush and the CIA.” For what, I asked. “For the brilliant way that they orchestrated the collapse of the Soviet Union.” My colleague laughed and said he’d like to believe that the CIA was that skillful, but he had his doubts. The Russian had none, insisting that the masterful strategists at Langley had pulled all the strings.

Of course, there are plenty of legitimate grievances against American policies and CIA meddling in domestic politics of other nations, especially during the early days of the Cold War. By helping install right-wing dictatorships in Central America or by supporting the Shah of Iran, whose rule produced mounting discontent, the United States sometimes inadvertently helped set the stage for violent revolutions. Add to that the standard complaints in the Middle East about American support for Israel and you have the basis for widespread distrust and anger. But those factors alone aren’t enough to explain the most virulent strains of anti-Americanism. Something else is at work here as well.

That something else is less political than cultural. Since its emergence as a superpower at the end of the World War II, the United States has embodied modernization, or what more recently has been labeled globalization. We have exported not just Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Hollywood movies and MTV, but a whole way of life. We can take justifiable pride in the role we have played in the growth of democracy around the world and in spurring economic development. But the fact that countries struggling to modernize see us as the model means that their failures become our failures. If Russia’s version of capitalism contributes to making Russian lives nasty, brutish and short, many Russians believe we are as much to blame as their corrupt leaders. If young Egyptians are trapped in an economy that offers them dwindling opportunities and a political system that doesn’t allow criticism of their own government, some find solace in Islamic fundamentalism and vent their frustrations at a permissible, very convenient target — the United States. Egyptian officials, like other putative allies in the region, are happy to channel the anger in our direction if that keeps it away from them.

Sometimes we simply confuse and disappoint people abroad. On my trip to Ukraine in the early ‘90s, a taxi driver started talking to me about his teenage son’s fascination with violent Hollywood videos. “Is America really like that?” he asked. He wasn’t angry; he was troubled and saddened.

Others respond far more dangerously. If globalization is seen as the enemy, and the United States with its economic and cultural reach is the chief engine of globalization, the fanatics of this world can find those who are willing to sacrifice all to try to do the utmost damage to us and the symbols of our society. These aren’t the people who still live in a highly traditional culture, the untouched villagers of the world. Rather, these are the people with what psychologists call fragmented identities, who no longer live like their ancestors but can’t find a place for themselves in a changing world. The 19 hijackers on September 11 included the likes of Mohamed Atta, the son of a successful Egyptian lawyer, who moved easily around Europe and the United States. How, many people ask, could someone with so much firsthand experience in the West plan such a deed?

Again, this phenomenon is nothing new. After Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk lost power in 1970 and the murderous Khmer Rouge unleashed a reign of terror in his country a few years later, he was asked what he would do differently if he had another chance. Sihanouk responded by explaining that, during his rule, he had dispatched about half of the students going abroad to the United States, France and other Western countries, and about half to the Soviet Union. Those who had gone to the Western countries, he noted, had returned as rabid Marxists; those who had been in the Soviet Union returned as convinced anti-Communists. Therefore, Sihanouk concluded, the next time he’d be in power he’d send all the students to Moscow.

Today, some of the same patterns continue. In Holland, one of Europe’s most liberal countries, 21 percent of Moroccan immigrants expressed their support for a holy war against the United States in a poll taken after September 11. But we don’t have to look only at the examples of disaffected, embittered immigrants or visitors from Africa, the Mideast and Asia. On the morning of September 11 before going to work, I read a New York Times profile of Bill Ayers, the 1960s radical who went on to join the Weathermen, a homegrown terrorist movement that felt no qualms about planting bombs to further “the revolution.” Ayers, whose father was CEO of Commonwealth Edison of Chicago, continued to justify his group’s actions, saying he didn’t want “to discount the possibility” that he’d resort to violence again.

If it weren’t for the eerie timing of the Ayers profile, his story would have been dismissed as simply a where-are-they-now article of no particular consequence. But after the horrors of that day, it served as a reminder that even in this country there have been people willing to justify terrorism. And we certainly should have paid more attention to the signals all over the world that Americans have been a target of foreign terrorists for a long time — and will continue to be. This doesn’t mean we are hated everywhere. In fact, September 11 demonstrated that we still command tremendous support and admiration, and the outpouring of sympathy that followed in many parts of the world was truly impressive. We are loved, hated and everything in between. The problem is that right now the haters know no bounds, and are willing to sacrifice their lives to take ours.

Andrew Nagorski is a senior editor at Newsweek International.