A view from abroad

September 19, 2001|By Jules Witcover

PARIS -- Near the end of a lethargic summer in Washington in which the primary public concern seemed to be the whereabouts and fate of one missing federal intern, it seemed like a good time to escape abroad for vacation. Talk about bad timing.

To be an American stranded outside one's own country by communications and travel disruptions caused by an immense national tragedy there is both an emotional and an educational experience.

In the first couple of days after the lethal skyjacking attacks in New York and Washington, the immediate concern was the inability to get through by phone to family members in possible peril in both cities, followed by frustrating days futilely seeking transportation home.

Compensating, however, was the demonstration by ordinary European men and women in the streets and shops and their national leaders on television of a compassion toward stranded Americans that has not always been the attitude in a country flooded with summertime U.S. tourists and their often abrupt and intrusive ways.

The sense of a shared sorrow about the horrible events of Sept. 11 manifested itself in small ways, such as expressions of sympathy from French shopkeepers and airline travel clerks, and in large ones, like a jam-packed Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral here and the somber observation of three minutes of silence across all of Europe at noon Friday.

At Paris' sprawling Charles de Gaulle Airport where I was occupied in a seemingly endless pursuit of a flight home, staggeringly long lines of travelers in a babel of anxious voices fell quiet upon the signal of a public address announcement that the period of silence was about to begin.

Travelers and ticket agents alike of all nationalities and races stood still, some 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, on French television, similar scenes flashed from around the world, underscoring the sense that what had happened in New York and Washington was not merely an American tragedy but a worldwide awareness that a new and fearful era had begun. It suddenly erased the American assumption of security that had set America apart from the rest of the world until that fateful morning.

The television screens interspersed repeated scenes of the World Trade Center under attack and collapsing and the rescue efforts, with commentary about similar, if much less severe, acts of terrorism delivered in recent years upon other countries that had long since lost any sense of security against them.

When President Bush returned to Washington after a somewhat disappointing first response, promising to find and punish "the folks" responsible, and after his visits to the attack sites, the gravity of the situation, and nonpartisan congressional rallying behind him brought more positive assessments from foreign commentators than before. What seemed to one American's ears a trivialization of Mr. Bush as a new president in over his head in a time of national and international crisis fell away as the new circumstances brought him an enhanced stature.

The statement of bipartisan support from Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle and Republican Senate Leader Trent Lott after unanimous Senate support for $40 billion to fight this suddenly intensified war on terrorism recognized Mr. Bush's leadership in a way not before demonstrated after his controversial election in November.

Viewing all this from abroad, coupled with the outpouring of sympathy and solidarity demonstrated in Paris and on television throughout Europe, gave one a feeling of confidence in American leadership that had been lacking in the months of partisan animosity and gridlock in the wake of that election.

The question now is whether this new evidence of nonpartisanship in Washington, and pledges of commitment from other governments to the war on terrorism, will be sustained in the months and probably years ahead. The images of destruction that were flashed on television screens here and around the world may be replaced in the future by those of less shocking and wrenching events.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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