“Thank you for flying.”The silver-haired, Mt. Rushmore-profiled airplane captain walked among the few dozen of us in the SFO departure lounge. It was one week after 9/11. The world was still numb from the horror. After days of no flights at all, planes were starting to move, but people were still nervous about going up in them.
We were on our way to London, then eventually continuing to France and Italy. Suddenly, we were living and traveling in a new kind of world – but no one knew yet what kind of a world it was.
The people who had recently taken over the White House didn’t seem to have a clear grasp of either what had happened or of the world in which it had happened – and had no understanding of the history that had brought us to this place. Somebody was evil, it seemed, but who was it? They were huffing and puffing a lot, but as far as anyone could tell from their pronouncements and actions they were just thrashing around. Eventually, of course, they took drastic action, action based on misconceptions, misunderstandings, and lies.
But that September my wife and I flew on a mostly empty 747 aircraft nonstop from San Francisco to London, where, as Americans, we were received warmly and with sympathy. Something terrible had happened to us, to our greatest city and our people, and they were on our side.
As we read newspapers and magazines and saw television news shows, it became evident that we had the sympathy of people everywhere, across the globe.
Our second day in Britain, we joined a walking tour of the Mayfair section of London. The British guide led the group past swank homes, foreign embassies, and luxury hotels. When he came to the vast green expanse of Grosvenor Square, he gestured broadly to the open space and the huge white United States Embassy at the far side.
“All of this square,” he said, “was filled with flowers left by people to honor the Americans who died in the tragedy at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and on that plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. People came spontaneously to leave bouquets and cards and tributes to show their support and love for America at such a terrible time."
The United States was honored and loved. Supported in its hour of anguish. We felt choked up from the emotion still hanging over Grosvenor Square, that bit of America in the heart of London, with the monumental statue of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in its center. Looking around us, we noticed some of the other people in the walking tour group – Americans and others -- wiping tears from their eyes.
Before long, however, that support and honor for the United States faded, turned to confusion and surprise and eventually to fear and sometimes even hatred. What happened? And why? Was it only ignorance that led to such wild and dangerous actions and propelled us into fruitless, deadly wars? Was it special interest groups greedy for oil reserves and the profits from providing the materials of war? Was it all of this and more? A vast library already has emerged arguing this way and that way about what happened – and why the goodwill the world felt for the United States immediately after 9/11 was so quickly destroyed.
Ignorance and greed aren’t enough on which to base a foreign policy.
One conclusion seems inevitable through all this: the United States needs a leader in the White House who knows world history, who understands that the world is complex, that all peoples do not think alike, and who is both able and willing to work with people who are different than we are – different than he, or she, is. We need leaders who understand that the world is not black and white, good and evil. We need someone who respects others, whoever they are, whatever they believe, and does not want to convert them or control them.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Texas A & M University Press Consortium, and by order from your local book store.