It may have been a perfect way for an American to spend the fifth anniversary of 9/11: aboard a cruise ship on the Ionian Sea en route from Dubrovnik, Croatia, to Greece, and then Turkey. While the setting and travel are obvious reasons why, there are many others.
With few English language newspapers, no U.S. network television and far too many other pursuits to justify turning on CNN World, I was not subjected to what I have no doubt was saturation coverage leading up to and on September 11. I can picture every television network and the print media focusing on little else, encouraging my country to wallow in a sea of hand-wringing in the guise of commemoration. This is not to say commemoration is uncalled for. Rather, it seems as if the anniversary and what happened become a mask for a political vehicle or to lament what “they” did to “us.” Yet not only have we failed to examine and address why 9/11 occurred, our actions over the last five years have encouraged the spread of anti-American feeling and rhetoric.
That is the saddest legacy to date of 9/11. The world sympathized and empathized with the United States in the immediate aftermath. The opportunities presented by that unusual period of good will might have been used in so many ways – building an international effort not only to combat terrorism but to address some of its root causes or motivating America to construct a sensible energy policy less dependent on foreign oil to name just two. Now, five years later, those chances have been squandered and instead we have a permanent war on terror and little love abroad for America, its policies or its citizens.
The international make-up of the passengers on this trip was also instructive. I would guess half or less were American. There were 600 from the U.K., together with significant numbers of Europeans, Canadians, Australians and Asians. None of the passengers I ate and toured with – whether British, Canadian or New Zealanders – ever mentioned the anniversary of 9/11. The closest they came were shared complaints about the recent increased security restrictions on what can be carried aboard airplanes. The only people who even referred to 9/11 per se are Americans, as if it, not our actions or policies, is the reason some were concerned traveling abroad.
Transiting from Dubrovnik to Greece and Turkey was also edifying. Less than 15 kilometers south of Dubrovnik there are still signs of the siege and shelling of the area in 1991-92. That an army would shell and pillage historic sites dating back to medieval times in the name of nationalism indicates the dangers of a desire to attack the “others” on a claim of patriotism and defending the homeland. And even though democracy in the city-state of Athens lasted longer than any modern democracy, it serves as evidence that mouthing democratic principles does not ensure it survives. That is particularly so when our foreign and domestic policies undercut the rights we avow.
To finish in Turkey, a nation that is 98+ percent Muslim, and be greeted as graciously as anywhere else was insightful. Granted, Turkey may have more “western influences” and we did not see radical Islamists in either of the regions we visited. Still there was an easy mix of what I would term the more secular and the more devout. We saw only one woman clad in a burqa but many wearing a hijab and abaya while carrying briefcases. The majority wore clothing that would attract no attention on a city street in the U.S. One tour guide, in fact, discussed at length (whether at government instruction or otherwise) the importance of the shared commonality of humankind, regardless of religion, ethnicity or culture.
All in all, we Americans seem to lack historical perspective. It is as if our 230 years as a democracy makes us the sole exemplar for the world and, thus, our government believes it is entitled to export our views and policies regardless of the history and culture of other countries. We rush to “commemorate” an event five years ago but far too many refuse to learn about or understand its historical background and context. We seek short-term political gratification rather than using history to evaluate long-term ramifications and develop perceptive policies. We prefer to mandate to other countries and cultures rather than learn about them.
Let me hasten to add, however, that on our flight from Istanbul to New York were three G.I.s returning from repeat tours of duty in Iraq. One was going home to a newborn son he had never seen. That word was greeted with applause, cheers and congratulations by those of us standing with him in the security screening line at the Istanbul airport. Regardless of anyone’s views on the wisdom of the Iraq war, there was nothing but heartfelt support and empathy for these men.
Just as I acknowledge the personal sacrifices these men made and over which they had no control, I feel anguish for the lives lost in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania five years ago. If anything, that anguish is deeper today given where we have been led. But proper commemoration does not consist of wrapping ourselves in a flag of self-pity while invoking the memories of those individuals to justify actions and policies that not only diminish their loss but increase the chance it will happen again. Perhaps I am wrong about the how self-indulgent my country was in connection with September 11. I doubt it, though. To have avoided a media onslaught that likely focused far more on patriotic platitudes than the lives lost, let alone little if any analysis and evaluation, is invaluable. Yet even more so was the opportunity to experience this period from abroad.