Thursday, November 1, 2001

Why it's painful to be an American in Dublin

{This was published in November 2001 in the Irish Voice.}

Sitting on a train on September 11, heading home from work, shocked by what I'd
seen in the previous few hours, I wondered to myself if the people I
was looking at riding on that train with me felt the same as I did.

Were they horrified? Were they feeling sick? Were they in shock? A
group of schoolboys got on and were loud with nervous excitement
talking about what they'd seen. But, for the most part, there was
little conversation other than between mothers and their small
children. So, I figured people were feeling much of what I felt.

That night and over the following few days, the words of
President McAleese, Bertie Ahern, Mary Harney and others, the
thousands of Irish people who stood in line for hours to sign books
of condolences at the Embassy and the near complete closure of
Ireland and overflowing churches on September 14 for the National
Day of Mourning convinced me that, yes, Irish people were feeling as
I felt.

Fears of US over-reaction

Yet, even before the Day of Mourning was over, I had heard a few
people mention their "fear of the U.S. response." My reaction was,
"What do you have to fear? Ireland is hardly going to be bombed or
suffer any serious consequences from the U.S. response." But, I knew
that they were convinced that the U.S. was going to "over-react." I
had fears too. I was afraid that there would be more attacks, that
they might be of a nuclear, biological or chemical nature, that
family or friends were still in danger.

What I had seen on September 11 had convinced me that the
attackers had no moral limits. If they had access to nuclear
weapons, I was sure they would use them. Given that background, I
could see no way that the U.S. could be accused of over-reaction.
I was more afraid that President Bush and his administration
might under-react.

The reaction of the bulk of the Irish media was
exactly as I had expected. A mixture of selfish, skeptical,
anti-American, and "turn the other cheek" views provided a chorus of
condemning voices - even before the U.S. had done anything.

Once the bombing started, most of the coverage was marked by a
conviction of the futility and immorality of the campaign. One
Sunday newspaper argued that President Bush should give up his war
mongering and get back to making the economy right - as if "It's the
economy, stupid" still had any relevance.

Of course, I've become more sensitive as well. A sentence in an
article in the Far East, a missionary magazine, equating
George Bush with Islamic fundamentalists has convinced me to never
give another penny to the religious order that produces the
magazine. I also have a suspicion that RTE has deliberately stopped
showing the images of September 11 in the interest of "objectivity."
I know that the images of refugees are more frequently seen than the
World Trade Center - even though most of these refugees were living
in camps long before September 11.

It was horrific, BUT . . .

However, it was the reaction of people I know, my friends and
colleagues, that surprised me most. So many of them told me that
"What happened on September 11 was horrific, terrible, should never
have happened, BUT . . ." Generally what followed was something
along the lines of "U.S. foreign policy blah, blah, blah, global
poverty blah, blah, blah, the Palestinians blah, blah, blah, the
Gulf War blah, blah, blah.

Each supposed offense was offered as an explanation - "not a
justification, nothing could justify that" - of what happened on
September 11.

To my mind, these views are expressed by people who are willfully
naive. They're opposed to "all violence," and seem to believe that
if the U.S. simply addressed the "root causes" that all these
problems would evaporate.

They refuse to accept that sometimes military action is required,
that sometimes a country has to defend itself, that groups like Al
Qaeda will not just disappear if the U.S. suddenly pushes Israel to
accept a Palestinian state.

Last week I was having dinner with a group of friends of mine,
many of whom I haven't seen in more than five years. We were all in
the same class in the early 90's and were having a bit of a reunion.

At one point someone asked me how I was. This is a question that
has confused me for the past three months. The easy answer is "fine"
because I'm healthy, my family is thriving and there is nothing
going on in my personal life that requires any other answer.

But, the easy answer seems wrong too. Although I'm fine, I know
I've changed how I think and feel since September 11. I'm not just
getting on with my life as most Irish people seem to be.

Everyday I spend a few minutes reading the Portraits of Grief
on the New York Times web site. I spend some more time adding
details to the individual pages on the Irish Tribute web site.

Our upcoming family trip home for Christmas is a source of worry
because my six-year-old daughter is worried about flying now and
can't seem to stop talking about the World Trade Center.

What she witnessed on TV that day is still fresh in her memory.
All of this was on my mind when this guy I hadn't seen in more than
five years asked me how I was. I responded, "Fine, but of course,
changed by what happened on September 11." I thought it was a safe
enough answer. He knew I was from New York and surely he would
understand what I meant. I had decided as I was heading in for the
dinner not to talk about the War on Terror because I knew that would
end badly.

I didn't have a chance. His immediate reaction was not to
ask if everyone I knew was all right.

Instead, he launched into a tirade that all but blamed America
for September's terrorist attacks. Others joined in, admittedly more
sensitively, but equally certain that the U.S. had to address the
"root causes." Others felt that the reaction here should have been
no different than what happened when other atrocities happened
around the world, such as in Rwanda or Bosnia.

I was almost ready to respond with the old cliché that without
the U.S. "you people would either be speaking German right now or be
enjoying the same benevolent system that the Poles, Hungarians and
others enjoyed for so long." Rather, I tried to respond with
something about the responsibility of power. It was all in vain.

That's when it hit me. It's so easy for Irish people to revel in
their self-righteousness. They live in a powerless state that no one
could be offended by.

They are so secure and comfortable – under the umbrella of
American power and wealth – that they proclaim neutrality as a
virtue, knowing that the U.S. poses no threat to them nor would the
U.S. allow any other country to pose a threat to Ireland.

Health warnings

It's enough to get any American's blood boiling. I hope that the
attitudes of my friends are not indicative of the attitudes of the
majority of people in this country, but I fear they may be. I'm
certain that my friends' views are a fair reflection of those of
middle class Dublin.

A friend of mine from the west told me that people in the west of
the country are more supportive of the U.S.'s war on terror than
Dubliners are. I hope it's true because if it's not true, then I
think Bórd Fáilte should issue health warnings with their
advertising campaigns.

"Americans with heart conditions or pacemakers should avoid
visiting Ireland at this time as the attitudes of the Irish people
are guaranteed to raise your blood pressure 100%."

Growing up I was always proud of my Irish background. On September 11 I immediately knew that a large number of people with that same background had died in the World Trade Center. Before I saw the names I knew many of those of the missing firemen would be Irish.

I was in awe of their bravery. I also knew that many of those who
worked in the World Trade Center would have Irish names, that they
would be of a similar age, have gone to similar churches, schools
and colleges to the ones I attended.

I always felt a special affinity for Ireland and the people here. I've often been "proud to be Irish," but now that pride is shaken. It's much easier for me to say that I'm "proud to be Irish-American."