Politics & Policy

Letter to a European Friend

Explaining this war.

Dear Harry,

Thanks so much for your recent letter. You Dutch are great about remembering birthdays. I hardly noticed that I even had a birthday this year, inasmuch as the day came at the end of an exhausting week.. The whole country had been under high terror alert that week. Anti-aircraft missiles had been parked around Washington, and here in New York, police commandos were on the streets carrying assault rifles. Julie and I decided not to bother going out to celebrate, to instead stay home with Matthew and be grateful that nothing bad happened.

I’ve been meaning to write to answer your concerns about the war, and to address your remarks about the “increasing anti-Americanism in the air” in Europe. I finally have the time, given that Julie and Matthew have gone to Texas to stay with her folks for a few weeks. It might sound paranoid to you, but I feel a lot better with them down there for the time being. I’m hearing that more and more New Yorkers are doing this, quietly. Maybe this is overreacting, but if a dirty bomb should go off, we have no car, and no way of getting out of town. Until they left, every moment of every day I’d sit at my desk in Manhattan, wondering how I would get home to them across the river in Brooklyn if there were another catastrophic terrorist attack. I hate having my family split up like this, however temporary, but I can’t bear the thought of something terrible happening to them when and if the war starts, and me not having gotten them to someplace safer when I had the chance. We lived through September 11, and are not eager to go through anything like that again, if we can help it.

I must tell you that beyond particular arguments over the usefulness of this or that aspect of the Iraq standoff, I believe that experience is at the root of the American public’s willingness to go to war with Iraq, versus Europe’s overwhelming rejection of same. We know what these terrorists can do, and will do; for Europeans, it was all a story on television. Most Americans understand the lesson of 9/11; most Europeans, in my view, do not.

Because you are my friend, I don’t want to bore you by going through the kinds of policy arguments I would use in a public debate, which you may have read in the newspapers and magazines anyway. I want to tell you what 9/11 was like for us, and why it matters to the way we, and lots of Americans, feel about this war.

That morning began with a phone call from my father, who had been watching TV. “Look out your front door, the World Trade Center is on fire,” he said. It was a warm, clear, beautiful September day. And there was one of the towers, billowing smoke and paper, which was being carried by the wind right over our house in Brooklyn. While I was downstairs gathering my notepad so I could run across the bridge to cover the fire, I heard the explosion of the second plane hitting. It shook our building. I opened the door, saw the second tower burning, kissed Julie goodbye, and told her, “I’m going to get as close as I can.”

There was an exodus of workers crossing the bridge out of Manhattan. I stopped to talk to some of them. They were gasping and sobbing, talking about having seen people jumping to their deaths from the upper floors. I have never seen that kind of trauma in anyone. They were very nearly in shock. I am fortunate that I stopped to talk to them, because I had plenty of time to have made it to the south tower. As it was, I was standing on the bridge watching the fire, about to begin my descent into Manhattan, when the south tower collapsed. My knees nearly buckled. I was sure I had just seen tens of thousands of people die. I turned back toward home, because there was no getting into Manhattan now.

My mobile phone wasn’t working, so I had no way of letting Julie know I hadn’t been killed. All she knew was that my last words were, “I’m going to get as close as I can.” It took me almost an hour to get home that morning. When she saw me coming, she ran down the street holding Matthew, sobbing. She had to live for nearly an hour anticipating that the Islamic terrorists had killed me too.

We were lucky: We really didn’t know anyone who died in the Towers, though eight people from our church perished. People in our parish who had grown up in Beirut told us that the slightly sweet smell that hung in the air in our neighborhood was burning flesh. I hadn’t counted on ever knowing what that smelled like. We went and stood by the harbor with hundreds of our neighbors, watching the smoke rise from the 16-acre crematorium, praying and wondering what had happened to our city and our country.

Six days later, they reopened the Financial District, and I went there to report on what I saw. Harry, I hope you never have to see anything like this in Amsterdam. The immensity of the violence done to New York and America on that day became clear to me in a way that seeing it on television could not make it. I remember stopping to talk to a sobbing woman, crouched down in the corner of an ash-covered coffee shop, holding a sign with a picture of her firefighter brother, asking anybody who stopped if they’d seen him. There were so many broken people, clinging to any scrap of hope they could. As we know now, there was no hope for them. There never was.

And then there were the funerals. As a reporter, I had to cover a couple of funerals for firefighters. These men were strangers to me, but I cried for them as if they were my own brothers. I was not alone, either. Everybody did. We pulled together out of pride in and gratitude for those brave men, who died trying to save people they didn’t even know. A priest I know gave some of them absolution before they ran into the burning towers. He says you could see in their eyes that they knew they were going to die. But in they went, because that’s what men do. That’s what New Yorkers do. That’s what Americans do. We don’t run away.

In New York, when they bury firemen, they play the bagpipes and march behind the funeral bier. There is nothing sadder than bagpipes in the cold rain. There was a lot of that in the autumn of 2001. But there was also a lot of strength, of compassion, of love of country. Men and women came here from all over America to help out in the relief effort at Ground Zero. It was an awe-inspiring thing to see how Americans will pull together in moments of crisis. Despite all the pain and destruction we had to live through, I have never felt more love of my country, or had more faith that we would do what we must to make sure this would never happen again.

That’s what this war is about, Harry. Of that I am convinced. We Americans have seen what terrorists and terrorist states can and will do to us. Most of us believe that our survival depends on eliminating regimes that support terrorism and build biological and chemical weapons, and endeavor to build nuclear weapons. You wrote of Bush’s “sometimes provocative attitude,” but really, given what has happened to us, is it really fair to accuse Americans of provocation? Is it wrong to demand that Saddam Hussein disarm, which is what the United Nations has ordered him to do as a condition of ending the Gulf War? What alternative does our president have? Must we lose not just the Twin Towers, but all of New York City before we are permitted to act to end tyrannical, belligerent regimes, and to change the despotic political culture of the Middle East, which helps produce terrorism?

From our side, Europe looks all too eager to appease Iraq, to turn its face from the danger that exists, in vain hope that everything might turn out alright, if only the West sits quietly and waits. I remember talking to Marnix in his garden last spring, when I was visiting, and he said he didn’t understand why Europe had to involve itself in America’s war. It would be bad for business, he said. I told him that the Islamists had attacked us yesterday, and they would attack Europe tomorrow. This has been borne out with the discovery of numerous Islamic terrorist cells all over Europe–including in Eindhoven, just down the road from you. Sooner or later, they’re going to succeed in doing a 9/11 in a European capital. And then what will you all do?

Will you be like the Dutch cities which, when faced with harassment at public swimming pools by the Islamic youth gangs, shut down the pools rather than confront these barbarians? Pim Fortuyn told you all what you were dealing with, and said the time for blindness and accommodation with fanaticism was over. He’s gone now, but the threat he warned about is not. Americans know that. We’ve lived it. We’re living it now. And we’re going to take care of it.

You know, Europeans love to make fun of Bush as a cowboy, as they did Reagan before him. But when the outlaws are making it impossible to walk peaceably in the streets, everybody wants a cowboy to shoot the bad guys and restore moral order. The world could do a lot worse than an American cowboy right now. It is my hope that you will come to see that. It is my great fear that the Islamists will force you to, at God knows what price.

Your friend,



The Latest