On September 11, 2001, I was sitting on the floor of my sister’s living room, babysitting her one-year-old daughter. We were lazily playing, with the afternoon news on the TV in the background. The first thing I noticed was how the anchor’s voice changed. The woman was saying “Wait, wait,” while staring to the side of the camera. There had been a horrible accident, she said, as I watched the smoke pour out of the first tower. When the second plane hit, I hoped beyond hope she was right.
I had just gotten back from a year in France. A few months earlier, I’d been standing in a crowded bar on Place de Clichy, celebrating my 20th birthday. I remember that night, although several bottles of bad white wine say I shouldn’t. I was surrounded by my peers, other upper-middle-class liberals who had fled to Paris to fulfill their fantasy. We had come to this historical city to live the life of songs and books and Technicolor movies. We were radicals. We were heroes. We were going to change the world.
The people with me in that bar were a random sample of the political atmosphere of Europe at the time. Militant feminists, pro-Palestinians, members of the autonomic environmentalist movement, and your run-of the-mill anti-government thugs. Having a friend who had been jailed for rioting was as necessary as a Malcolm X T-shirt and a back-pocket paperback of Catcher in the Rye. I gladly picked up that uniform, just as I picked up rocks and banners knowing that this was the ticket to ride.
Raised in a family of academics, this was a natural evolution on my part and a result of a serious political interest. I identified as an intellectual and as a political thinker with a critical mind. What I failed to acknowledge at the time was that my country was a controlled environment and that the spectrum on which political analysis took place was limited. Not unlike The Truman Show, where the choices you think you are making were already made for you long ago, and any dreams of a different fate are swiftly corrected.
I left my one-bedroom apartment in the chic slum of the 19th Arrondissement in June 2001. I was headed back to Gothenburg, Sweden, and the mass protest against the EU summit and George W. Bush. I planned to be back in time to see the first leaves fall on the Champs Elysées. Turns out, that didn’t happen.
Night fell and morning broke before I managed to get off that floor to answer my phone. On the other end I heard my boyfriend’s voice, chanting frantically:
Two more towers! Two more towers! Two more towers!
He and his friends were having a party, celebrating the attack on America. He called to invite me, and to this day I have never felt such intense shame.
During his speech on September 14, 2001, President Bush said that adversity introduces us to ourselves. Well, on that day I was introduced to who I had been and who I truly was. I saw my own place in the context of history, and how the ideas that I helped promote, the accusations I had met with silence, all had a part in shaping the world I now saw burning before me.
It wasn’t a game. I had played it, but it was never a game.
In the weeks that followed, I watched the American news with one eye, and its European counterpart with the other. It was like seeing the slow shifting of the tectonic plates, dividing the world through op-eds and analysis. On September 12, 2001, the headline of the largest Swedish newspaper read, “We Are All Americans.” A few weeks later, that beautiful creed had already been forgotten. The one time my country could side with the U.S. was when America was on its knees, but when it refused to stay down it quickly went back to the smug relativism of World War II, the icy efficiency of a country never having to fight for either ethics or its existence.
Soon enough, the narrative was clear. The end of the story had already been written: The U.S. was unjustly acting as the world police, once again. Bush was a moron and a puppet. America was killing innocent people for oil. It went on and on, and all I could think was that if I know that these things are not true, then what other lies have I accepted as truth throughout my life?
So I pulled at the thread of my ideology, and it all unraveled before me.
On September 20, I watched Bush’s address to Congress. I had heard him speak before, but on this night, I listened — and one sentence jumped out and grabbed me:
“Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”
So I asked myself if I was free. Not free in movement or by law, but free in thought and intellect. I was not, nor had I ever been. The politics I had held and protected so violently were a version of the norm, and for all my intellect and breeding I had done nothing more than tout the company line.
I left everything that year; it was like walking away from the scene of a crime. I remember thinking that it would have been easier leaving a cult — at least then there would be a welcoming, sane majority on the other side. Or if there had been a physical wall to climb and a dictator to topple, instead of the silent oppression of the consensus.
My country did not change that day, but I had to; the tectonic plates where shifting, and I decided to jump.
When I stood in that bar toasting myself, I thought I was a radical. Today, as a neocon in Sweden, I know I was wrong.
I was raised in a country where that neutrality — that indifference before right and wrong — is a badge of honor. I was taught that morality is weakness, faith is ignorance, and the concept of good and evil is cause for ridicule.
On September 11, 2001, I saw, for the first time, the difference between fear and freedom, and I vowed not to be neutral between them, ever again.