TCS Daily

Stranger in a Strange Land

By Max Borders - September 11, 2006 12:00 AM

"Oh it gets so lonely
When you're walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
Just gives you the blues
Just gives you the blues"
-- Joni Mitchell

I was kind of anesthetized that summer, nestled in the hills between Cannes and Antibes. Surrounded by kaleidoscopic French gardens and manicured provençal vegetation. I needed little more than the small, basement-floor apartment of the Herpins' villa. It was a kind of walled paradise: far enough away from the swarthy Tunisian pickpockets of Nice; from the Algerian ne'er-do-wells lurking in the shadowy parts of Cannes.

The Herpins (pronounced AIR-PAN) kept an immaculate poolside there in Mougins. My girlfriend lay there sunning. I managed to splash her from the center of the pool. She looked up from The Unbearable Lightness of Being to give me a little scowl from behind her shades. Finally, she too had had enough of the heat and decided to exact her revenge.

We finished our splash fight and retired to the deck chairs. We got into one of those conversations about the world beyond -- despite how abstract it all seemed at the time. As a conversation partner, she was no slouch. Born and raised in the English shires, she delivered her ruminations with a certain beauty and refinement only a girl from Bucks could. The conversation turned to war.

"Large-scale war is a thing of the past," I said. My thoughts were being filtered through memories of a half-assed campaign over Yugoslavia. "Globalization is just making the world so interdependent. As the last of the socialist states pass away, we'll see fewer and fewer of these conflicts." I didn't credit Fukuyama at all.

"What about the Arabs?" she asked. "Don't you think they'll be the start of World War III?"

"They're a bunch of barbarians," I said with characteristic American tact. "They don't have the military capability to challenge the West. They wouldn't be able to inflict any damage. So while there might be minor conflicts, there won't be global war."

"They really hate us," she said. We'd had enough run-ins with the Banlieu-sers of Paris, and the taxi drivers in the Cote d'Azur to know this about the Arab diaspora - benefiting as they were from French colonial guilt. I was going to elaborate on my cocksure prediction when my mobile phone rang, sometime after 2 pm. It was a friend of mine who'd just been with us for a visit -- a transplanted Texan living in Paris.

He asked me where I was. I said by the pool. He knew I had no television and tried to describe events to me that by now have been described a thousand times. All I could say was: "are you kidding me?" "Are you serious?" My girlfriend saw the look on my face, one she'd never seen before.

"What," she asked worriedly. "What's wrong?"

When I finally got off the phone I just looked at her through wet eyes. "You were right," I managed. "World War III has started."

* * *

I wish I could adequately describe the situation after that. Not so much events as feelings. It was very lonely. My girlfriend and I went grocery shopping later that afternoon. I looked for recognition or something in the faces of the French people, fretting over their cheeses, crowding to get the fresh baguettes. I found nothing at the Supermarché. Nothing in the street. It was as if nothing of significance had happened that day. I found myself tearing up at the checkout as I bagged my own goat cheese and subsidized wine. Maybe they hadn't heard yet.

Later I heard about this profound sense of unity back in the States. I heard even strangers at lunch counters would make eye-contact or give a knowing nod -- that there was this palpable sense of oneness, of drawing together as a nation. Living in France with an English girl offered none of that. I wanted to be home. I needed those bonds of empathy I'd been hearing about - I did not need to be the occasional, if errant, object of sympathy. "Do you have family in New York?" No. My family is New York. My clan. My people. The anger, the pain, and the need to make eye-contact with strangers at lunch counters remained for a long time. In retrospect, I know I really needed to be there at a time when Old Glory on every bumper and hanging from every flagpole didn't seem in poor taste.

September 11th killed that wayward cosmopolitan in me -- the one by the pool in Mougins -- probably forever. One day at work, before leaving France to return home, I remember getting an email from a good friend who would later be the best man at my wedding to a beautiful young American girl. In it, he wrote: "it's time for you to come home. We need you here." He hadn't needed to say that, really. An inner compass had already been awakened in me and I knew I was destined to return soon. But his words probably gave that sense some legitimacy.

Even then, we could sense the forces mobilizing against civilization. Not just those outside of it - murderous and grubbing in the sand -- but those within it. Apart from crazies like Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag, people were choosing their sides. Ted Honderich, an old socialist professor of mine who directed my MA thesis in London, ended up writing one of the seminal works on terrorist apologetics after 9/11. (Now, he's working on another one.) Christopher Hitchens had thankfully come into the light. Andrew Sullivan had been taking synthetic testosterone, which made him more brilliant and more animated in his rectitude.

The oft-maligned, now dismissed phrase 'you are either with us or against us' resonated in most people when it was uttered. It became a question of choosing pluralism, freedom, and our Western values over the antithesis of these. It was then and it is now. It became a choice between either giving aid to the enemy (whether through inaction or indifference), or acting forcefully to rid the world of murderous enemies with virulent ideologies. It was then and it is now.

Now, dwelling on the fifth anniversary, I wonder how many people still see things so starkly. As a student of philosophy, I am normally one to see gradations between truths; nuances in the interstices of various opinions. But on the question of Islamic terrorism I am still very much driven by the clannish instinct that awoke in me during the late summer of 2001. I am still unable to shake the feeling that my vocabulary and that of radical Muslims are incommensurable. There is no dialogue to be had with our enemies, because dialogue requires toleration as a prime virtue. But terrorists do not practice toleration. That is why, for me, they stand outside of the human community. They are enemies by definition. For membership in the human community requires something more fundamental than just being biologically human. If I sound like a cultural-ethnocentric, so be it. I believe our survival depends on it.

Eventually, that inner compass I mentioned pulled me back home. I arrived in January of 2002. By this time, people were talking about events somewhat less. My family was probably a little disturbed by how much I needed to understand what life had been like in the months following. I had missed the moment. I was trying to relive it through second-hand accounts. That's not to say that feelings weren't still running high by then, but people had moved on to a different stage of reckoning with the events.

I realize this is, in many ways, just another one of those "where were you on 9/11?" stories. I didn't lose any loved ones or friends I knew. I don't even know anyone who was going to get on "that flight", but didn't. I'm not the son of a firefighter. Still, it helps to share part of my experience as a lonely American ex-pat in France. Because five years on, I want most of all for readers simply to remember what they had in their countrymen in those fragile days after the event -- something I was never really able to have. Perhaps if you can tap into those memories, you may be able to remember what's at stake now, as we carry on this imperfect war for the future of civilization.

Max Borders is managing editor.



A simple thanks for your article

the author's gf
Nice story but talking about your gf around the pool might have distracted some of the readers. They might be wondering if she wore a one piece, or bikini; thong style or like normal panites?

You didn't miss anything Mr. Borders...
because for most people thei reaction was shallow emotion and nothing more. After a little time, all that apparent unity was forgotten.

A good and different perspective
I was home, my wife was getting the kids ready for school and often turned on a morning news show as she did. I was getting ready for work and she yelled at me to come to the living room. She said that a plane had hit the WTC and, as I came in, the report of a second plane, and video of it smashing into the building, came across the screen.

I knew then what was happening. It was no accident, this was an attack. The organization and target made me immediately think of the first WTC bombing, the Cole and the African embassy bombings. While I didn't remember the name of the group, I remembered it's leader…
Bin Laden.

He had been interviewed before and his name and face had been on T.V. I knew his group took responsibility for the Cole and the Embassies and had been connected tot he first WTC bombing. Not just that day, but the following month, remains at the front of my memories. The presidential addresses, the decision to go into Afghanistan, the hunt for Bin Laden, the many close-call misses of the elusive snake. The flags and slogans where everywhere, as well as the many projects to help the survivors and loved ones of the dead from that tragic day.

Sorry New Orleans, but Katrina was a natural disaster and you don't come close to bringing out the kind of unity and sympathy that 9/11 does.

five years later, I still feel that pain in my chest when I think about what was done and why. Five years later I m more resolved than ever to destroy terrorist groups and all those who, in any way, support them.

But my government is not. It has been sidetracked by Iraq, but peaceniks at home, by politics and by life in general. I am beginning to believe that, even if a major American city were nuked, it wouldn't take long for the U.S. to move on. We, as a country and a people, no longer have the unity and resolve to destroy evil when it reaches up and punches us in the gut.

The saddest day for America was, two years ago, when politics suddenly used this whole chapter in American History as a political football. It was no longer a rallying point for unity and resolve, it was a point to argue over in the political arena. It was then that I knew we were going to end up giving up Iraq and, eventually, let the whole idea of a war on terror just die away.

Someone is going to have to do the dirty work and fight this war; but it will not be the U.S. Americans don't have the stomach for it. We are too worried about appearances, about not upsetting tin dictators and about our oil supply.

Perhaps Israel is strong enough to be the central figure in this fight. Perhaps the world will get lucky and it will all just fade away.

Welcome Home.
I, for one, am glad to have you back. Your friend was right, we do need you here. We need every clear thinking individual we can get. Especially those who can clearly express, as you have, not only our desire for peace, dialog, tolerance, etc., but also the inevitable limits to these ideas. They cannot be one-way proposals.

What we needed and still need is a lion in the White House and men of conviction in Congress.
Instead we have a man that in his first days in office let the Chinese walk all over us when their Wong Wei pilot struck one of our air craft in international waters then held it and our service members until they got an apology from us.A man that seems unable to name Islam and its practitioners as the enemy even as all polls show the vast majority of muslims not accually combatants in this "Jihad" against us are atleast sympathetic to the murderous scum.
We have a gutless Congress that is incapable of using the clear words "WE DECLARE WAR ON AFGHANISTAN AND ITS PEOPLE AND ALL THOSE COMPLICITE" even after 3000 souls are slaughtered on our soil from an attack launched by that country using a terrorist organization as their surrogate.
They throw open our borders even to the duplicitous "allies" to our south,ignorant or uncaring of the celebrations in Mexico City Sept 11 2001.They allow ever greater numbers of "migrants" from countries that are blatantly sympathetic to the enemy or at least joyous at attacks against us,that is the politically correct polititions at the helm of a nation well prepared for violence against our enemy undreamt of in the enemies worst nightmares.

I remember unity... for the first three or four days.
I remember that within two hours of the collapse of the WTC towers, there were people in downtown Iowa City (my home,) organizing blood drives; food, water and clothing collections for those affected; even military recruitment drives, something EXTREMELY unusual for the People's Republic of Iowa City. People were united, angry and ready for a fight.

That lasted three days. Then we started hearing the Democrats whine and moan about how we hadn't deployed troops to Afganistan, yet. Even I, Nobel Prize Winner for Advanced Cynicism, expected a slightly longer period of unity after an event of this magnitude. It is this betrayal by my fellow Americans that I remember much more strongly than the actual day itself.

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