December 20, 2001

View From Abroad

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PARIS — Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon almost three months ago, the world has been watching the United States. The devastation of that Tuesday caused global horror.

“When it first happened, everyone was in shock. Somehow, it had touched all of us,” said Monique Benesvy-Dressner, administrative director of the Emory, Duke and Cornell in Paris program.

Benesvy-Dressner, who is French but lived in the U.S. for over 10 years, cited an editorial printed in Sept. 11. 13 issue of Le Monde, one of France’s leading newspapers, titled, “We Are All Americans.”

“It was sincere,” she said, adding, “but a week later … we took a step back … and we became French again.”

Indeed, in the wake of Sept. 11, television news, newspapers and conversations in Paris have evolved from a collective mourning and identification with the American people to an in-depth analysis of the United States’ reaction to the attacks.

Intellectuals, political pundits, and members of the governments all over Europe have been engaged in debate since the attacks, and as Benesvy-Dressner remarked “it is much more complex than pro-American, anti-American.”

Though few claim that the U.S. deserved to be attacked, most people were not altogether surprised that it happened, some even going so far as to say that it was bound to happen sooner or later.

“The U.S. seems to serve nothing else but their own interests,” said Salah Nafgati a graduate student in Islamic archeology at the University of Paris, La Sorbonne.

“That can only cause frustration, which ignites hate and violence,” he said.

Criticism has also been leveled at the reaction of the American people, who some call “naive.”

“I think what shocked people here was this idea [that Americans are saying] ‘Why us? We are good,'” said Prof. Virgine Guiraudon, political science at L’Institut d’Etudes Politique, known as Sciences Po.

“That they would think that the growth and prosperity of the U.S. would prevent them from being targets was surprising. … In fact, it’s just the opposite,” she said.

Olivier Faure, who lives and works in Paris, echoed the sentiment: “Their idea that they were untouchable was a bit of an illusion. Terrorism has happened in France, in the Basque country in Spain, all over Europe and the Middle East.”

In recent weeks, the war in Afghanistan has been viewed with more and more uneasiness. Front pages and magazine covers declare, “How far should we go?” and “From Kabul to Bagdad?” reflecting the worry that U.S. will not stop its attacks with Afghanistan.

“Our own governments are wondering how long this is going to go on. Bush hasn’t done anything about Israel-Palestine,” Guiraudon said.

“He seems to be thinking about going after Iraq, which is not what we signed on for,” she added.

However, many people here agree that the U.S. has the right to strike back and fully support the United States in its decision.

“It was surprising for me to discuss this with friends and to discover that some of them were extremely violent in their reaction and believed [in striking back],” Benesvy-Dressner said.

Besides the decision to retaliate by using force, every single move that President George W. Bush has made since Sept. 11 has been keenly examined and highly criticized, including Bush’s repeated statements, pitting the “good” free world against “evil” terrorists.

“People expect Americans to say ‘God bless America,’ and things like that,” Guiraudon said. “I don’t think it was a surprise that crusade language was used. But, to frame things in this kinds of cultural terms, the West being good and the Middle East being evil, is not very popular,” she added.

“It doesn’t actually pose a solution to throw back to bin Laden an opposing ideology, which will always be evil in his eyes,” agreed Dana Bottazzo ’03, a British student who transferred to Cornell last year.

Because the country seemed unprepared and unsuspecting of its status a target for terrorism — “an island … detached and removed from the rest of the world” as one French woman called it — there is a general sense that the U.S. has not owned up to its responsibility as the major world power.

“It’s a uni-polar world,” Guiraudon said. “If you’re the hegemony, then you have certain responsibilities to build up new world institutions. We have old institutions, like NATO, that the U.S. sometimes uses, sometimes not.”

Americans abroad, however, have had to accept the responsibility of being the representatives of their country, receiving condolences, explaining, defending and at times criticizing U.S. reaction to those in whose country they are living.

“How much does your nationality say about you as a person?” asked Vanessa Gengler, a junior at Vassar College who is studying and working in Paris this year.

“Your culture is your base when you’re in another country,” she said, adding that she has felt that she has had to play the role of an American representative abroad. “Sometimes, it’s as if everything I am doing gives a wider sense of who I am.”

The reaction of American students’ who have been studying here this semester has been mixed.

“I was receiving condolences and being asked what I thought about it all the time in the beginning,” said one American student.

“It seemed to me that some students felt guilty that they were not there and not able to share in the grief,” Benesvy-Dressner said. “On the other hand some were relieved that [they] were not there when it happened; that they were not part of the fear or of the mass patriotism.”

Because the U.S. was and still is on high alert for possible further terrorist aggression, a lot of students said that they felt safer in France in the weeks following the attacks than they would have felt in America.

Beyond feeling safer, many Americans abroad have felt detached from the events as well.

Most students agree that the events of Sept. 11 have been at the forefront of French media coverage. Students have also noted that because of obvious factors of physical distance and of language barriers, it has been easy to feel removed from the events and the powerful emotions they sparked in the U.S.

“I feel like it’s been on a screen, in a movie,” said Laura Conn, a junior at Duke University. “I know when I get home I’m going to have to deal with the reality of it.”

“You’re trying to read the news, but it’s in a different language, coming from a different perspective, a different ideology,” Gengler said.

Some students felt that having been out of the country when one of its most historic moments had been a learning experience for them.

“I think that we’re getting a good experience to see the world reaction to this, not just … [the] American” reaction, said Kassia Miller, a junior at Duke University.

Gengler agreed: “Sure, it might have been an interesting time to be in the U.S., but I wanted to stay here.”

Interviews with Olivier Faure and Salah Nafgati were conducted in French and translated.

Archived article by Maggie Frank