GUEST COMMENTARY: American abroad during 9/11 feels camaraderie in Prague, distance at home

Friday, September 9, 2011 | 12:15 p.m. CDT

It was an accident; it had to be.

But then there was the second plane.

No accident. Wait. What?

And then the one in Washington and reports of more planes in the air.

We watched it on the BBC on our computers. The news rippled through my office in Prague, where a Serb, a Romanian, a Croatian, a few Britons and Americans and many Czechs worked together in one smallish newsroom.

Then the room became hushed out of consideration, it seemed to me, to the U.S. citizens in the room.

My husband was at Radio Free Europe about 12 blocks away, at the top of the square made famous by the Velvet Revolution. Until late that night, he would be busily writing stories that would be read on the radio to people all over the world who were perhaps not yet aware of what was happening in America.

My friend and coworker, Hana, came over to my desk and looked at me, her brow deeply creased. “What the hell?” she asked, using a rawer word to convey her shock. It was too early to quit, but I wanted to go home. I cried as we walked to the subway together.

Hana explained what she was feeling: a strange sense of disorientation because America had been hit so hard. Who would protect the rest of the world now? It made perfect sense that she would feel this way as a native of a country where George Patton led the tanks into Plzen, helping to liberate Czechoslovakia from the Nazis.

At home, the phone started ringing. Friends wanted to talk. An American from my office called. He sought explanations from me, and I could give him none.

He wanted to know if I thought we should go home, meaning all the way home to where this terrible thing had just happened. I understood the impulse and really did want to be home in the States for the first time since our arrival in Prague in July 1999.

Then, Noa came over, unannounced — not that it mattered. Other people were there already, watching it over and over on TV. An Israeli who served in the army and looked much older than her years, she came in and sat down next to me on the couch.

I was glad Noa was there when I finally accepted that the towers had fallen. She looked deep into my eyes and said, “Welcome to our world,” or something along those lines and gave me a pat on the knee that was meant to be comforting.

In the days that followed, people I barely knew grabbed my hands and offered condolences. At the top of the square near my husband’s office, a memorial of candles and cards and teddy bears and flowers grew until you could see it from the bottom of the square.

At Thanksgiving, a “Nightline” crew came to the house where we were hosting a dinner for a group from at least 10 different countries. They wanted a story on how expatriates were coping with being abroad, post-Sept. 11.

They interviewed me over and over and over because of some problem with the camera batteries. (I think they were just enjoying the food).

My only clear memory of what I said was that I had noticed a stronger feeling of kinship between us, as Americans, and people from other parts of the world now that we had joined the morbid brotherhood of The Attacked. That was not to last in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

We experienced no such feeling of kinship in the United States that first Christmas home. Everyone and everything had changed. We were outsiders because we didn’t live in the U.S. and hadn’t been there on that day.

The fear was palpable. We noticed that people were more glued to the TV than ever in public places. Conversations seemed more muted, and loud laughter less common. There were flags and ribbons everywhere.

Conversations about what had happened, when there were conversations at all, went nowhere. They stopped at the fear, far short of analysis. That laid the groundwork for all the conversations that didn’t happen — but should have — in the months that followed.

I tried to talk about it with my younger sister, who was on her way to work in Washington when the plane hit the Pentagon. We were at a Christmas Eve gathering when I said something about how “patriotic” everyone seemed post-9/11.

“We don’t talk about that in that way,” she said, almost whispering, and shooting a silencing glance at me.

Don’t think for one second that in Europe, we weren’t shattered by Sept. 11, 2001. But it is clear our distance gave us a different perspective, one not so sharply bounded by the dark, deep parameters of fear.

I don’t always like the tenor or content of the public discourse these days, but I am glad that America is talking again. Breathing again. Re-evaluating the past, finally, and remembering in a way that does honor to the victims without inflicting more harm.

Katherine Reed is an associate professor at the MU School of Journalism and a city editor at the Columbia Missourian. She was editor of Prague Business Journal from 2001 to 2004.

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