When the first plane hit the Trade Center, I was just getting on a tram to go to work in Brussels. And I’d just walked into the office when the second plane hit. The rest of that day/night was a blur–frantic phone calls home (that never got through), emails to friends in DC and New York, and a six-hour chunk of the day I can’t recall. After we had completed work for the night, we did what people in my profession do–drink. We drank well, lifting toast after toast to the souls lost hours before. We closed the bar, and a buddy and I walked out towards our homes. I remember saying to him, somebody’s gonna getting their ass kicked for this. The next morning, I looked out the window and saw a C-130 flying over the city–a sight I never saw again.
It became a weird time to be overseas–as an American, I felt like I had to be a little more careful about where I was and who was around me. No more baseball hats. Walk a little slower. Don’t talk as loud. Eventually that passed, and a new normalcy took hold. But some things changed–the concertina wire and barricades surrounding the U.S. Embassy downtown; the parking spaces in front of the office, now paved over.
I was out at a cafe one Friday, sipping on a beer, when a friend passed by on his way home. We chatted for a while about the new normal, and terrorism and politics. At some point, he said, you’re safer here than in New York–Brussels was just a back office. (This was true–Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, began his run in Brussels.)
A couple of weeks before the attacks, I had lunch with a Swiss buddy, and of course the talk turned to politics. He asked me, essentially, why was the U.S. the way it was. I said, with due respect to Canada and Mexico, we are an island nation. Self-containment isn’t always a good thing.
When bad things happen, the reaction is everything. In the years after the attacks, we’ve become scared of people and things we shouldn’t be. Travel has become a chore, and money sucked down a rabbit hole. Our reaction should have, could have been, much better.