The Last Word

By John Fay, Contributor
February / March 2002

Why it’s hard to be an American in Ireland.


Dublin, September 11: Heading home from work, shocked by what I’d seen in the previous few hours, I wondered if people on the train felt the same as I did. Were they horrified? Were they feeling sick? Were they in shock?

A group of schoolboys, loud with nervous excitement, talked about what they’d seen. But, for the most part, there was little conversation.

That night and over the following few days, the words of Mary McAleese, Bertie Ahern, Mary Harney, the thousands of Irish people who stood in line for hours to sign books of condolences, and the near complete closure of Ireland and overflowing churches on September 15 for the National Day of Mourning convinced me that, yes, Irish people were feeling as I did.

Yet, even before the Day of Mourning was over, I heard mention of “fear of U.S. response” from people who were convinced that the U.S. was going to “overreact.”

I had fears too. I was afraid there would be more attacks, perhaps of a nuclear, biological or chemical nature — and that family and friends were still in danger.

What I had seen on September 11 convinced me that the attackers had no moral limits. If they had access to nuclear weapons, I was sure they would use them.

Given that, I could see no way that the U.S. could be accused of overreaction. I was more afraid that President Bush and his administration might under-react.

Yet, the reaction of the bulk of the Irish media — a mixture of skeptical, anti-American and “turn the other cheek” views — provided a chorus of condemnation — even before the U.S. did anything.

Once the bombing started, most of the coverage was marked by a conviction of the futility and immorality of the campaign.

One Sunday newspaper argued that President Bush should give up his war mongering and get back to making the economy right — as if “It’s the economy, stupid” still had any relevance.

Of course, I’ve become more sensitive as well. A sentence in an article in The Far East, a missionary magazine, equating George Bush with Islamic fundamentalists, convinced me never to give another penny to the religious order that produces the magazine.

I also have a suspicion that RTE has deliberately stopped showing the images of September 11 in the interest of “objectivity.” I know that the images of Afghan refugees are more frequently seen than the World Trade Center — even though most of these refugees were living in camps long before September 11.

However, it is the reaction of my friends and colleagues which has surprised me most. So many of them have said, “What happened on September 11 was horrific, terrible, should never have happened, BUT…”

Generally what follows is something along the lines of “U.S. foreign policy blah, blah, blah, global poverty blah, blah, blah, the Palestinians blah, blah, blah, the Gulf War blah, blah, blah.” Each supposed offense is offered as an explanation — “not a justification” of what happened on September 11.

Last week I was having dinner with a group of friends. At one point someone asked me how I was. This is a question that has confused me for the past three months. The easy answer is “fine.” I’m healthy, my family is thriving and there is nothing going on in my personal life that requires any other answer.

But the easy answer seems wrong. Although I’m fine, I’ve changed in how I think and feel since September 11. I’m not just getting on with my life, as most Irish people seem to be.

Every day I spend a few minutes reading the “Portraits of Grief” on the New York Times web site. I spend some more time adding details to the individual pages on the IrishTribute.com web site.

Our family trip home for Christmas is a source of worry because my six-year-old daughter is scared about flying now and can’t seem to stop talking about the World Trade Center. What she witnessed on TV that day is still fresh in her memory.

All of this was on my mind when the guy asked me how I was. I responded, “Fine, but of course, changed by what happened on September 11.” I thought it was a safe enough answer.

His reaction was not to ask if everyone I knew was all right. Instead, he launched into a tirade that all but blamed America for September’s terrorist attacks.

Others joined in, admittedly more sensitively, but equally certain that the U.S. had to address the “root causes.” Others felt that the reaction should have been no different than when other atrocities happened around the world, as in Rwanda or Bosnia.

I was almost ready to respond with the old cliché that without the U.S. “You people would either be speaking German or be enjoying the same benevolent system that the Poles, Hungarians and others enjoyed for so long.” Rather, I tried to counter with something about the responsibility of power. It was in vain.

It’s so easy for Irish people to revel in self-righteousness. They live in a powerless state that no one could be offended by. They are so secure and comfortable — under the umbrella of American power and wealth that they proclaim neutrality as a virtue.

I hope that the attitudes of my friends are not indicative of the majority of people in Ireland, but I fear they may be. I’m certain that my friends’ views are a fair reflection of those of middle-class Dublin.

A friend of mine from the west of Ireland told me that people in the country are more supportive of the U.S.’s war on terror than Dubliners are.

I hope it’s true, because if it’s not true, Bórd Fáilte should issue health warnings with their advertising campaigns. “Americans with heart conditions should avoid visiting Ireland at this time as the attitudes of the Irish people are guaranteed to raise your blood pressure.”

Growing up I was always proud of my Irish background. Before I saw the names I knew that many of those of the missing firemen would be Irish. I am in awe of their bravery. I also knew that many of those who worked in the World Trade Center would have Irish names, that they would be of a similar age, have gone to similar churches, schools and colleges to the ones I attended.

I always felt a special affinity for Ireland and the people here. I’ve often been “proud to be Irish,” but now that pride is shaken. It’s much easier for me to say that I’m “proud to be Irish-American.” ♦

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