Wednesday, September 14, 2011

September 11 Revisited

The tenth anniversary of that horrid day has generated a flood of memories. I hope not to bore my readers with yet another account of "where I was" on that day, but I can't help it.

I was the Charge of a medium-sized American embassy in Asia. The Ambassador was back in the US, and barely missed getting on one of the hijacked flights. It was early evening local time. My wife and I were at the gym at a five-star international chain hotel; I was on the treadmill watching, with no particular interest, the nauseous BBC world news show that was on the gym's sole TV set. The news reader, a pompous and vaguely east Asian woman whom I recall as looking much like a Vulcan from the old Star Trek series, suddenly grabbed her earpiece, and said there was a report of a small commuter plane hitting a World Trade Center tower in New York.  She prattled on about something else, then suddenly the image cut to the smoking tower just as the second plane hit. Along with millions of other people, I watched on live TV as hundreds of people were brutally murdered. A lot of confused reporting began; much cross talk, some silly BBC criticism of US air traffic control and of the NY fire department for responding too slowly.

The gym trainer, an Aussie expat, came up to me and said, "How can two planes hit the same place?" I remember telling him, almost without thinking about what I was saying, "It has to be deliberate." It suddenly dawned on me, after I said it, that, in fact, it must have been deliberate.

I got off the treadmill and went to look for my wife; I pulled her out of her aerobics class, and said "Something is up. We have to go."  I had the bodyguards take us home, and I called our head of security. He was frantically trying to get some logical story out of Washington, but either could not get through, or got contradictory accounts of what was going on: some sort of attack on the Pentagon; a car bomb outside the Congress; another one outside the State Department; and on and on. I told him to get the country team together (heads of section) and to heighten our own security at the Embassy as we could be facing a worldwide attack on US facilities. We all met and talked, and talked, and talked, and could get nothing useful out of Washington.

Adding to the confusion was that the Assistant Secretary of our regional bureau, a political appointee close to a prominent Senator, had run, and I quite literally mean run, with her aide, screaming, yes, screaming, out of her office, into the garage, gotten into her car, and had headed home.  She had abandoned her post at a time of great crisis. The amazing thing was that weeks later, she laughingly told the story herself with no sense of shame or of how that imagery could affect those around her. But then this was the same one who, just a few days earlier, had fired an extraordinarily talented Foreign Service Officer, one of the most knowledgable people I had ever met when it came to South Asia, because he did not seem to take her seriously.  Ah, yes, leadership in action.

The Embassy went on high alert; the next morning I had to tell the Embassy employees what I knew, which was very little other than what was on the news, and to reassure the local-hire staff that, whatever happened, we would not cut and run out on them. They would be looked after.  Afterwards, I remember telling my security chief, "Don't make me a liar on that promise." He nodded.

Endless requests for press interviews; briefings of other embassies and the local government; lots of confusion; condolence calls and visits from all over the host country; all sorts of false rumors and threats. In subsequent weeks, we got hit with a barrage of fake anthrax powder letters; telephoned bomb threats, and so on.

Finally, the word came. Revenge was in the offing. I got instructions to contact the President of a neighboring Muslim country to which our Embassy was also accredited. I was to get permission for US warplanes to overfly his country on the way to bomb Afghanistan. We needed his OK right away, so there was no time to travel and meet him face-to-face. I called him on the phone, and had one of those one-minute conversations that make years of Foreign Service life worthwhile. I remember the conversation vividly.

"Mr. President, we need your permission for our bombers to fly through your national airspace on the way to targets in Afghanistan. We need it right away."

"Would we know when your bombers are flying through our airspace?"

"Your air traffic controllers in [the capital] might pick them up."

"I see. Would my public know that your bombers are there?"

"Not likely unless there is some sort of accident or emergency landing."

"I see.  If I say 'no' what happens?"

"Mr. President, we are going to get justice for 9/11. You are our friend. Please help us in this small way."

"So if I say 'no' you are going to go anyhow, right?  Please, no diplomacy. Tell me the truth in plain words."

"Yes. We are going to go anyhow."

"Ok [laughing] then I will say 'yes' to your planes. Please tell President Bush that I approve."

"President Bush will be very grateful."

I will write another posting on 9/11 in the next few days. I am wrapped up in a nasty professional issue, which I will describe in the future, and that is limiting my ability to blog.

Friday, September 9, 2011

September 11, 2001

This was the statement given by the Charge of the US Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka at a Church memorial service held for the victims of 9/11.  The service was attended by the entire diplomatic corps, much of the Sri Lankan government, and just hundreds of ordinary people, some of whom stood outside the church.  The service was held on September 14, 2001.  I happen to think it is one of the better statements made re that horrid event, and that it holds up even after ten years.

I will be writing more about 9/11 in the coming days.

Begin Text (as delivered)

On behalf of the American Embassy, Government, and people, I want to thank Reverend Gardner and all of you for coming here on a Saturday afternoon to express your solidarity, condolences, and good wishes as we try to grapple with the enormity of the crime committed on September 11, 2001 - - a crime that cost the lives of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.
All of us in the Embassy are deeply touched by the enormous and genuine outpouring of sympathy and support from the international community, from the Government of Sri Lanka and from the people of this country, Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim.  Thank you, thank you all very much.
I also want to take this opportunity to express heartfelt condolences to the people of our closest friend and ally, the United Kingdom.  They have lost scores perhaps hundreds of their fellow citizens in the attack on the World Trade Center.  We should not forget the many British families are today suffering the anguish of not knowing what has happened to their loved ones, or that of knowing all too well what has happened.  This is not the first time American and British citizens die together at the hands of a common foe and in a common cause -- and it probably won’t be the last time.  
The people of dozens of other countries, including Sri Lanka, people of all races and religions, including at least 50 Muslims, fell to the terrorists, and our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families.
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the 21st century.  
As a colleague of mine noted yesterday, civilization now confronts a new version of the cult of Assassins who, just as did those of the 11th century, proclaim loud fealty to a religion and then violate its principal tenants.  And, Ladies and Gentlemen, I say the following well aware that we are in a church, in a place dedicated to the propagation of peace and brotherly love:  Civilization must and will strike back; civilization must and will win this war in which we confront evil men who have no regard for human life; men who turn ploughshares into swords and then use them against defenseless innocents.
I don’t know what message the terrorists sought to deliver September 11; I don’t know their grievance or their cause.

 And, furthermore, I don’t care!  I don’t care!

Whatever it was, whatever their cause was, it has been hopelessly perverted by and lost in the evil of their deeds.
And evil must, and will be confronted and it will be defeated.  
During the just-concluded 20th century, civilization also fought great evil -- Fascism, Nazism, and Communism -- and triumphed, at great cost, but it triumphed.  And it will again.  In opposition to our democracy, freedom, and the rule of law, our opponents offer hate, desolation, destruction, and death, most especially death.

Let me quote from a poem written during the fierce battle for Guadalcanal by US Marine Corps Private First Class Vincent Cassidy:
“Does it grieve you, Death,
      that I defy you,
  that I refuse to be taken by you?
Be aforehand warned
   And plan it well,
If you intend my doom to spell,
   For I intend to fight . . .”
And fight we will.
In the words of the Scottish “Ballad of Andrew Barton,”
"I am hurt, but I am not slaine;
I'le lay mee downe and bleed a-while,
And then I'le rise and ffight againe.”
If anybody doubts that, turn to the words of one of the great heroes of the 20th century, one of the men who saved the civilized world, perhaps the greatest statesman who ever lived, and a man who knew America very well, Sir Winston Churchill.   

In his volume The Grand Alliance, he eloquently describes his reaction on hearing about the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of America into WWII on the side of Britain:
“No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy.  {. . .} So we had won after all! {. . . }  Silly people, and there were many, not only in enemy countries, might discount the force of the United States.  Some said they were soft, others that they would never be united.  They would fool around at a distance.  They would never come to grips.  They would never stand blood-letting.  Their democracy and system of recurrent elections would paralyse their war effort.  They would be just a vague blur on the horizon to friend or foe.  Now we should see the weakness of this numerous but remote, wealthy, and talkative people.  But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch.  American blood flowed in my veins.  I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before – that the United States is like ‘a gigantic boiler.  Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.’  Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, the boiler is lit.
And those who lit it on September 11, 2001, will learn the lesson learned by those who lit it sixty years ago, on December 7, 1941.  Then we all, too, will be able to sleep “the sleep of the saved and thankful.” 
Welcome to the 21st century.    
Thank you.

End Text

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Will be Back soon

Taking care of some professional and personal business, and will soon resume blogging.