The following piece appeared in the Portland Press-Herald in late October 2001. I was a regular op-ed columnist for the PPH from 2000-02. Figured it merited a reprint.
“This won’t stand,” she said. “We are with you.”
This was the straightforward sentiment conveyed to me the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, in the French seaside village of Arromanches-sur-Mer. It was offered by an elderly British woman, which explained the Churchillian tone. There were tears in her eyes.
I spluttered some expression of thanks but little else. A bewildered roll of the eyes perhaps. Standing on the coast of Normandy, we were all struggling to process the import and implications of what had happened the day before, some 3,000 miles away — of what would happen next. What’s more, we were all struck by the irony of what had brought us together.
“It’s no mistake that we are here,” she added, “in a place like this, on a day like today.”
Her tone and reference were apt. It was here in this sleepy fishing village that British engineers created a vast, man-made port through which the entire D-Day invasion force was supplied. It had been Churchill’s outlandish idea, his pet project, and it remains one of the great triumphs in the history of war-time engineering.
It would have been enlightening enough to leave Normandy having learned of the vital role Arromanches played during the largest amphibious assault in human history. It would have been amazing enough to see with my own eyes just how sharply these cliffs rise from Norman shore. It would have been moving enough to have walked amid the grave markers belonging to more than 9,000 U.S. servicemen, who rest for all eternity in bluff-top cemeteries overlooking Omaha Beach.
But this was Sept. 12, 2001, and it was all a bit too much.
IT WAS INDEED a curious time for a family of U.S. citizens to be abroad. We could follow events, but we felt more than a bit detached. Still do, in fact. Americans will always remember where they were that morning; I remember, too, but it wasn’t morning at all. It was four hours after the fact and six time zones ahead.
Almost two months later I still feel strange having essentially missed an extraordinary moment of national, collective consciousness.
What my family and I did experience, firsthand, were heartfelt words of support, not just for us personally but for the American situation in general. All over Western Europe in the days immediately following Sept. 11, restaurateurs bought us beers. Hoteliers cut us deals. In a Dutch internet café, people at neighboring terminals turned, made eye contact (a true cyber rarity) and offered their sympathies.
Driving our Citroen through Belgium, we listened (again, with an odd detachment) to the British voice of outrage via the BBC World Service. Even in haughty Paris, where an American visitor might well be treated as if he were the personal embodiment of U.S. cultural imperialism, we encountered nothing but comfort and concern.
These are staunch allies, of course. These are the people who best remember and appreciate America’s role in beating back fascism. Yet behind their statements of allegiance and comradeship there was the clear realization that, “It could have been us”. They counted themselves lucky, but they also knew full well that, “We could be next”.
Today, as we all wait the next shoe to drop, those sentiments go double for American citizens. Triple for those who happened to be abroad on Sept. 11 — perhaps 10-fold for those, like us, who flew from Logan to Dulles to Paris on Sept. 7, and back the same way on Sept. 16.
ONE OF THE STRIKING things about Normandy is its uncanny historical primacy; whole eras have a habit of dawning and setting here. From these shores in 1066, for example, William launched the Norman Invasion; his subsequent victory at the Battle of Hastings altered the course of Western Civilization forever. Before the millennium was out, dear friends would go once more into the breech here. Tattered armadas would wash ashore here. And allied troops would land here, diverting the flow of history once more.
And there I was, standing on the beach in Arromanches that beautiful, sunlit morning, witnessing the passage of yet another epoch on Norman soil. The Post-Cold War Era had drawn to its horrific close the day before. It was Sept. 12, my birthday, the day the world embarked on a new, unsettling, as-yet-unnamed era.
It’s a funny thing, a uniquely American thing, that we must travel so far to set foot on ground like this. That we must travel 3,000 miles to see these memorials in person speaks to the insular way, the fortunate way we Americans have spent the previous century. Indeed, for Mainers, Pearl Harbor is further still.
We no longer enjoy such a luxury, of course. In its place, we have a cold, hard perspective that Europeans and others around the world have long held — namely, that external forces CAN commit savage acts very close to home. And here’s the grim corollary: Civilian lives are routinely lost in the crossfire. To a long and grisly list which includes London, Dresden, Budapest and Sarajevo, we now add Lower Manhattan… and Kabul.
Little of this was clear to me back on the beach at Arromanches — but maybe it was to her. I wanted to ask my new British friend about World War II, her role in it, what she remembered from June 1944… But I couldn’t find the words, and she didn’t offer anything more. To the both of us, D-Day seemed curiously off the subject and remote.
We wished each other well and slowly drifted down the beach in different directions.