A Journalist's Archive

America's World Image
By Kathy Hare

          My husband and I were a world away from New York that morning hiking the countryside in western Ireland.  It was a wonderful sunny day, and it would be hours before we even became aware of the horrors our fellow countrymen were enduring.            When we arrived back at our bed and breakfast later that afternoon, we noticed the television blaring in the bar.  "What's that on the TV?" Mike asked.  "Must be a movie," I said.

          We wandered off to our room both wondering why the staff seemed to be avoiding us.  Normally we are greeted with questions, "How far did you hike today?" Would you like a pot of tea?"  That sort of thing. 

          While showering I heard shouting coming from the bedroom.  "It's real," Mike was screaming.  "Kathy it wasn't a movie, it's real!"  I came out and stared at the screen.  What most Americans witnessed happening as events unfolded, I watched in a condensed version.  The planes, collapsing skyscrapers, people running, the obvious carnage, and all the images now permanently seared into our brains.

          We flipped through the channels searching for more information.  A rotund British commentator on Sky News was gleefully announcing, "This is the end of America's financial domination of the world; they will never be able to recover from this attack."  The words I shouted at the screen can not be printed. 

          I was aware of the disdain some Europeans feel towards Americans.  We are seen as loud, boastful, arrogant, self-centered individuals. Still, I didn't believe the hatred towards America was so close to the surface that it would spew across the airwaves only hours after our country was attacked.  However, even before 9-11, I noticed a changed in the way Europeans perceive America, and I believe the blame can be squarely placed on the way this country conducts its political campaigns.

          The 2000 Presidential Election was a dirty, no holds bared, election.  But when it was over, Americans went back to business as usual.  Unfortunately, while Democrats and Republicans alike are busy slinging mud at their opponents, they are also destroying the image of the entire country.  What Americans read as political rhetoric is taken as fact in Europe. Whoever becomes president starts off with a tarnished image, whether they deserve it or not. 

          Now combine that with this country's financial, political, and military power, and it becomes easier to understand why foreigners worry about our government.

          I've heard some Americans say, "Who cares what the rest of the world thinks, they are all jealous."  

          But it's fear, not envy, that makes Europeans worry about the American agenda, because our media prints political slurs as "truth," leading the world to believe we are governed by mad-men.  

          Yet evidently, I wasn't the only person who thought the Sky News commentator exuberant was not in keeping with the tragic events.  Within 30 minutes the tone became more subdued, the British commentator was replaced by a German economist who said, "If America's economy is destroyed, so is the entire world economy." 

          We cancelled our dinner reservations and mentally started going through our list of relatives and friends.  Were any of them any where near New York City?  It seemed unlikely, still we worried. 

          The next morning, the staff extended their sympathy for the attack on our country.  I want to emphasis the majority of Irish people I encountered during my 2001 trip were sincerely sadden by the events on 9-11, but the image of America as the "Wild West," with a blood crazed leader, still surfaced, even though it was our country that was attacked.

          Two other American couples were eating breakfast that morning; one woman said they were flying home on Aer Lingus the following day.  I advised here to book a room, but she said, "I'm confident both the stock market and flights will be back to normal by tomorrow."  Ok, so maybe some Americans are self-centered.

          After breakfast, we set out for Dublin, where we originally planned to spend the last two days of our vacation, knowing full well our plans would have to be adjusted.  I called Continental Airlines to see if they could give me a tentative date for our flight home - they could not.  In order to escape the horrific scenes being played over and over on the television, we spent the next few days visiting museums or walking beaches.  But we quickly learned to speak as little as possible in public, because our American accent invoked expressions of sympathy or a number of annoying questions.    

          The situation reminded me of a death in the family.  No one knows the right thing to say because words change nothing.  Mike and I felt strange accepting people's sympathy, because we were not victims of the attack; in fact, many Irish citizens knew more people in New York City then we did.  At the same time, we didn't want to hear any negative comments about our government either, and there were plenty flying around. 

          One taxi driver called Bush a crower, "There he is hopping from one hiding place to another, afraid to show his face."  Repeatedly we heard, "We don't dislike Americans, it's your government we hate."  

          Over the next few days we became extremely anxious and depressed. Just knowing when we could return home would help.   Calling Continental Airlines early Saturday morning, I was informed a flight was leaving for Newark within 30 minutes, if we could make it to the airport in time there would be two seats available.  We grabbed our bags; twenty minutes later we were settled into a seat on a plane heading to the U.S.

          The flight home was uneventful, except for the anticipation of what awaited us.  No one spoke as we fly over New York City.  Below was the smoking charred mass that was once the World Trade Center. Landing in Newark was surreal experience. 

          When we left for Dublin three weeks earlier, our plane was 27th in line for takeoff.  The Twin Towers took-up most of the skyline; I got a clear view of the Statute of Liberty, but it was hard to pick-out the Empire State Building.   When the wheels touched the tarmac on Sept. 15, there wasn't another plane in sight.  A newspaper blew a cross the runway, reminding me of an old science-fiction movie. 

          I forced myself to look across the Hudson.  Manhattan Island appeared smaller, as if the island shrunk when the buildings collapsed.  An overwhelming sadness, no one can experience through mere television images, engulfed all of us. 

          I have walked those same hills since 2001, but now I know the joys of a sunny Irish day can quickly turn to sadness.  I believe travel brings understanding, or at least knowledge of other cultures.  Certainly, it conveys the truth about a country better than media organizations ever can.

          Unfortunately, most of the world only knows America through the images they see on TV.   Sadly, I doubt the political candidates will remember that in their quest to become leader of the most misunderstood nation in the world.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2007 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
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