Around 9:30 am Sydney time on 12 September 2001 I was sitting on a cold, windy bench waiting for my bus when my mobile phone started ringing. For the next hour or so I received at least a half a dozen calls from concerned Aussie friends as people were discovering that the now infamous 9/11 disaster was unfolding.
I had left the house that morning after seeing the astonishing images that now are part of world history, feeling numb and unbelievably far away from home. As I entered the college there was an eerie buzz around campus. I joined my morning lecture and for the rest of the morning the class focused on what the US would do to respond to this attack, how families must be feeling and how the rest of the world would be impacted. I don’t remember any other single moment living overseas where I received this much attention.
Monday May 2 I got up, watched the news and went about my daily routine. When I got in the car that afternoon, I happened to hear a blurb on the radio that Osama bin Laden was dead. I went home, made dinner and barely mentioned it that night.
On Tuesday the news concentrated on images of Americans celebrating in the streets, the speech from President Obama confirming America’s role in the death and commentary about Pakistan’s role in the situation. Since the announcement I’ve received no phone calls from concerned friends and despite my efforts in engaging people in this topic, I have had no meaningful discussions about what this means either to me or to the world. I probably will not remember this event, despite its importance as it has had seemingly little impact on my life. Or is this true?
The stark differences in the reaction of people in my life to these milestone events makes me wonder how things will change for fellow expats and travellers. How will the expat world be a different place with the “face of evil” being dead?
I still have my American accent. I regularly take cabs and public transportation. A couple of times since 9/11 I’ve gotten into a cab in Australia and I have had occasion to lie and say I’m from Canada. I may be unique in this regard, but I have been yelled at or taken to the wrong place for mentioning I’m American. Some taxi drivers are from or currently have family living in countries the US is currently or has been at war with, so my accent represents all that is preventing their families from having a better life in their mind. I understand this and have not felt unsafe, I just don’t like my lying, nor do I like the reality of the situation I’ve been put in.
Before 9/11 the “diggers” (Aussie slang for military personnel) I struck up conversation with would say things like “I’m so grateful for the USA. If it weren’t for Americans, we’d be speaking Japanese today”. Since 9/11 some Aussies who hear my accent will proceed to offer their opinions about how much they hate the Bush administration(s) or a myriad of unpleasant observations about Americans in general.
This is echoed by a memory of travelling to the US shortly after 9/11. I was stunned by the overt support there was for someone travelling in a military uniform, as they were encouraged to go to the front of the airport security line and often met by applause — something I don’t ever remember seeing in my lifetime. However this seemed to be short-lived because when I was in the US in March 2010, the military are now the same as everyone else and waiting in the very long lines.
However in my life the most significant changes have been since the Patriot Act. A few times since this act has passed, I’ve come to the US and I have been detained for questioning. Despite being an American citizen and still paying income tax, I have been asked where and how long I’ll be staying as I do not live in the US. I don’t remember this happening before 9/11, but I cannot be sure.
I sometimes wonder if my conversations with family and friends are being recorded. I have to fill out a TD-F 90-22.1 form declaring all of my non-US assets.
And of course all of us travelling in the US seem to be subjected to the most intense, time-consuming airport security compared to any other country I’ve travelled to in the world.
Many of these examples I’ve shared are in the moment time consuming and I have felt challenged by some of these experiences. But given all of my seemly negative stories, I also haven’t felt scared to either travel or live abroad. If anything I’ve had to look at my own biases and my world views.
However, I get the feeling that the media would like us to think that that since 9/11 Americans are not safe. Given that we have a significant event to measure our fear against, it is easy to buy into this argument. Yet I wonder how our attitudes toward the role of government, our tolerance or intolerance of cultural differences have changed — regardless of 9/11, regardless of where we live. I’m curious that now that Osama bin Laden aka “the face of evil” is dead can we feel safe? Or have we culturally changed and the temporary safety measures from this event now our reality?