The European reaction to 9/11 was very strong, much more so than to other catastrophes and massacres. Why ? As an idealistic 16 year old high school student at that time, the answer I found disillusioned me.
Class had just started after the summer holidays at my high school in Luxembourg. On that day, I had barely arrived home when a friend sent me a message: “Switch on the TV!!” One minute later I was just staring, appalled.
I also remember the next day at school. Some students grabbed a microphone in the cafeteria and asked everyone to observe a moment of silence for the victims of the attacks. I was just leaving at that moment and I was astonished. Shouldn’t we talk about it beforehand? I couldn’t remember having observed any moment of silence at school before. I even asked myself if it had its place in school at all. Shouldn’t each of us choose how we want to pay our respects to the victims? Why should it be public? In the end, I never knew if these students’ attempts to hold a minute of silence were successful or not.
But these questions stayed in my mind and, before I could find answers to them, European politics decided to get involved. The EU ministers of foreign affairs called on all Europeans to take part in three minutes of silence on the 14th of September 2001 at 10:00 in the morning to honor the victims of the attacks. That day was declared an official day of mourning.
I completely supported the idea of paying respects to the victims, but I still couldn’t recollect the same kind of assertive policy being made for other catastrophes where thousands of innocent people had also died. We didn’t do any moment of silence for the 70,000 who died in 1998 in Sudan from famine, nor for the 17,000 who lost their lives in an earthquake in Turkey in August 1999, nor for the 20,000 killed in January 2001 in an earthquake in India.
So I assumed that this moment of silence was about more than mourning the victims, it was about showing our belonging to a certain group. As one of the most important voices in Europe, the German chancellor Gerhard Schröder put it, the attacks were “a declaration of war against civilization”. We had probably to show publicly that we all stand for “civilization”.
But I kept asking myself why the “civilized” world didn’t react like that during the Rwanda Genocide which lasted for 6 months in 1994 and where 800,000 were murdered, or during the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 where 8,000 were killed on European soil because of their religious beliefs. Even if “civilization” had also been under attack there, nobody asked us then to observe a moment of silence.
On the 14th of September, I kept silent for three minutes, but I couldn’t stop the questions revolving in my mind. Why didn’t we do this before in other cases? Why are we doing it now? Did more people die in this catastrophe than in others? No. Is the catastrophe geographically nearer to us? No. Shouldn’t we apply the same standard to all catastrophes? Isn’t that what we’re taught at school? That all men are equal in dignity?
Sadly, the only answer I could find to these questions was: “It’s just because it’s the USA. Nobody really cares about people being killed around the world, but if they’re Americans, it’s a complete different matter.” I was 16 and disappointed.
The discovery of this cynical double standard made me, for the first time, challenge official political discourse. It made me understand that appearances are deceptive and how inconsequential some people can be. Even today, I can’t find a different kind of answer to these questions (can you?). 9/11 gave me a great object lesson in getting critical.