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WHAT I KNEW AND WHEN I KNEW IT
No Nostradamus I, yet an eerie coincidence began on October 4, 2001 when I uttered hauntingly prescient words to my daughter as we sat at breakfast in a remote Irish village. The words had been formulating in my mind subconsciously over a period of years; I now attempt to trace their origin:
1992: In Santiago, Chile, in a factory training a man on the use of printing equipment. During a break I had asked him how much the average worker made in the plant. He replied that they made the equivalent of fifty US dollars a month. He then asked how much I made, and I made the mistake of telling him. He stared, whipped out a calculator and furiously tapped out a series of dollar-to-peso conversions. Astonished, he repeated the exercise. When he accepted the answer he stared wide-eyed at me, and then walked away.
1995: In Buenos Aires, Argentina, standing in an outside cafe in the prestigious Recoleta section of town. I saw a Middle Eastern man enter the bar, and when he heard me introduce myself as an American he rushed up and threw his arms around me, and personally thanked me for saving his country. It was during the Gulf War, and this man was Kuwait's ambassador to Argentina. "Oh," I replied, completely embarrassed as the man continued hugging me, "no problem!" And that became our private joke whenever we ran into each other. He would see me across a room and call, "No problem!" But the man was saddled with an overwhelming addiction to Argentine women. The proverbial kid in a candy store, we surmised he had suddenly found himself morally helpless outside the confines of a tragically restricted society. He could not, would not sit at a table with you unless the object of the evening was to chase women. Freely buying drinks, he would nervously shift in his chair only for a moment, then jump up and be off.
1996: In East Mumbai, India, in the plant working with bare-footed local men. One of them was a very serious young man who seldom smiled. He walked up to me and stated: "The American bombing of Hiroshima was an atrocity." I tried to reason with him, but he was convinced that the United States had committed a heinous crime. I changed tacts. "What if," I suggested, "Pakistan invaded India for no reason whatsoever, India lost hundreds of thousands of men in the ensuing fight, and then faced losing a million more casualties by invading Pakistan to end the war. Would India consider using nuclear weapons then?" The young man thought for a moment, and then said, "I see now that you are correct."
1996: In Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India sitting with a local in the hotel lounge. The man must have been a business owner; he could afford to sit and sip whiskey. He spoke disparagingly of women, opined that all Americans were fat, then told me that all Western music was of the devil, and proceeded to explain, line by line, the chilling horror of Hotel California. He invited me to accompany him to his dinner and I accepted. When he excused himself to go to the men's room, I spied a British gentleman whose acquaintance I had made sitting at a nearby table. I joined him for a chat, intending to rejoin my host when he returned. Suddenly the man stood above us shouting, creating a scene in the middle of the restaurant. He informed me that I had offended him by leaving his table, that I was a typical American without class, without honor, without any moral sense whatsoever, his vitriolic tirade escalating into a frenzy of anti-American abuse.
1999: In Istanbul, Turkey I was escorted by my contact, a successful Turkish businessman who professed little interest in religion. My first time in a predominantly Islamic nation, I asked if I were in any danger.
"Oh no no no," he replied, dismissing the thought with a wave of his hand. "You are perfectly safe here, perfectly safe." He paused as I relaxed, then added, "Unless you see a man in a robe with a long beard. He will kill you."
2001: In Singapore, I marveled that in a meeting attended by individuals from Singapore, France, Sweden, China, Poland, and the United States, ALL spoke English. I later discussed the Nato/US bombing campaign of Yugoslavia with the young engineer from Sweden. He voiced his accented concern: "We do not like it. We think in Sweden, what happens when we do something the US does not like? Will they then bomb us?"
2001: In Boston, Massachusetts, at Logan Airport. This is a true story. A weary constant traveler in a bad mood. I walked through the metal detector and triggered it. I stood as one always stands when one makes the alarm go off, waiting for the attendants to instruct me either to backup and reenter, or raise my arms as they do their magic wand thing. But this time no one said a word. I looked at the three women who were manning the station and saw them chatting. "Hey," I called, "does anyone care that I just set off the alarm?" The women paused to look my way, then turned back and resumed their chatting. Stunned, I then spied a man twenty feet ahead who appeared to be a supervisor chatting with another employee. In a bad mood, incredulous with what had just occurred, I walked up to the man and verified on his shirt that he was indeed a supervisor. "Hey," I said, "are you the supervisor here? I just walked through that metal detector and nobody gives a shit!" I wish I could remember verbatim his reply, but its essence was, "Who the hell are you to talk to ME like that? Screw!"
September 4, 2001. A beautiful fall morning in the small, quaint village of Doolin, County Clare. My wife Terry and I had traveled to visit our daughter Rebecca who had taken up residence in Ireland after graduating from the University of Massachusetts the previous spring. We spoke of Americans traveling abroad, of the respect one needs to show others, of the respect one deserves from them. We spoke of the similarities of peoples around the world, how we were more alike than not. I tried to impart any worldly wisdom I might have gained from my travels. We spoke also of the festering anger against Americans, particularly within the Islamic world.
"You know, Beck, they tried the World Trade Center once." My daughter looked at me as I nodded and uttered the words that would come back to us so hauntingly, so presciently.
"The next time they'll get it."