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Special Report

Europeans, too, feel vulnerable in wake of attack


With two telling phrases, the Sept. 12 Italian daily Corriere della Serra summed up the reaction to terrorist attacks in New York and Washington: “We are all Americans,” and “Today the Atlantic does not exist.”

Such reactions suggest that here, on the other side of the Atlantic, differences between Europe and the United States suddenly seem less profound than differences between the West and the authors of such violence.

“We cannot cancel from our memory the phrase ‘America Under Attack’ that CNN selected as the title of the most frightening tragedy of our time,” the Italian daily wrote. “We limit ourselves to correcting it. It is all civilization that is under attack.”

The Italian daily La Repubblica expanded on the theme.

“There is a sentiment that unites Europe with wounded America, and it is the sense of the fragility of democracy,” the newspaper wrote. “It is an inevitable, facing the sudden blaze of seemingly omnipotent terrorism. But democracy is not weak. It discounts the disproportion … between the unarmed citizens of a part of the world that considers itself at peace, that recognizes the rights of others with respect to the values of civil life, and a possessed, militarized minority that uses the legal codes of peace in the West for deforming them through an occult, treacherous war.”

Germany’s leading daily, the Berliner Zeitung, likewise saw the events of Sept. 11 as a strike at all the West.

“The World Trade Center may be for the terrorists the symbol of imperialistic globalization, but for us it is -- with room for criticism at the level of detail -- a symbol of the free trade of all peoples with each other. It stands for ‘make business, not war,’ ” the paper wrote.

El Pais of Madrid put the matter starkly: “Tuesday’s terrorist attack, let us not mislead ourselves, is a blow against the essence of our political civilization.

“What happened in the United States could be repeated in Europe,” the paper warned. “The danger of ‘emulation terrorism’ is very significant in a media-saturated world.”

The sense of fright came through clearly in initial radio and TV broadcasts. The Italian state radio network broke in after the first explosion at the World Trade Center, and as news of further attacks came in, commentators noted how unsettling it is for some Europeans to see the United States so vulnerable.

“We complain about it, but psychologically we have come to depend on the Americans,” one commentator said. “If this can happen to them, we are all less safe.”

Catholic reaction in Europe echoed the secular media’s America-friendly line. L’Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, saw the attack as a wake-up for Europe to abandon a “growing anti-USA campaign,” allowing differences on environmental protection, globalization or the American and Israeli walk-out at the Durban racism conference to generate “accusations and hate.”

L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, took the highly unusual step of remaking its front page twice Sept. 11 to accommodate news and comment on the events in the United States.

“The folly of terror” was its banner headline, saying that the attack recalled the memory of Pearl Harbor. Pope John Paul’s message of solidarity to President Bush was splashed in big type across the front page.

Several European prelates expressed their own concern. Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, former apostolic nuncio to the United States and a friend of the Bush family, described the events as “profoundly frightening.” He said they “leave me horrified.”

Beyond expressing a new realization of the common situation facing the West, the European press had two chief suggestions for Bush: Do not rush to judgment, and think anew about America’s policy in the Middle East.

El Pais addressed the first point.

“If the attack did emanate from the Islamic world, it will be important not to create a total war in response to the act of a few. One would then dig up the idea of Huntington, who forecast a brutal clash of civilizations, betraying the extremely pluralistic and multicultural society of America itself.”

The Financial Times of London raised the second caution.

“Bush should also review his policy toward the Middle East,” the paper said. “The administration’s hands-off approach and its tolerance of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s hard line has encouraged extremists across the region looking for any excuse to demonize Americans.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 21, 2001