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Naked, With Flag

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I decided not to fly into New York City (where I am attending a conference this week) on 9/11 but pushed my flight back. I arrived on Monday, September 12, in mid-afternoon. I imagined what it would be like to stroll down towards Ground Zero and visit the memorial site. I imagined a leisurely and contemplative walk, but that turned out to be impossible.

The area is surrounded by package-tourists from all corners of the earth, fully armed with money belts and cameras. No tickets are available until October -- they are free but have to be ordered in advance. Thank God there is a ticket system, though. Otherwise Ground Zero would be overrun by tourists, just like the adjacent cemeteries of Trinity Church and St. Paul's Chapel. Why do we like grave sites so much?

The new skyscraper -- the name "Freedom Tower" has long been sacked -- towers over the scene. We can only guess how tall it will be once construction has been completed. And if the tower had a soul and a pair of eyes, it would surely witness many disturbing scenes below: Tourists that pose in front of the memorial plaques, people who use the flowers and candles as cheap photo ops. "Look, mommy, I was there!" I almost want to punch them in their faces when they smile and wave at the camera. It is astonishingly impious.

Above the scenery hangs a large American flag. "Yet we go forward to defend freedom", President Bush said on the night of September 11. I don't want to reduce people to their clothes and their behavior. But I wonder whether the tourists that visit Ground Zero understand that they are walking trough a memorial. I have only witnessed a few minutes of the action, and my subjective impressions ring true. But they should not be carelessly generalized.

The German chancellor Gerhard Schröder said on September 11 that our common values had come under terrorist attack. What did he mean? Schröder was thinking about the open, free, tolerant, secular, value-based, Christian-humanist, enlightened, social, parliamentary, society that arose from Western culture. A liberal society is good for all people regardless of their religion. The Arab Spring can serve as the most recent example of that idea.

The Christian idea of freedom centers on the soul, the societal idea of freedom rejects oppressive forms of rule. That second aspect is applicable across religions and forms the core of our political discussions. Twenty years ago, freedom spread across the countries to the northeast of the Mediterranean Sea. Today, it spreads south of it.

And there is another lesson to draw from the Arab spring: Liberal society is not something that is spread by Western nations through war and occupation. It is inherent in the human spirit: a spirit that yearns for freedom and rejects oppression. Because of that, the narrative that the American war machine expands across the globe to spread democracy and protect economic interests falls short. Firstly, because the quest for freedom is native to all peoples. And secondly, because energy security, access to food and water or secure trading routes are not genuinely American ideas. They, too, are of fundamental importance for every nation.

Anti-American sentiments after 9/11 eventually turned towards the cynical, with some suggesting that the U.S. was only receiving its proper punishment for a belligerent foreign policy. I don't want to sugarcoat American "engagement" in Vietnam, in Korea, in Latin America. But the planes that hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not directed against the United States -- they were directed against all of us in the Western world.

Yet for al Qaeda and its collaborators, attacks on liberal ideas are becoming increasingly futile, especially since the people of the Middle East cracked open the lid of autocracy (with the help of Allah, one might add). Backwards fundamentalists who dream about subjugating everything and everyone under absolute truths have been overtaken by the liberal agenda.

And in the West? Maybe the young Arab generation is more than skilled workers for our factories and future tax payers. Maybe they are the ones who have picked up the baton of freedom and will pass it on to future generations. Around Ground Zero, I have seen a great many confident, smart, athletic and witty Muslims, male and female.