I remember the depth of caring for America in the days and weeks following 9/11/2001, when the world was with us, and we were with the world. My husband died from cancer soon after that awful day, while the world was grieving for Americans the way my friends were grieving for me. My personal loss and slow healing was a microcosm in the macrocosm of America in late 2001. There was shock and disbelief, and then caring and support. Except for despising Al Qaeda, there was minimal blame on either side. We did not hate all Muslims, and most countries were extolling our virtues as a beacon of freedom.
The world's empathy in late 2001 came in a remarkable, healing invitation: Florence, Italy wanted to show its connection to New York. This magnificent city was officially inviting a group of New Yorkers to show their solidarity with the United States. Symbolically, they invited a deputy mayor, a worker at the site, a service man, an artist, businessman, actor and so forth. And I, to my complete surprise and delight, was chosen as the writer.
I remember the joy I felt, the first real joy since my beloved husband had died. I felt grateful that I would be able to partake in such an unselfish and giving experience.
The government of Florence flew us to Italy, and put us up at a vintage hotel on the Arno. The Florentine mayor joined us for dinner, where toasts were made throughout the evening, extolling New York. Our tears mingled. We talked and listened, laughed and cried.
Our hosts tried to show connections in every way, even driving us to the nearby Tuscan village where Giovanni da Verrazzo was born, knowing that one of New York City's bridges was named after him. They literally opened their doors to us in every way possible: We visited at the home of the very private Ferragamos, the shoe designers, and at a final banquet the mayor kept open the Pitti Palace and lighted gardens just for our small group.
"The world loves America," the Florentine officials kept saying. "We are New York today. We are you. How can we show you how much we care?"
What has happened in the past nine years? How could we have come so far from that open invitation, when the world felt our pain, when outpourings of support and love in some ways like the one I experienced were happening throughout the world.
Now at this moment, right after 9/11, 2010 the world no longer feels our pain. Many feel us a pain, and many --too many -- wish us pain. Riots erupt in Muslim countries against an American zealot who threatened to burn the Koran, and indeed at least three Americans did just that heinous symbolic act this past Saturday. Many of our fellow citizens demonize American Muslims and many foreigners demonize us for our intolerance.
More and more, we are considered by much of the world as an intolerant, radical nation: America, a country founded on the concept of tolerance.
Can we do anything about this? For starters, politicians and business leaders must be held accountable for hypocrisy, bigotry, abuse, and lying. The media must be called out for lazy and craven reporting. We must be brave, and stand up for civil liberties through our writings and our conversations and our actions.
We need to think this through, right now, right after the ninth anniversary of 9/11, so that on the tenth anniversary we can gain back some respect in the world.
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