At a time when most Americans were canceling their European vacation plans due to increased travel warnings by the government, I was more excited than ever that I was about to embark on mine. What was there to fear? Was I to believe that al-qaeda operatives would be lurking around every corner just waiting to snatch me up? Why had our nation become so afraid all of a sudden? I wanted to find out for myself what the rest of the world thought of us.
It was only a few days into my trip to Europe when I noticed the headline on the front page of the London newspaper The Guardian. “Here’s the evidence says the U.S.,” in bold letters accompanied by gruesome photos of Uday and Qusay’s corpses. Less than two months earlier on May 1st, 2003, George Bush had declared an end to major combat in Iraq while standing atop an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf in front of a banner that read “Mission Accomplished.” Americans may have believed the President’s assertion that the war was over and we had indeed accomplished our mission, but the rest of the world knew better as I would soon find out.
Walking through London later on that day, I came across an old man sitting on the stoop of 12 Downing Street. Of course, as you may or may not know, one door down is 10 Downing Street, home of the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. In front of him he had an array of self-made signs and a copy of the morning’s newspaper. Richard was 83 years old and was staging a peaceful protest of the U.S./British invasion of Iraq. As I would come to learn, Richard wasn’t alone in his views. In the hour or so that I sat and spoke with him, scores of people stopped to read his signs and ask him questions like “Where do I sign up?” Richard was a Buddhist and a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and had spent weeks in a protest camp in Iraq right across the boarder from a U.S. base in Saudi Arabia in the time leading up to the first Gulf War. Right before fighting broke out, they were forced to take refuge in a Baghdad hotel, and thus witnessed firsthand, the entire initial air strikes on the city. He had joined the British navy to learn to be a sailor but said all he ever learned was how to clean the deck of a boat. While we were talking, he was approached by a young Iraqi national who agreed that Hussein was a murderer, but also said that it was Bush and Blair who should be on trial because everyone knew the real reason for the invasion was the “black gold.” A young American girl who looked to be about 15 or so, curiously asked Richard, “Who is Tony Blair?” She was referring to the sign in front of him that read, “Tony Blair- Too Clever By Half.” He let out a boisterous laugh that came from deep within which turned heads from across the street and replied, “You are kidding, right?” Apparently clueless, she responded, “No, I’m not. My last name is Blair too!” Richard seemed to be very amused by the young American’s ignorance. I begged him not to judge our country based on this one girl’s lack of knowledge. He agreed. But I knew it and he knew it – it spoke volumes.
In the coming weeks, as I journeyed deeper into Europe, I was greeted with nothing but the warmest hospitality, even from the French. If anything, people seemed to love America, or at least the idea of it. To most, it represented opportunity. Sure, I saw my share of anti U.S. rallies. Some were small and others were huge, like the one I witnessed while walking through the central square of Madrid one evening. I started talking to a young guy who was holding up a sign written in Spanish with a picture of Uncle Sam on it. I asked him what it meant. It translated into something like “September 11th is not an excuse to kill innocent people.” After talking to him for awhile I told him I was an American. He smiled and said “No offense man, we don’t hate you, just your government.” Looking back, I have to wonder how these same people feel after what happened in Madrid on March 11th. Will we ever realize that hating one another is not the answer?