Street Smart Chicago

Empire’s End: An expatriate American welcomes the nation to a cold, new world

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By Marc Spiegler

Marc Spiegler is a former Newcity editor now living and working in Switzerland. E-mail:

I’ve never owned a television, not even when I lived in the States. But when the news is so big that major Websites start keeling over, you need CNN. So I go to the house of Raoul, my Dutch-Egyptian friend. Together we watch that second jet streak toward the south tower, and together hold our breaths as the plane disappears from view—as if by doing so, we could halt the fireball that erupts a second later. It doesn’t; we gasp.

His mobile rings incessantly. When something big happens in America, the whole world telephones each other. He keeps saying, “It’s gone. Forever. Forever.” His eyes are wide with awe. But each time I watch the towers shudder and then dematerialize, it becomes more abstract. In my mind, they’ll always be there, until I’m actually looking at that hole in the sky. I try to visualize a honeyed sunlight flooding from the Hudson River into the once-dark canyons of the Financial District. It’s unimaginable.

When you’re an American abroad, New York’s never far away. And for all its corporate sterility, I’d warmed up to that neighborhood. My favorite Asian joint, Mangez Avec Moi, keeps streaking across CNN, its scarlet awning indecipherable. Trying to judge how far the rubble flew, I study the south tower’s collapse; my friend Jonathan lives literally in its shadow. And then there are the things I cannot know, like whether my brother had an early morning meeting near Wall Street. I try to make a mental list of everyone else I know in New York. I once lived there, and my more ambitious friends have moved there, and it’s the center of my industry. After a few dozen names, I give up, certain that the life of at least one friend has changed forever, if not ended. I’m steeling myself to go to a funeral next week, without knowing whose funeral.

The weird thing is that I’m experiencing this much the same way in Zurich as I would in Chicago. Everyone I know is huddling before CNN, watching the thin gruel of video footage. I’m crashing the same Web sites for news. I’m getting an equally dead tone when I try dialing my brother. And, of course, just as if I were Stateside, I’m flailing for salience on deadline, numbing my numbness with literary distance.

Still, there’s a part of me that’s looking through expat eyes, and what I’m seeing is the end of an empire. Only last year, America boasted the world’s strongest economy, held itself up as model of democracy and seemed militarily impregnable. Today—after the dot-com collapse, the butterfly ballot and Tuesday’s attacks—that era’s over. The rest of the world may still recognize America’s power, but that doesn’t mean they worship the dream.

All over the globe, there are people who take some measure of joy in this dethroning, though that measure varies. In a few countries and ethnic enclaves, people are partying tonight, scores even wishing they personally piloted those planes. Many, many others—millions, even—will mix a humane sadness with a political righteousness. For this is the world America has made. I remember the Columbine High School massacre, and the hand-wringing that followed it. At the time, U.S. Air Force jets were bombing Belgrade. To me, the connection seemed unavoidable: when the government uses violence toward its ends, so will the citizens. And so will its enemies.
So, welcome, America, to the cold new world. Where people are tired of a populace without passports electing the world’s most powerful man. Where people don’t like their kids watching MTV and scarfing down McDonald’s. Where the most dangerous men are those with nothing to lose. And where airport security is a better investment than Star Wars.

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