Americans are not the only ones who have been glued to their television sets since Tuesday’s horrific attacks in New York and Washington. All across Europe, TV stations have followed the story nonstop, often forgoing commercials, and a deep sense of horror has taken hold that could make it easier for President Bush to build international support for retaliation.
Many Germans saw Tuesday’s events as an attack against them as well, since the terrorist strike was clearly intended as a blow to the West. But Germany’s sense of being closely involved with the American drama was heightened Thursday when news broke that three of the men involved in the hijackings lived in Hamburg and may have planned part of the attacks from here in what is being described as a terrorist cell.
Mohammed Atta, the 33-year-old who likely flew American Airlines flight 11, and his cousin, Marvan Al-Shehhi, 23, who was on American Airlines Flight 175, lived in a $500-a-month apartment in Hamburg’s Harburg neighborhood, according to the Bild Zeitung newspaper. The two men left Germany in March 2001 for Florida, where they enrolled in flight classes at Huffman Aviation in the Gulf Coast town of Venice. German commandos reportedly stormed eight apartments in Hamburg and arrested one suspect after being tipped off by the FBI Wednesday night.
Atta and Al-Shehhi were enrolled as electrical engineering students at Hamburg-Harburg Technical University, and a third suspect who perished in the Pennsylvania crash is also believed to have studied there. Neighbors quoted on German public television said the suspects lived fairly “anonymously” in their Hamburg neighborhood.
Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile explicitly named as a suspect Thursday by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, is believed to have ties to operatives in the Hamburg area. But so far officials have been unable to nail down a firm connection between the terrorist mastermind and the men suspected of attacking the U.S.
Even before news broke about Hamburg’s apparent role in the events leading up to this week’s calamitous developments in New York and Washington, the talk in Europe has mostly been of solidarity with the United States. There’s a sense here that what happened in the U.S. was an attack against all of humanity and that no one will be safe in the United States, Europe or anywhere else until the terrorist threat is eliminated.
In fact, some are calling it an attack on Europe, since many European nationals also perished in the destruction. More than 100 Britons have been confirmed dead, and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw estimates the number could rise to the “middle hundreds.” Four Germans have been confirmed dead, and the German Foreign Ministry has registered hundreds of missing persons since the tragedy.
People all across Europe had reacted to the news with often dramatic expressions of grief. Thousands have turned up at U.S. embassies to pay their respects. Government leaders have urged people all across Europe to observe three minutes of silence Friday in honor of the thousands who perished on Tuesday.
Flags have been at half-mast at the Reichstag and other federal buildings since shortly after the horrific news hit. Thousands of grief-stricken Germans attended special masses. Even the first night of Berlin’s version of Oktoberfest was called off — and the main event in Munich may also be canceled. The sense of shock may fade in the coming days, but it’s doubtful that a reinvigorated sense of solidarity with the United States will.
The fences protecting the blocks surrounding the American Embassy here have been transformed into impromptu memorials, with people laying flowers, candles and cards in front of them. Hundreds waited in line to sign the embassy’s official book of condolences.
Some demonstrators carried signs begging the United States not to launch World War III in retaliation. Another pleaded with the U.S. not to take “rash steps.” But largely the demonstrators and their signs seemed to be offering unconditional support for America and its victims.
That sentiment has been echoed by European government ministers, most dramatically at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where officials have for the first time invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, saying they are prepared to view this attack on the United States as an attack on all of NATO. The action was taken partly because NATO hopes to be involved with the inevitable military retaliation, so it can help define its terms. But it’s also clear that President Bush already has more international support behind him than even his father did in assembling his Gulf War coalition. The sense across Europe is that this is a time for closing ranks swiftly and unmistakably.
“This is an act of solidarity,” NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson said. “It’s a reaffirmation of a solemn treaty commitment which these countries have entered into.”
Of course, Bush could squander that support by overreacting. And some observers caution that even Article 5 doesn’t commit specific states to get involved with a U.S. military response. On Thursday, Defense Minister Rudolph Scharping noted that the NATO vote does not mandate that Germany undertake any military action. The U.S. must decide whether it will take retaliatory steps, he said, and Germany can then decide whether it wants to help or not.
But it all represents a dizzying turnaround from the turbulence in U.S.-European relations that had generated so much press attention in the first months of the Bush administration. Just six months ago, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder visited the White House and found his first face-to-face meeting with Bush so disappointing, he reportedly told people he thought the U.S. president had trouble remembering his name, according to Maureen Dowd in the New York Times.
That was the same day that Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, setting in motion months of difficult dealings between Europe and the United States. The split over global-warming policy culminated in July with the European agreement in Bonn, Germany, to go ahead with the Kyoto process, even without the U.S.
This week, that was all forgotten — at least for the time being — along with European worries about Bush’s mania for missile defense. Like Tony Blair, Schroeder could hardly have been a more steadfast, even passionate, ally in the wake of the attacks Tuesday. Visibly shaken, Schroeder told the German parliament Wednesday that the terrorist attack was “a declaration of war against the entire civilized world,” earning a unanimous show of applause from different political parties.
A day later, Schroeder powerfully invoked history: “When it came to defending the freedom of Berlin, John F. Kennedy said ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ It was the expression of an unbelievable solidarity. Today I think Germany has an occasion to return this solidarity.”
Just as a reminder of where this is all heading, the new U.S. ambassador, former Indiana Senator Dan Coats, was sworn in Wednesday — 10 days ahead of schedule. Considering that Berlin has been without a full-fledged U.S. ambassador for most of the last year, once John Kornblum announced his plan to step down, it seemed a potent reminder of the need for closer U.S.-German relations as this most unclassifiable of wars unfolds.
Germany and the rest of Europe have often felt that President Bush takes them for granted, but that’s all out the window now. And Bush is trying to mend his ways. Suddenly he’s calling Schroeder on the phone to confer, something he has pointedly not done at key junctures in the recent past.
Europe and the United States, it appears, may have little choice but to maintain the close relationship they have had for decades, even if a more assertive Europe grows into a more pronounced role.
And for now, the German people are standing behind Americans, as are the citizens of the rest of Europe and most of the world. At times that support has been poignant. In Berlin, many locals have tearfully recalled the Berlin Airlift that kept this city alive in 1948.
At the makeshift memorial set up outside the U.S. Embassy, a postcard of the World Trade Center was taped to a flower and set against the cyclone fence. “We are so sad and shocked. — Olgo and Elmo Kraft, Berlin,” the card read. Another, from an elementary school in Berlin stated: “We will pray for the lost souls in this tragedy.”
Germany’s most important politicians and thousands of citizens converged on Berlin Cathedral Wednesday morning to mourn the losses. The cathedral was so packed that hundreds had to stand at the plaza outside.
As Peter Struck, a Social Democrat parliamentary leader, said simply: “Today we are all Americans.”