On Sept. 11, 2001, I was serving as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, having returned to my embassy just two days before from a conference in Washington. The Ethiopian Airlines flight from Dulles airport stopped briefly in Newark, New Jersey, and on that clear day we had a perfect view of the World Trade Center on takeoff. That would be the last time I would see those buildings. Tuesday, Sept. 11, was Ethiopian New Year’s Day, as the country follows the Coptic calendar, so the embassy was closed.
The world changed when my deputy called that afternoon (Ethiopia is 8 hours ahead of Texas time) and asked if I had seen the news — a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. I had not, so I immediately turned on CNN international; my deputy and I surmised it had been a freak accident. That notion was quickly dispelled with the second plane strike, followed by the Pentagon attack. Our embassy communications center was cut off, since rumors swirled in Washington about other planes targeting other government centers, and the State Department was evacuated. There was also speculation that U.S. embassies around the world would be directly targetted.
Almost immediately after the second tower was hit, I received a call from Ethiopia’s leader, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, asking for information and whether he could do anything for us beyond sending additional security to protect our embassy. This in itself was highly important and greatly appreciated since Ethiopia borders Somalia, where an al-Qaida-linked group controlled most of the country. In the hours that followed, I received similar calls from Ethiopia’s top leadership as well as from all my ambassadorial colleagues, including those — such as Libya and Cuba — with whose countries the U.S. did not even have diplomatic relations. (The only one who didn’t call was the North Korean.)
By evening we finally received communications from Washington directing me to do everything possible to increase the security posture for the embassy and all Americans around the country. In addition, I received specific instructions to approach the Ethiopian government “at the highest level” and ask whether they would be willing to provide expedited clearance in case U.S. military aircraft needed to fly over Ethiopia on the way to “other” destinations. That night, at a formal state dinner for the visiting president of Djibouti, I was able to directly ask this question of Prime Minister Meles, who replied without hesitating, “Give us ten minutes notice and you’ll have your permission!” Washington was greatly pleased with this support — and my colleagues all across the African continent were receiving similar gestures of goodwill from their host governments.
The next day we reopened the embassy with maximum security, and the most moving thing happened. Ordinary Ethiopians — and this is a country where most people live on less than $1 per day — started showing up at the embassy gate with flowers. The Marine guards asked me what they should do with the bouquets, and I told them to place all the flowers at the foot of our flagpole, with its flag at half-mast. By the end of the next day, the flowers reached a third of the way up the pole! I was also visited early that first morning by the leaders of Ethiopia’s Islamic Council who, in addition to expressing their sorrow and sympathy for the American people, were furious that al-Qaida had committed the atrocities in the name of Islam. Later in the week, the pope of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church — one of the oldest Christian denominations with around 70 million followers — organized a nationally televised memorial service outside Addis Ababa’s largest cathedral. Thousands and thousands of Ethiopians attended, along with my diplomatic colleagues from around the world; we were led in prayers for our nation and people by the pope himself.
In addition to being the U.S. president’s “personal representative,” the U.S. ambassador is considered to be the unofficial mayor of the entire American community. All my “constituents” were in shock, hurting, grieving and understandably worried about their own safety and security. I knew that we had to have some type of catharsis to at least burst this bubble of pain, so we organized a memorial service for the community a few days after 9/11. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do — presenting an exterior of calm and confidence when beneath the façade I was suffering the same extreme emotions as every other American. The service itself, attended by hundreds of our citizens, was incredibly moving and served the purpose of allowing us to express our grief together as a “family.”
Sensing that the event would be a unique experience in my life, I’ve saved the program and my own remarks from that evening. And as the years have passed I always re-read my speech on 9/11 to gauge whether or not they were prophetic. Following is a portion, “… Let’s not change the fabric of America. This is exactly what the terrorists hoped to accomplish. They detest us viscerally and everything we stand for. They would love to see us strike out across the Middle East and Arab world at friend and foe alike, killing the innocent along with the guilty, and going after the Islamic/Arab communities in the U.S. This is their ultimate aim; we have to thwart them by preserving the fundamental fabric of what America is about …”
For a brief period in 2001, our nation was truly the United States (and people) of America, and we had almost unlimited goodwill from the rest of the world. Over the years since I had become more and more pessimistic and wondered whether our nation still had the wherewithal to show such unity for anything. This past week it was heartening to see our people’s unified and generous spirit in responding to the destruction and misery wrought by Hurricane Harvey. It would be a true blessing if this commonality of purpose could endure past the tragedies which unleash it.
Tibor Nagy is vice provost for international affairs at Texas Tech and served as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1999 to 2002 and to Guinea from 1996 to 1999.
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