There we were, gathered around the table for a long-scheduled emergency planning exercise. It was September 11, 2001, and the American Embassy in Luxembourg was perhaps the only place in the world where one of these exercises was taking place.
The idea is to put Embassy staff through their paces, and a former diplomat who did this for a living had constructed a scenario which stretched elements of reality a bit to come up with a series of tests of our ability to deal with a crisis.
During an afternoon break, one of our people went back to his office, and phoning his wife, learned that there had been an incident in New York, something about a "small airplane" crashing into the World Trade Center. When he told us this, we thought at first it was a "plant" by the scenario writer - something to distract us from the fictitious crisis brewing in our exercise.
Shortly thereafter, another report came in about a second plane, and it started to dawn on us that this was stranger and worse than anything in our exercise scenario. We switched from exercise-land to the real world, and it was then that the Minister of Interior phoned me, to say that the Government of Luxembourg had dispatched armed police to augment our unarmed contract guards. I looked through the curtains, and they were already on duty.
For several hours that terrible day, US embassies abroad were pretty much on their own. The news said that the State Department had been evacuated, and there were rumors of a truck bomb hitting Foggy Bottom (unfounded, as it turned out). We kept in close contact with the nearest larger US Embassy in Brussels, and told our staff to head home.
That evening, one of the communications staff phoned me at home about an urgent message, and said that it looked like there was a demonstration forming outside the Embassy. That seemed preposterous, and it turned out that this was the first spontaneous outpouring of support that Luxembourgers showed over the coming days and weeks. People were laying wreaths of flowers and lighting candles outside the Embassy gates.
That evening of September 11, 2001 was just the beginning of what became a national cause. Within days, the entire government, including the head of state, gathered for a solemn, ecumenical memorial service in the national cathedral. There was a similar gathering at the American military cemetery, where General Patton and thousands of his comrades-in-arms lie. All over Luxembourg, used to honoring the Americans who liberated them (twice) in World War II, every town and village organized ceremonies over the following weeks.
And the emotional solidarity translated to political support. Within weeks of September 11, we were hosting a conference on combatting terrorist financial flows. On a number of fronts, including NATO, Luxembourg and other European allies joined the US. When speaking to audiences of concerned youth, I told them to take heart in this solidarity. It was the time of headlines "We Are All Americans."
What a difference a year makes. In the fall of 2002, when I was preparing to leave Luxembourg and the US Foreign Service, the phrase of concern to America's friends was "You're either with us or against us." The drums of war were increasingly audible: Iraq, which had had nothing to do with Nine Eleven, was in the US crosshairs.
What a difference a decade makes. Yes, 2001 was the year of 9/11. But it was also the year of the first Bush tax cuts, the ones that erased the Clinton budget surplus that was on its way to wiping out the US national debt. It was also the year where Europeans said goodbye to their national currencies and introduced the Euro. Ten years later, both decsions are the subject of much soul-searching.
That the intervening decade has been one of dysfunction is in little doubt. Astronomically expensive wars of choice that are still unresolved. The economies of nations at the mercy of financial institutions and firms that have little or no sense of loyalty to the countries that spawned them.
It didn't all start with Nine Eleven, but the body blow to once rock-solid institutions shook the confidence of the West. We have yet to recover.