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An American in Berlin

I arrived in Berlin two weeks before September 11, embarking on a year of philosophy studies and re-connection with the country I grew up in, but haven’t lived in for eight years. In those first weeks I tore around my new home on various borrowed bikes, electrified by this unbeautiful city, as thrillingly jarring as a Dada cut-up. My inner architecture shifted into German mode as my American habits and expectations receded into the background, along with my English. I found an apartment in the district of Kreuzberg, where most of my neighbors are Turkish, discovered where to find the best vegetables and bars, and what shortcut to take through the park to get to the most delectable falafels in Berlin. I was just relishing how at home I felt, when on a Tuesday afternoon, like millions of others around the world that day, I got the phone call to turn on the TV, and quick.

At first I didn‘t feel much different from the Germans and Brits with whom I stayed glued to the news. I was thankful that I was at a distance, where my experience of September 11 was mediated by German television and the BBC rather than by CNN. Still, that night as I walked home, I caught myself eyeing the Turks on the street with some trepidation. They’re Muslims, after all, and observant enough that most of the women wear head coverings. What if they knew I was American? Not sure what difference this would make, I still hoped they didn‘t.

The first anti-war march -- less than two weeks after the attacks and before actual war had broken out -- drew thousands. Even the downpour that ensued while we were still listening to the speeches didn’t dissuade these veterans of protest, whose marching legs were toned in the ‘70s and ’80s when Berlin seethed at the center of the “cold” war. The Soviets may have built the wall that divided their city, but West Berliners were marching against the Americans back then: for bombing Libya, for fueling the arms race, for their bloody involvement in Central America. And now they were back, along with the next generation or two, some of them marching under flags of Mao and Lenin, many under PDS flags (Party of Democratic Socialism, the heirs to the East German Communist Party). It wasn‘t just the rain that made me less than enthusiastic as I listened to the speeches and tried to gauge the mood around me. What was it? Something, perhaps, about the absolutism that came across in the rhetoric of innocent and guilty. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the blood shed on September 11, and especially the blood soon to be shed in Afghanistan, is ultimately on America‘s hands. While in a certain sense I can’t disagree, what doesn‘t sit right is the unqualified nature of the finger pointing. Evil has a face and it is America. I feel like I’ve heard something like that before, somewhere, and it didn‘t seem right then either.

The next demonstration I attended was on the day after the first strikes on Afghanistan. That night, as people congregated on the vast, still vaguely Soviet-feeling Alexanderplatz, the news spread that the NPD -- National Democratic Party of Germany, i.e., the far right -- was marching too. Against the war. Against America. They’re even using words like “peace.” Speakers at the lefty march condemned this “opportunism” and urged us not to tolerate the misuse of peace slogans by fascists. The next day both the “Nazis” and the lefties protested in front of the American Embassy.

For my part, I‘ve been protesting less and arguing more. Involuntarily, I’ve become an American again, just as I suddenly became an American in 1986 when Reagan bombed Libya and my seventh-grade social-studies teacher asked me in front of the whole class what the hell my country was doing. I didn‘t know what to say then, and I don’t know much more now, but I do find myself wanting to dampen some of the anti-American fervor I encounter. I wonder if I would be trying to soften denunciations of America if I were in the States right now. It‘s doubtful, but then Americans can’t denounce themselves with the kind of purity of conviction that non-Americans can. And this, ultimately, is where I find myself most foreign here: I cannot categorize and blame as neatly, definitively and confidently as those around me are able to. Not that this quest for subtlety makes me American, of course -- what, after all, is less subtle than a battalion of bombers and the meting out of “infinite justice”?

All it does make me is uncomfortable, and suspicious of anyone who can tell me in five sentences or less what‘s wrong with the world, and whose fault that is.


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