Nantes, France - Forty years ago, John F. Kennedy told crowds of Germans in West Berlin, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Several nights ago, Berliners held candles in memory of the victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, some wearing T-shirts proclaiming "Ich bin Amerikaner."
Le Monde pronounced "Nous sommes tous Americains," a phrase reiterated by countless French citizens and public figures, many of whom tearfully evoked their debt of gratitude to the United States for liberating France from the Nazis in World War II.
Sept. 14 was a day of mourning across Europe: 800 million people in 43 nations observed three minutes of silence at noon, central European time, the first such mass and unified expression of grief in European history. Over the past days, at American embassies and consulates from Moscow to Lisbon, thousands of people have come to leave bouquets of flowers.
This massive unity of public opinion and political will provides the United States with a tremendous opportunity and risk: the chance to capitalize on this good will and the danger of taking action that will splinter the forces that stand with us now.
If the U.S. military response to the Sept. 11 attack is perceived by our allies as excessive or indiscriminate, the unprecedented unity will begin to crumble. This is precisely what Osama bin Laden and his ilk are hoping for: a quick and brutal U.S. strike whose only long-term effect would be to divide the West and radicalize Muslims.
In the past few days, the Bush administration has capitalized on the world's good will and has put together an impressive coalition to isolate bin Laden and the Taliban. Yet European leaders and commentators have warned that this crisis must not escalate into a "clash of civilizations."
European and Muslim allies are worried by Bush's rhetoric, which at times mirrors that of bin Laden, promising an epic contest between good and evil. The president last Monday made the unfortunate error of calling the struggle a crusade, a choice of terminology that must have warmed bin Laden's heart.
As any Muslim knows, the crusades were wars of invasion launched by fanatical Christian Europeans, wars that eventually provoked Muslims to unite in a jihad that expelled the invaders. For some Muslim writers, the crusades were a precursor to the French and British conquest of much of the Arab world, historical proof of Western greed and animosity.
Bush has apologized for his use of the word, but the incident shows how carefully he needs to weigh his words if he is to keep international opinion on his side.
In the difficult months and years ahead, Americans need to emulate not the violent, vengeful hatred of those who attacked New York and Washington, but the sorrowful compassion of a world in shock.
We - Americans - have become the victims of a poisonous travesty of Islam. For years, the principal victims of this hateful ideology have been Muslims themselves. Afghans have been denied basic human rights by the Taliban. Algerians have been butchered by the thousands in the brutal civil war between a repressive government and rebel fanatics. In many countries, Muslim intellectuals who speak out for justice and human rights run the risk of attack either from their governments or from extremists.
This is why, across the Muslim world, the broadly shared grief at the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks is tinged with bitterness. The world seems to value the lives of 6,000 Americans more than those of the many thousands of Algerians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghans and others, who die each year, far from the television cameras.
My 12-year-old daughter, along with other schoolchildren across Europe, observed three minutes of silence on Sept. 14. One of her classmates, deeply moved, asked "but why don't we do the same for all the Israelis and Palestinians who have been dying?"
We will not find a lasting solution to the scourge of terrorism until we help our allies in the Middle East forge durable and peaceful solutions to their grievances. In the wake of World War II, the allies followed their victory over Nazi Germany by helping Germans rebuild their economy and laying the basis for a democratic society. The result is a German nation at peace with its European neighbors and one of the U.S.'s staunchest allies.
In contrast, the near total humiliation of Iraq in the Gulf War was followed by a sanctions regime that has left Saddam Hussein untouched, while impoverishing and radicalizing the Iraqi populace. In the months preceding Sept. 11, the U.S. had been criticized both by its allies and its enemies for its complacency and disengagement.
Far and away the world's richest and most powerful nation, we dreamed only of crawling behind a protective anti-missile shield and reveling in our peace and prosperity, just as 13th century scholar Roger Bacon dreamed of high-tech mirrors that could destroy enemy armies from a distance.
The weak and hateful people who organized and executed the terror attacks thought they could sow weakness and hatred in America. They have failed. We have never been stronger, and we have never had international public opinion and political will more firmly united with us.
The world awaits our response, with a mixture of grief, fear and hope.
John Tolan, a Milwaukee native, is an associate professor of medieval history at Nantes University in Nantes, France. He specializes in the history of the interaction between the Christian and Islamic worlds.
© Copyright 2001, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.