Frightening New World

The horrible terror attacks in Paris last Friday took many of us back to that fateful September day in 2001. Most of us were not directly affected by the attacks (luckily) but it became obvious that the world changed that day...

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I moved to the U.S. on September 21st, 2001. Ten days after 9/11. It was an odd feeling to move to a country at war. Growing up in Austria and also living in Germany for a few years, I had a certain ‘idea’ of what war meant. Elderly neighbors and family members had been witnesses of World War II. I grew up in a house that had – as was required by law – a bunker you can go to in case of an air raid. Sure, my parents used it to stock potatoes and it had no door – but what was required was there. What did it mean when America was at war? Not much for the regular citizen who didn’t have a family member in the armed forces. Only when I turned on the news was I reminded of the war.

The day I arrived at the Los Angeles airport, LAX, the day I arrived, there was police everywhere. Men dressed in black uniforms with a stern look on their faces holding weapons I had only seen on TV before were patrolling the airport. I landed after dark and LAX seemed like a ghost town in a zombie movie. Under normal circumstances, LAX was a bustling lively place with lots of honking cab drivers and lost tourists desperately looking for that train going to the city center. Soon they would learn that there wasn’t one – no airport train and no city center.

When I walked through the LAX arrival gates, I had already been on two flights: Munich to Philadelphia and Philadelphia to L.A. On the first flight, a bunch of drunken Germans caused a ruckus and the air marshal had to step in. After the 9/11 terror attacks, air marshals were a new sight on flights to give passengers the illusion of safety. A funny and at the same time scary fact: the air marshal on my flight was way over sixty years old. The drunken guys were in their early 30s. The air marshal’s presence did not make me feel safe at all. I was crying for most of that flight holding onto a stuffed animal for dear life. I was so scared of moving to a ‘war zone’ that I felt no shame about seeking comfort the same way a toddler does. The stuffed animal I was clinging onto was an orange mouse from a famous German kids’ TV show. The middle aged German man – who by his own account liked to wear a suit and a tie when flying – tried to involve me in a conversation by saying “Ah, I see you are also a fan of ‘the mouse’”. We started a nice long talk about the TV shows we grew up with and where we were going in the U.S.

Going through the security check in Philadelphia was a long procedure. There were armed security guards everywhere. The airport was nearly empty. Any sharp objects were removed from people’s luggage. Smokers had to fly without lighters or matches. You could cut the fear and the tension with a non-TSA-approved knife. I was scared. Growing up on a farm, I saw pigs and cows get slaughtered but I had never seen this many weapons in person before. I was afraid to say the wrong thing even if I had nothing to hide. So when the TSA guy asked me if I had any food on me I told him I had some cookies in my backpack. He looked at me as if I had just told him that I was chewing gum and making a mockery of his job. “I said food!” I asked if cookies weren’t food. He looked annoyed and waved me through. I was confused. Cookies were not food?

The second flight was nearly empty. I had three rows to myself. A luxury I should never experience again after that flight. The same goes for the absolute silence on the plane as well as the friendly passengers and flight attendants. It weighed heavy on my mind that all of the planes that crashed on 9/11 took off from the east coast and were bound for the west coast.

So there I was with my tear-soaked stuffed animal and a big bag of unknown on my shoulders. 

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