Where were you on September 11? What were you doing? And how did you react when you first learned about the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington? That day is likely to be remembered by many World of English readers, just as their parents recall the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the day martial law was declared in 1981 and when a Pole was elected pope three years earlier.
Poles have always had a special relationship with America, and Poland is ranked among the most pro-American countries of Europe. News of the tragedy quickly spread by word of mouth in schools and workplaces, on the streets and in trams. Upon returning home, people stayed glued to their TV sets. Scenes of the blazing and subsequently collapsing twin towers of the World Trade Center and the smouldering Pentagon were repeatedly shown. One Polish commentator saw fit to inform viewers who had just tuned in that what they were seeing was not a sci-fi thriller - it was for real.
In Warsaw, local residents began gathering outside the American Embassy. Before long, the pavement outside the building's main entrance was choked with flowers and flickering candles. U.S. Ambassador R. Christopher Hill came out to the people gathered there and told them in Polish: "Jestem wdzięczny, że w tej trudnej chwili Polacy są z nami." ("I am grateful that at this difficult moment Poles are with us.") The ambassador later published a lengthy thank you on the first page of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's top-selling daily.
Poles may not always agree with their leaders, but this time they all seemed to support President Aleksander Kwaśniewski when he said, "We sympathize and express solidarity with the American nation, with the U.S. authorities and with President Bush in his efforts against terrorism. Never and nowhere can there be any consent to such violation of basic rights." When a condolence book was set out at Warsaw's Królikarnia reception center, thousands of Poles turned out to sign it. American Embassy employees said they were surprised that hundreds were still queuing when it came time to close for the day.
Although hospitalized, Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek interrupted his treatment for a circulatory ailment to meet cabinet members and agency heads responsible for Poland's security and defence. Although there were no indications to suggest any threat to Poland, members of the crisis staff assured Poles that all precautions were being taken. The police, anti-terrorist units, fire fighters and other emergency services were put on alert. Security was tightened around the U.S., Israeli and Arab embassies, at airports and border crossings.
The Polish authorities lost no time in declaring their country's readiness to fulfil its allied commitments and place its armed forces at Nato's disposal. The outgoing government of Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek offered to send a contingent of Polish commandos to Macedonia to relieve U.S. troops for anti-terrorist duty in or around Afghanistan. Polish air space was also opened to the U.S. Air Force.
Polish experts and commentators have discussed every conceivable aspect of the terrorist assault. Some wondered whether the tragedy could have been prevented. The general feeling, however, was that this was not possible. A terrorist always tries to surprise his victim, and if he is properly financed, technically equipped and motivated by religious fanaticism, even the most powerful intelligence services may be helpless.
While nothing can bring back the 6,000 people killed in the attacks or effectively comfort families who lost their loved ones, sooner or later the physical damage will be repaired. Most likely, those responsible for the crime will be brought to justice. But the events of September 11 are likely to affect ordinary people's lives as well. Added security precautions will create hardships for travellers, increase waiting time at airports and possibly raise travel costs.
Many people are saying that after September 11, 2001 the world will never be quite the same. Some say that day has marked the true beginning of the 21st century, while others suggest it could still lead to the outbreak of World War Three. In Poland and elsewhere, many people felt the attack had not been launched against a single country but on the whole civilized world. It was an attack by those who are ready for anything and for whom human life - their own and that of others - means next to nothing.
- Rob Strybel