Autumn Phillips: A badly healed scar


At this time four years ago, I was locked out of the United States. My little blue passport meant nothing. The borders were closed, and no one knew when they would open again.

My mother was begging me to come home. She wanted me to be safe. She wanted me to get on a plane and fly to New York City from my home in Istanbul. To me, that sounded like the most dangerous thing I could do.

If it was even possible.

The borders finally opened, but flights were allowed in only on a country-by-country basis. Foreign governments had to meet a strict set of security requirements before their flights would be allowed to land in the newly frightened United States of America.

Weeks passed. My mom kept begging. Finally, I came home.

Until I boarded the plane, I didn't realize that I was on the first Delta flight to be allowed into the U.S. from Athens, Greece. (Flights from Turkey, where I had been living, were not yet possible.)

It was the friendliest flight I have ever been on. Everyone was talking to one another -- telling stories about where they'd been when the planes hit the World Trade Center and describing the horror of vacations that lasted weeks longer than expected.

I will never forget the moment we landed. To me, it represents that period in time when people were universally proud to be American, when political affiliation didn't seem to matter, when people genuinely seemed to care about one another, united by a common, terrifying experience. It lasted about a month.

When our plane flew over New York City, a few people craned their necks toward the windows to see the changed skyline.

Over the intercom, a flight attendant announced, "On behalf of Delta airlines, I'd like to welcome you to the United States of America."

The entire flight broke out in applause. The woman next to me wiped her eyes. I thought she might hug me.

I stepped off the plane into a changed America. Mostly, I remember seeing paper American flags in every window. Flags were on the backs of cars, on hand bags and on lapels. As someone said at the time, "Patriotism was cool."

I've been thinking a lot about that surreal window of time these past few weeks as Americans again are glued to their TV sets to watch a tragedy unfold.

Although people have been generous with their time, their homes and their money, this "attack" didn't affect us the same way as Sept. 11 did, and I've been wondering why. This tragedy happened to "them" -- the people of the Gulf Coast. Not "us" -- Americans.

My first thought is that we don't have an obvious person or group to blame. We don't have a common enemy to unite against. It would be foolish to shake our fists at God or nature. A few people lashed out at FEMA and President Bush. I've even heard people blame the Red Cross.

Or could the difference in our reaction to this disaster be a measure of the difference in the way we think about New York City and New Orleans? Could it be the coverage of the looting and the crime that makes us queasy about the true nature of human beings in a time of crisis?

Or is it a measure of our time? Since Sept. 11, 2001, that closeness I felt upon my return has faded. People are divided, party against party, ideology against ideology, class against class.

Most of the conversations I've had about Hurricane Katrina swing quickly to vitriol against the president.

What happened to us in the past four years? What changed?

It seems we are badly scarred. The wound was left open, and it healed badly. In a time of crisis, you want to look around and be inspired by the heroes who rise out of it. Instead, I feel ashamed. Why?


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