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Jewish World Review Sept. 25, 2001 / 8 Tishrei, 5762

Bob Greene

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They see not our weakness, but our strength -- THEY always said that we were too strong.

That was the complaint from critics of the United States around the world -- the U.S. was so strong, so powerful, so always in control, and our critics found that offensive. With American power came American arrogance, or so we were told. Affection for the U.S. was sometimes invisible beyond our own borders. No one, the saying goes, loves Goliath.

Never mind that many of us inside the U.S. didn't see it quite that way; never mind that our power did not seem absolute to those of us who live here. We saw ourselves as doing our best to stay afloat on a fragile and uncertain planet. We were too strong? Does any American reading those words feel that they accurately describe the U.S. before Sept. 11?

Not that it matters -- when people are critical of you, it's not wholly important what your own view of yourself is. What's germane is that around the world, many of the countries, and their citizens, who didn't like us based their antipathy on the assumption that we were invulnerable.

We're not. We never have been. And the remarkable thing, in the days since Sept. 11, is that right now -- even as we may fear we're appearing a little weak, exposed, overwhelmed -- the world seems to be on the verge of changing its mind about us.

In what we see as our temporary shakiness, the world sees our strength -- a different kind of strength than they saw before. In what we see as our being knocked off balance, the world sees a magnificent kind of steadiness.

They're looking at us differently -- and, unless we're misreading their eyes, they are looking at us with admiration and new respect and, as difficult as it is for us to believe, a recognition that, if they are ever attacked the way were were last week, they hope they will be able to respond as we have.

I'm not speaking of our sworn enemies; I'm speaking of nations that, on paper, are our friends, but have often looked at us with barely concealed disdain. We were too big; we didn't need anyone. That's what they thought.

Now that they know otherwise -- now that they have seen us wounded -- something quite unexpected is taking place. The world does not see weakness in our hurt; the world sees high courage. The world does not see frailty in our pain; the world sees humanity. All those years when they proclaimed, and presumed, us to be too strong -- and now they are applauding a different kind of American strength than they were able to understand before.

You have heard from them in worldwide news reports; I hear from them in letters from people who read this column in countries outside our own borders. Their voices may be soft, but their message is unmistakable.

From a reader named Jeffrey Brown, in Auckland, New Zealand: "Here in New Zealand, and in Australia, we are aghast at the enormity of the bombings, and are experiencing a kind of pain and a form of sympathy that is utterly alien to us. We can only imagine the hurt that you and your nation must cope with. Our sympathy to the U.S., and hence our deep respect, is manifest in prayers and candlelight vigils, flowers at the embassy, notes and letters to friends and relatives so far away.

"But the reason I am writing this message is to tell you about one very unusual way that our respect and support for the U.S. has been expressed. I watched a sports event last evening -- a rugby match between two neighboring provinces, Canterbury and Otago, who are fierce, hardened rivals with fervent, partisan fans. In the grandstand were people waving flags.

"This is a very common thing at a rugby match, except that these people were not waving the flags of the rugby teams.

"They were waving the American flag.

"I have never seen that before. Good luck to you and your nation. We are with you all the way."

Perhaps this will endure; perhaps it will fade.

But for now, it is here -- and it is stirring to know it.

From Clive Allard, a reader in England:

"I look forward to visiting your country again. . . . The scars may heal. The pain and sorrow will always be there.

"Our tears are for you. May G-d bless you."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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