Nagy: Twenty years ago and Sept. 11 in Ethiopia
TIBOR NAGY, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, September 12, 2021
This, the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is especially significant – coming only days after the debacle of our panicked evacuation from Kabul. In some ways 2001 seems like only yesterday – when I was serving as US Ambassador to Ethiopia.
I had just returned to my embassy Sept. 9 from the US, with my flight passing through Newark, and on that clear day we had a perfect view of the World Trade Center towers on takeoff. Tuesday, Sept. 11 was Ethiopian New Year’s, as the country follows the Coptic calendar, so the Embassy was closed. The world changed forever when my deputy called that afternoon (Ethiopia is 8 hours ahead of Texas time) and told me a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center buildings.
Any thought that it was an accident was quickly dispelled with the second plane strike, followed by the Pentagon attack and the downing of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. Our embassy communications center was cut off with the evacuation of the State Department due to rumors swirling of other planes targeting other Washington government centers. We also feared that certain US embassies would be targets, and ours was in the bullseye – with Somalia, which had its own al-Qaeda linked group, bordering Ethiopia.
Almost immediately after the second plane hit, I received a call from Ethiopia’s leader, Prime Minister Meles, expressing his solidarity and offering to send additional security to protect our Embassy. In the hours that followed I received similar calls from other prominent Ethiopians and from all my ambassadorial colleagues, even those from countries with which America had no diplomatic relations. Those calls offered a sliver of light on one of the darkest of days.
By evening we finally reestablished communications with Washington and received orders to increase security at the Embassy and reach out to all Americans around the country. I was also instructed to ask the Ethiopian government to consider giving us expedited clearances in case US aircraft needed to overfly Ethiopia on military missions. I asked the Prime Minister later that night and he replied without hesitation: “give us ten minutes notice and you’ll have your permission!” All across Africa – actually the world – my colleagues were receiving similar gestures of goodwill from their host governments. The world as one was on our side!
The next day we reopened the embassy with maximum security, and the most moving thing happened. Ordinary Ethiopians – among the poorest people in the world – started showing up at our gate with flowers. When the marines asked me what to do with all the bouquets, I told them to place the flowers at the foot of our flagpole. By the end of the next day the flowers reached a third of the way to the top! I was also visited that morning by the leaders of Ethiopia’s Islamic Council who, in addition to expressing their sorrow and sympathy for the American people, were furious that al-Qaeda had committed these atrocities in the name of Islam. A few days later the Pope of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – one of the oldest Christian denominations with around 60 million followers – organized and led a memorial service which was televised nationally and attended by thousands of Ethiopians.
In addition to representing our president, US ambassadors are the “mayors” of the American community. My “constituents” were in shock, hurting, grieving and understandably worried about their own safety. I had to do something to begin the healing, so we organized a memorial for the American community. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do – presenting a façade of calm and reassurance while inside I was suffering the same emotions as every other American. The service itself, attended by hundreds of our citizens, was incredibly moving and served the purpose of allowing us to grieve together as a “family.” Sensing the uniqueness of the event, I kept the program from that evening. Each anniversary I re-read my speech to gage whether my words were prophetic. Following is a portion: “..Let’s not change the fabric of America. This is exactly what the terrorists hoped to accomplish. They detest us viscerally and everything we stand for. They would love to see us strike out across the Middle East and Arab world at friend and foe alike, killing the innocent along with the guilty…we have to thwart them..”
That instant in time our nation and people were truly united, and we had almost unlimited goodwill from the rest of the world. Twenty years later the goodwill is gone – especially after our slinking out of Afghanistan – and our people are at each other’s throats over whether to wear a face covering to avoid spreading COVID. A few weeks ago, my wife and I visited the Flight 93 site on what was then a strip mine but is now a field of wildflowers. All aspects of the memorial are incredibly moving. But what stood out for me was that when those brave passengers learned what was happening in New York and DC, they actually took a vote on whether or not to take back their plane.
Where else but America would a group of passengers actually vote to take on the hijackers!? (And there were no complaints of voter fraud!) Would even a 9/11 type event unify us now? Each succeeding year I fear more for the fundamental fabric of America.
Ambassador Tibor Nagy was most recently Assistant Secretary of State for Africa after serving as Texas Tech’s Vice Provost for International Affairs and a 30-year career as a US Diplomat.