September 16, 2005


Fifteen years later…
by Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

At the height of the disaster in New Orleans and just a couple of days after I stood up and screamed at my television, “Where is our government?” upon seeing the draped body in a wheelchair left on the streets with a handwritten note pinned to it for identification, our German exchange daughter we hosted 15 years ago arrived for a visit.

Steffi brought with her newspapers from Munich that basically asked the same thing. Where is the government of Louisiana and where is the government of the United States? Headlines shouted “Apocalypse!” and “America Resembles a Third World Country.”

When the attacks on 9-11 started making news around the world, Steffi called us, first very worried because she knew that was the week we usually took time off. She knew I love New York City and that we had quite possibly decided to vacation there. When she learned we had just returned from a trip the day before from somewhere other than New York, she was relieved, and then like many across the world, the shock and anger sunk in. From different continents, we took comfort in the days after the attacks, knowing at least the people in charge in New York and Washington DC seemed to be taking control of the situation.

Eventually, questions arose about the chaos of that day. The Federal Aviation Administration didn’t at first seem to know how many high jacked airliners there were; the military was slow to respond to defend the airspace of New York and Washington DC; and there were disturbing doubts that our government, let alone our intelligence agencies, could work together to thwart such threats in the future.
But we were reassured that by giving up some of our freedoms to the Patriot Act and by spending billions of dollars to create yet another bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security, the government would keep its citizens safe.

As it turns out our leaders can’t even keep its most vulnerable citizens safe from a predicted monster hurricane in a city that even elementary school children know sits below sea level. While it was powerful enough watching images on our television alone, we had the unique experience to now watch them with a European who just completed her dissertation on effects of terrorism on the global economy. And while I’ve heard many Americans say that the whole situation of allowing at least 100,000 people to remain stranded in the city while many of them perished was embarrassing; in our household, where we had eyes from another part of the world, it was downright shameful.

When Steffi lived with us 15 years ago, she was eager to assimilate herself into American culture. She wanted to know everything about America and Americans, what we thought and how we lived. She wanted to be American, if only for a year. She took American history in school and we showed her monuments and taught her about our heroes. We had many discussions over the wars in which we fought her home country. Only then it was she who expressed embarrassment and shame for some of the actions of the government of her homeland.

And then came that night in January 1990 when we started bombing Iraq in the first Gulf War.

For the rest of that winter, we sat glued to the television watching “smart bombs” being lobbed at Iraq. We tried to comfort Steffi, who was far from her first family. We told her she was in the most advanced nation in the world, safe and far away from any threats. She too, tried to comfort her American family, as my nephew was stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. In the end, I think, we both felt some pride in our governments, who together, had turned away the oppressors of Kuwait.

As Steffi arrived this time though, she was not sure how we felt about the current Iraq conflict or how we felt about her government’s refusal to help us there. As we watched yet another horrific historic event unfold on television, she found out. This time, we did not sit in front of the television with a naïve 16-year old, but with a worldly 31-year old recent graduate of the University of Munich who holds a degree in international business. We soon realized that she knew more about our government and of current events in the United States than do most citizens.

We didn’t try to convince her that we live in the most advanced nation in the world nor did we tell her, when she confided that she almost cancelled her trip due to fears that terrorists might strike us again when we seemed to be at our most vulnerable moment, that she was safe and far from danger. A lot has changed in 15 years. We do not know how safe we are. We do not know where our government and our leadership have been.

Fifteen years ago, when we asked Steffi, “Where in the world would you most likely live if you did not live in Germany?” She answered without hesitation, “The United States.” Today, her answer has changed.

Fifteen years ago, when she asked us if we thought the United States was the most advanced and best country in the world in which to live, we answered her with a confident, “Yes.”

Today, much has changed. I could only answer her this time by saying, “I think it’s still better than most,” but of that I am not even so sure.

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell can be contacted at Her blog is at


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