On 11 September 2001 I was a journalist reporting from the Federal Palace in Bern for “Der Bund” newspaper. The news of the events in New York City dropped during a press conference of the defense minister.
Among my beats was Swiss defense policy, and that Tuesday afternoon we were summoned to a press conference of the Federal Councilor, head of the department of “defense, civil protection and sports”. The beginning was scheduled for early afternoon, probably 2 p.m. Schmid, only nine months after his election the new face in the government, faced the challenges of “army reform” – a euphemism for repositioning an unwieldy, way too big organization stuck in hidebound traditions of “armed neutrality”, and cold-war mindsets, to meet the security needs of the world after the fall of the wall. I don’t recall what the press conference was about, but I believe to remember that there was talk of “asymmetric warfare” which was another code word for fighting enemies who did not belong to a state, wear a uniform or adhere to the laws of war as laid down in Geneva.
Shortly before 3 p.m. I noticed unrest among those colleagues which had access to mobile phones. Very soon whisperings about “a big airplane catastrophe in New York” permeated the room and a little later the press conference was terminated. When we were heading for the exit towards the nearest TV screen it was clear that what happened was not just an “accident” but a planned, man-made organized act of attack. Before we left the room, one colleague – the one who always had a very firm view of things, rooted in a diligent reading of the German magazine “Der Spiegel” which he was subscribed to – made a remark I won’t forget. “This is the revenge of the Third World”, he said. The “Third World”, he said, was giving the Americans what they were asking for and deserved. He said it twice, and twice I was repulsed. But he was not the only one to quick-assess the incident. I myself did it too. “This means war” I told another colleague next to me. “There is no other way the Americans will respond than war”. Against whom, and where, I had no idea, but I was convinced that war was in the offing. The colleague gave me a blank stare.
If I recall correctly, we saw the second plane ram the second tower on a TV screen in the Palais Federal, but I might be wrong. At any rate we all headed to our desks, in my case to the “Der Bund” offices three blocks away. There, we watched on CNN the towers crumbling (weirdly enough, our national desk did not have TV in every room, we had to gather in some other place) and were busy resetting next day’s paper with extra pages, correspondents” reports and the rest. Incidentally, many of the newspaper correspondents in the US were nowhere near Manhattan, but just relayed what they saw on American TV to the news desks back home, some doing funny business with their bylines – I know of one case of a “New York correspondent” who lived way out in Connecticut but reported breathlessly from Ground Zero.
The next day it dawned to me that “this means war” was just one lens to view the incident. It would have been equally plausible to perceive it as an act of crime. Between those two “narratives” – as we would say today – lies a huge difference, not as to the fact and the deed itself but to the response to the act. War is for the military. It applies all out force without regard to individual responsibilities. Crime is for the police. It applies force where needed to bring individuals to justice. Soldiers are not good policemen.
Only a few in politics and media made this difference stark and clear. I did not – not as forceful as I should and maybe could have done. Nothing to be proud of.