I was a child in Romania when we gathered around our brand new television to watch news of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Nobody believed it. My uncle said that it was all fake, a plot by the Russians to destroy our minds. Television had barely come into being and it was strange enough to see the moving images. It was even stranger to see America for the first time. "Look at the amazing tall buildings," my mother said. They were amazing. The tall buildings. The energy of people moving fast even as they were weeping and mourning.
Years later in 1969 I was having breakfast in a Polish diner on the Lower East Side of New York. There was a television on, but none of the old men who nursed their coffees at that hour of the morning were looking up. The agitated news seemed to be some kind of replay of the JFK assassination. The night before, Robert Kennedy had won the primary in California. I'd gone to bed thinking that he was going to be president. I was glad. He had promised to end the war in Vietnam. But this was no replay. As I slowly focused on the small black and white set, I realized that the inconceivable had happened. Robert Kennedy Jr. had been assassinated during his victory speech. Not again! Later, when the world woke up, I heard those words over and over, "Not again! Oh, my god, not again!"
Without being too conscious of it, I was also bothered by the attitude of the old men in the coffee shop. They had acted as if the national tragedy on television had been only some kind of staged show, a fake of some kind. Like my uncle, they had seen too much tragedy to accept the reality. Among them were some who had numbers tattooed on their arms. They had seen the worst of what the century had to offer. There was little that surprised them.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the 21st century began in earnest. The whole world gathered around televisions to watch the horror visited upon us. My friend Ioana wrote from Romania that she had been watching with her son. She sent her heartfelt condolences and said, "We keep waiting for Bruce Willis to show up and for the movie to end!" I thought about her son Luca, who is the same age I was in 1963, and wondered what he was making of it. The tall buildings. The airplanes crashing into them. The flames. The people killed. This was his initiation into the new century, into how things really stand in history. The movie has no happy end. There is no Bruce Willis.
I hate to say it, but we were overdue for disaster. A terrorist act in Sarajevo ended the peaceful decades of the Belle Epoque and precipitated World War I. After only two decades of peace, another terrorist provocation, the burning of the Reichstag in Berlin, set the world on its way to World War II. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the war in Vietnam went on another five years. The attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon is the beginning of another war.
Amazingly, the Berlin Wall went down with little bloodshed, but the consequences were far from obvious at the time. We watched huge crowds bring down repressive governments peacefully (with the exception of Romania where a moderately bloody "revolution" was staged for television). The repressive governments came down, leaving a power vacuum in their wake. All kinds of hungry ghosts came out of it, nationalism and fundamentalism among them. The United States, the only superpower left, became the natural target for all the haters of democracy, religious tolerance, and the modern world in general.
Our Belle Epoque is over. We will look back on the '90s of the last century with the same nostalgia people looked back to the '90s of the 19th century. My sons, who were born within the golden bubble of the last quarter of the American century, have no idea. I wish they didn't have to. Americans are not demonstrative people: we did not gather in public squares to vent our anger at the terrorists. In other countries, people would have been on the streets calling for blood. But make no mistake: the anger is there. I just hope that we won't overreact. War isn't what it used to be.