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The Silence Beyond My Window
An Essay by Rachel Louise Snyder

audio Listen to Snyder's essay.

Oct. 11, 2001 -- I had a dream that a strange smell began to waft through the air. I couldn't define it beyond knowing it was bad, deadly, and that I shouldn't open my doors or windows or I would die. I knew I'd have to stay inside for weeks. Then I looked out and saw my little brother, John, trapped outside.

I was forced to decide to open my door to him and kill us both, or sit at my window and watch him die. I woke to a sickening, nauseous, can't-shake-it sadness. These are the kind of dreams I have now, the sort of dream many people must be having. These are the new American dreams.

Here in London, many people feel they're the next targets; the fear's palpable. When the attack first happened, the central city was evacuated, portions of the Tube shut down and the airports closed. There are still more police than normal on the streets and the buses advertise toll-free numbers to call with information on terrorist activities.

"A British policeman stationed near the tent asked me how I was when he heard my American accent. 'Whatever happened to wars over territory and money and women from Troy?' I said. We both tried to laugh a little, but it was true. Whatever happened to wars we understood?"

Rachel Louise Snyder

That first day when Tony Blair spoke about standing alongside America, when he said an attack there was like an attack here, I sobbed, then I sat down to write him a thank-you note because I couldn't think of anything else and it seemed the thing the British might do. The next week when I saw him on TV sitting in Washington listening to President Bush's speech, I tried to picture what monumental occasion might warrant an American president sitting in on Parliament. I'm quite sure I will never see such solidarity again in my lifetime.

The day after the attack, I went to the American Embassy. Though I'd never intentionally sought out other Americans on previous trips to London, I felt the overwhelming need to be with my own. And there, amidst the flowers and the candles and the flag at half-staff, I cried again on the shoulder of a man from Ohio whose face and name I cannot remember. The embassy, of course, was on high security and an enormous tent on the grounds across the street prepared to house the book of condolences, signed first by Prince Charles that evening, and the following day by anyone who wanted to come wait in the cold, pouring rain, and hundreds did.

A British policeman stationed near the tent asked me how I was when he heard my American accent. "Whatever happened to wars over territory and money and women from Troy?" I said. We both tried to laugh a little, but it was true. Whatever happened to wars we understood?

I have seen places where devastation occurred before, at the killing fields in Cambodia, at the My Lai massacre site in Vietnam. One New York friend compared Lower Manhattan to the killing fields; the mass graves, the ominous silence, the evil. I remember at Tuol Sleng, the Cambodian genocide museum, how the floors were still stained and the walls were mildewed and the cells displayed the armaments of torture. I remember how the spirit of the place clung to my skin, how it made me want to vomit. The portentous silence of the place filled me up, like the kind of silence people say is all over the U.S. now.

It was in London, too, when the planes were curbed and no one seemed to breathe for days. This was the silence of the killing fields, the silence beyond the window in my dream, where my little brother stood waiting for me to move.

Rachel Louise Snyder is a writer based in Chicago.