The View From Overseas

We all get shiny new keys on Monday.

The big news here is that the Defense Ministry has finally settled on who among them will give the order to shoot down a hijacked civilian plane. (There are no skyscrapers in the Czech Republic.) Parliament is debating whether to give the secret police more powers. Four armored tanks are parked in front of the headquarters of Radio Free Europe. The army chief triggered a gas mask buying spree when he suggested that an infected terrorist might suddenly appear in a Prague movie theater.

And the mild-mannered former-dissident president, Vaclav Havel, got so angry over nationalistic remarks made by the leader of the Civic Democratic Party that he chastised him in the press for trying to surpress Czech citizens' right to free speech.

From what I can tell, it's the same kind of stuff that's going on in America.

But it's hard to tell. I have a fractured idea. I read The New York Times and Washington Post online, check major news sites, scan Slate, peruse The Guardian and fall asleep to the BBC World Service. But I'm not experiencing anything close to what my friends and family in New York, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco are.

I'm glad. I hear it's awful. I hear no one can sleep and everyone is depressed. My sister e-mailed to ask if I thought she should buy a gas mask. A friend in New York is traumatized because his doctor told him the air in his neighborhood isn't safe to breathe.

When I walk through the cobblestone streets of this fairytale city, I'm secretly relieved I left New York last July. Here, I smell coal smoke, not burning cement rubble. Here, I see flyers announcing classical concerts, not the faces of the missing and dead. I haven't had to read what someone was wearing when they went to work Sept. 11 as I wait to cross a street.

We had three minutes of national silence after the attacks. Air raid sirens went off and I leaned out my window and wondered what I was doing here. Lately I'm wondering whether I'll recognize the place I left.

Everyone's buying flags? Journalists who criticize Bush have been fired? The "Star Spangled Banner" is the top song? Arab-looking people are being turned away from airport boarding gates?

I feel like going home immediately so I'm not caught outside the walls of Fortress America.

I feel like staying put so I don't have to get on a plane.

Faxes keep arriving in the newsroom with the latest State Department warning to Americans abroad. It's always the same. "Keep a low profile. Don't gather in large groups. Avoid Western hangouts. Vary your daily patterns."

Take the signs off your buildings. Hide.

—Heather Maher

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SAME VILLAGE, MANUFAHI DISTRICT, EAST TIMOR

A dialogue from East Timor between two American U.N. police officers.

MICK- You awake?…You up?

SULLY-Ya.…You listening to the radio?

MICK- Ya.

SULLY- Voice of America?

MICK- Yes.

SULLY- Anything new?

MICK- No, same crap.

SULLY- I gotta call home. I can't believe these friggin' phone lines are down.

MICK- I know.

SULLY- We haven't hit anybody yet?

MICK- No … Nothing. Or they just ain't talking.

SULLY- Friggin unreal.This is unreal.

MICK- I know.

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