From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

Four Simple Words

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment to improve the world.

Anne Frank

One day after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, a man stood on the street of a foreign country with an American flag and a sign. I didn’t really have time to look; I was busy and in a state of shock over the recent events. Yet something compelled me to stop. What did this man want to say about my country? Would I have to defend mom, apple pie and rock ’n’ roll so far from home? I crossed the street. On his sign were four simple words I will never forget: “Wir alle sind Amerikaner.”

The country was Switzerland, and it is my second home. It is also stubbornly neutral and not even a member of the United Nations. Also neutral, in his own way, is Erwin Handschin, the man with the American flag and the sign. Not a member of any political party, union or club, he has never been to America and doesn’t even speak English. This country and this man do not take positions, generally speaking. But on September 12, 2001, Herr Handschin woke up near Zurich and felt compelled to hold a one-man demonstration. Walking the streets of the largest Swiss city, he carried an American flag over his shoulder and a sign that proclaimed, “Wir alle sind Amerikaner.” Many people congratulated him or clapped their approval. Because I speak German, I knew immediately what the words meant, but their deeper meaning only became clear a few minutes later.

I introduced myself and a conversation developed. The sixty-year-old had gotten up early that morning and written his feelings down on a piece of paper. He wanted to show that his heart went out to Americans, that he had compassion for them in their time of grief and confusion. As we talked, the deeper meaning of his sign became apparent to me: What America stands for is what most people everywhere stand for. The spirit and the ideals of our country are what is best about being human. They are what men and women all over the world envy and identify with: freedom, democracy, courage, compassion. And yes, even rock ’n’ roll.

Today, the streets in Zurich are more or less back to normal. Bankers, barons and businessmen walk these noble strassen. Neutrality is secure. But as I stroll through the city these days, Erwin’s nonneutral words accompany me: We are all Americans. It is one reason why our country will prevail.

The evening after his one-man demonstration, Erwin went back to his apartment, cooked some dinner and went to bed at around midnight. He didn’t sleep right away; instead, he lay in bed and thought to himself, Today you did something good, something that embodies the spirit of people everywhere. Indeed you did, Erwin.

We are all Americans.

Arthur Bowler

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