TOKYO As an American, a New Yorker by birth and a resident of Washington D.C. until a month ago, last week's terrorist attacks were especially surreal for me.
That I still don't know how many friends or family members I lost back home is one reason. So is knowing that thousands of people may have lost their lives. Seeing landmarks in cities I hold dear reduced to rubble hardly helps.
Viewing the carnage from 8,000 miles to the east, I was struck and a bit embarrassed by how much I wanted to be there. By how much I longed to be in New York, experiencing this awful act along with citizens of a place I still consider home.
Not that I could have done anything to help, but to understand what happened. To comprehend it in some way. If that's even possible.
I was equally struck and a bit disturbed by how much I cared about the terrorists' New York target. It's a building, for heaven's sake. It's the victims that matter, I remind myself. Forget the columns and beams.
Yet the World Trade Center wasn't just a building, but a symbol of America. It was the heart of the U.S. economy and soul of the capitalist world. The further you're away from home, the clearer that becomes. Hence the attempt by terrorists to topple the twin towers in 1993. And hence the extremes hijacking commercial jets and crashing them into the 110-story structures to which terrorists went to finish the job this time around.
Those who sent the towers to the ground not only succeeded in changing life as we know it for Americans, but also their lifestyles at least in the short run.
The human toll of the attacks on New York and Washington will take time to sort out. So will the economic effects. But for an economy already teetering on the edge of recession, the horror of seeing the World Trade Center crumble and the Pentagon burn could very well tip the U.S. into contraction.
That fallout will be felt far beyond U.S. shores. The American economy accounts for 25 percent of global trade, something investors had in mind last Wednesday when they sent the Nikkei stock average as low as the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the first time since 1957. The selling reflected fears the attacks will devastate global growth.
It's a rational fear at an entirely irrational moment in world history. U.S. consumers are the glue holding together a fragile U.S. economy. With scenes of planes flying into national landmarks filling television screens, it's doubtful Americans are thinking about shopping.
Consumer behavior is as much about psychology as economics. A family in Cleveland may not feel safe flying to California for vacation. Joe Six-Pack in Peoria, Ill., may not feel financially secure enough to visit auto dealerships this weekend to look at SUVs.
People in New York may not be eating out very much in the weeks ahead. Once consumers stop spending, the U.S. falters.
Nowhere will the closing of American wallets be felt more than here in Asia. Japan, for example, is pinning its hopes on an export-led economic recovery. Tokyo is actively trying to weaken the yen versus the U.S. dollar to boost demand for Japanese goods abroad.
The rest of Asia also is hoping to export its way out of recession.
But if the U.S. hits a wall which is far more possible now Asia will have to look elsewhere. Some analysts are buzzing about a Federal Reserve rate cut. The move would be aimed at calming fears about a U.S. meltdown.
Economics courses don't include much instruction on dealing with the financial repercussions of terrorist attacks. Perhaps they'll begin to, considering officials are now faced with those very challenges as never before. For not only has the world changed in recent days, but so has the range of variables economic authorities need to keep on their radar screens.
In the meanwhile, we here in Asia will keep victims and families in New York and Washington in our thoughts. I can't speak for everyone, but my heart is certainly 8,000 miles away from Tokyo at the moment.
William Pesek Jr. is a columnist for Bloomberg News.
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