Skip navigation

I can’t remember what the weather was like in my city on September 11th, 2001. To hazard a guess, probably raining. But I will always remember what it was like in New York City.

I worked in a newsroom at the time and, as such, I probably knew about the incident before most people on the planet. It was just after lunchtime, round about the time everyone’s brain slowly re-engages after fresh coffee is brewed.

I can’t remember what we were covering that day; can’t recall anything else that happened across the world. Like my memories of the weather, everything seems to focus on one time, one place, that day.

Our ancient computer software used to send out irritating pinging noises whenever we would get a message on our terminals. The long-dead software system seems so archaic now that the messages might as well have been in Sanskrit, or hieroglyphics.

Sometimes the pinging would denote a personal message – usually some gossip or flirting between colleagues. But if everyone’s terminal pinged in chorus, then that meant there had been a snap.

For those who don’t know, a snap is a one-line statement put out on the wires as a major breaking story.

It’s never quite a cause for astonishment, far less panic. Snaps are sent out to let us know when the Dow Jones is opening or closing, or if a football team has won a trophy, or if the results are in for an election in Central America. They’re worth keeping an eye on, of course, just in case something really big happens.

I know I was the first person to take note. Lucky me.

“Hey – did you see that snap off AP? ‘A plane has hit the World Trade Centre.’”

A mark of the times, indeed, as there were only one or two murmurs about the possibility of terrorism. But no, surely not – we thought it was probably just a light aircraft. A little six-seater, maybe. They always seem to crash, the smaller planes.

We tuned into Sky News for live footage of the incident. By this point you could see an ugly pall of smoke rising from the North Tower, and the South Tower was still fully intact. Witness testimony was starting to come in that an airliner had hit the North Tower. That’s when the real dread started.

We all know what happened next. We watched it happen live.

I’ve never known astonishment like it in a newsroom, and probably never will again. And after that came the dread, the uncertainty. By the time the Pentagon was attacked, and United Airlines Flight 93 went missing in Pennsylvania, anything seemed possible. Where else would be hit, we wondered? If attacks were synchronised across the United States, then they could be synchronised anywhere. They could even have been happening right at that moment.

I remember joking that if a fresh snap was to come through to tell us that alien invaders had landed in Trafalgar Square, we would have believed it.

The images of what happened that day in Manhattan are tattooed on our collective consciousness, repeated and burned into the memory like a song, or a poem, or a prayer. The phrase I keep hearing is “never forget”. It isn’t possible to forget. God only knows how you recover from something like that if a friend or family member is involved.

In personal terms our office had a small stake in what was going on – one of our colleagues was stationed in Manhattan, and had been on his way to the site after the first tower was hit. Of course, mobile phone coverage was completely nil by the time it became apparent that something more sinister than a bizarre aviation accident had occurred. We feared for him.

He got out of the area alright, thankfully, with only a coating of dust to trouble him on the outside. I can only hope his long-term mental and physical health hasn’t been affected.

When those tight vertical lines vanished from the Manhattan skyline – became un-lines – it created an indelible scar on our consciousness. It unleashed literally untold horrors on some of the poorest people in the world. It created the vectors that led to the current economic crisis in the west. It has turned dark-skinned Muslims the world over into bogeymen, the subject of fear, ignorance and demonisation on a par with how the Nazis perceived Jewish people.

And it’s far from over. We are still being swept along by the tsunami created by that seismic event – the ultimate Black Swan incident – and the end result for the western world is potentially dire.

I want to find a way through it, and to examine how the events of the day they call 9/11 affected us all, and how we can recover.

VIRTUAL UNREALITY

September 11th 2001 was the world’s first fully interactive disaster. We actually watched it unfold in real-time, in high definition. It was a digital catastrophe. Even 10 years on, it’s difficult to imagine something so brazen, so in-your-face, in media res.

The closest equivalent may be Challenger exploding in 1986 – but even at that, all we see on the TV footage is the smoke and flaming debris from afar as the Space Shuttle broke up.

But here, everything was in grisly detail. We didn’t have to imagine. We did not even have the mercy of cropped newspaper photographs, the safe distance of sober prose and broadsheet columns. Even the original TV war, the first incursion into Iraq, displayed a sanitised version of armed conflict – silent explosions, nice clean lines, lurid green and black night vision images like an ancient video game. September 11th offered us no such mercies, unless it was edited out of footage before we could see it. The impact of those atrocities remains unique.

In a year when one of the new dictionary entries would have been “reality TV”, when shows such as Big Brother, Survivor and Castaway gave us a distorted look at real life and real people in unforgiving close-up, September 11th was a terrifying irony.

And it prefigured all the hells that the burgeoning internet can unleash upon us, from videos of beheadings to the very worst pornography. In its stark depiction of a dreadful reality, it almost had the gloss of unreality to it. Small wonder the conspiracy theorists should become so fascinated with the attack – it almost invites fictive framings and plot devices, as if packaging those events into a neat narrative lessens their impact.

Perhaps we even felt we had seen its like before at the cinema. It was a true-life disaster movie; about five years previously people had cheered when invading aliens zapped the White House in Independence Day. The idea to crash a plane into the World Trade Centre had certainly been addressed before, in the movie Escape From New York.

Now, here it was, for real.

SOLID GEOMETRY

Looking at images of the standing Twin Towers now gives me a sickening feeling, especially in considering the geometry of the structures – the straight narrow lines of the windows and the stonework.

Watching a jumbo jet go through them is to see the limits of human design and aesthetic control corrupted; a brutal reminder of the forces of chaos, disharmony and malice. When I went to see the last Batman movie at the Imax, I had a flashbulb moment in the opening shot, where the camera zooms in on a similar building, and the vertical lines seem to shimmer and converge. I thought of the Twin Towers.

Many people point out that even worse horrors and even bigger body counts have been racked up before and since the events of that day. I’m one of them. As the joke goes on Team America: World Police, the body count in Afghanistan and Iraq of civilians killed as a result of the US-led coalition forces’ occupation of both countries could be 911 times a thousand.

But this does not match the impact, the lasting horror, and the hideous damage to the western psyche involved in those towers coming down. It wasn’t just one specific menace. It was a confluence of them, a council of worst nightmares – air terror, death by fire, death by falling, the very floor beneath your feet disappearing. How many millions of people have woken up screaming since that day after dreaming about those scenarios?

Lockerbie was still fresh in people’s minds, after Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi had been convicted of the atrocity following a special hearing at Camp Zeist in January 2001. The 1988 attack in which Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over a small town in the Scottish Borders had seemed the very worst in aviation terrorism at the time, but it was obvious that what we were watching was far worse.

And then there were the people trapped inside the building. In particular, the people stuck on the floors above the inferno, who had presumably tried to escape but found the way blocked. Those poor, poor bastards we watched waving out of the smashed windows, calling for help. Hoping for a helicopter, a high wire, Superman. Anything.

We couldn’t do a thing.

And then there were the ones who clearly knew that their time had come. The ones you can actually listen to making their final telephone calls. The ones whose last words of affection were delivered to answering machines. The ones who jumped.

I want to say that I can’t imagine what those people were going through – but the horrible thing is, I can. The pure panic, the fear. Perhaps, with the floors collapsing beneath them, they jumped in the hope that they would effect some miracle escape. Catch hold of a window pane, maybe. Land in the awning of a bagel store.

Perhaps they had lost their minds.

But I prefer to think that some of them were calm. That they accepted their time was up, and made a choice to take their own way out. It seems that some of them fell in twos and threes, and I’ve read stories about some falling hand-in-hand. It doesn’t comfort me, exactly, but it’s better than thinking about the alternatives.

WHAT CONSPIRACY?

It fascinates me that there are people who persist in conspiracy theories about what happened, even though they probably watched exactly what happened live on television, like me.

I don’t know whether to be heartened or depressed by some people’s obsession with any number of bizarre conjectures as to how the towers fell. Some believe that a missile actually hit the Pentagon, that it was actually the Jews who did it, or rogue elements in the secret services, or Elvis, or Roswell aliens – or (inevitably) Barack Hussein Obama. There’s comfort in great delusions, sidesteps from reality. It’s like playing a shell game with the truth.

Look, we all saw the airliners hit the buildings. You don’t have to be a structural engineer to understand how the towers fell. There’s your answer, surely. If it was mass delusion prompted by really good computer graphics on Fox News, or maybe some nerve gas released into the atmosphere in Manhattan which altered thousands of people’s perception, then thumbs up – great fucking job.

Perhaps it goes back to what Jung theorised about belief in UFOs or ghosts or anything supernatural, otherworldly or unusual; it’s a search for a god, or some ultimate order. Some delusions reach terrifying levels of complexity and interconnectedness. In this, conspiracy theorists are approaching the same wavelength as the 19 people who hijacked the planes. They were searching for meaning in a chaotic universe as surely as the tinfoil-hatters. If anything, the terrorists had at least one foot planted in the real world.

I remember going for dinner with a group of friends, and among them was one lovely man who suspected that just about every major event in recent modern history is interlinked and controlled by a shadowy US secret service group. And I do mean everything – from JFK’s assassination to the alleged Roswell incident to John Lennon’s death right up to the Twin Towers themselves.

He didn’t understand when I laughed at him. I feel bad about it, but I had to laugh. The banal truth is that a handful of fanatics were able to bypass lax security and change the world. Whether they believed they were headed for some virgin-paved paradise or not is irrelevant. The September 11th terrorists had real-world motives, grievances based on US foreign policy. That’s why they did what they did.

MAN ON WIRE

One thing that serves to debunk the conspiracies must be George W Bush’s gopher-in-headlights act once the scale of the attack was revealed to him.

As Michael Moore so cruelly exposed, the man simply sat there before a group of schoolchildren, blinking, once his adviser whispered in his ear. Before we scoff – and there’s lots to scoff about in that man – let’s put ourselves in his shoes for a moment.

If I can imagine what went on in one of the jumpers’ minds, then I cannot imagine what was going on in the mind of the American president. It almost makes me want to have sympathy for him, even when he vanished for a few hours on Air Force One, leaving Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani to provide a sense of comfort and reassurance on the streets of New York.

So, no. That wasn’t a man who was in any way involved in a conspiracy against his own people. A man out of his depth; a confused man at the mercy of the hawks of the right, a man who would go on to wreak untold havoc in the Middle East and elsewhere. But at that moment, it was possible to feel sorry for that man.

His sloth was the sloth of the security services, who had their eye off the ball. I’ve mentioned before that September 11th 2001 was the ultimate Black Swan Event; all the signs pointing to the acts of terror committed that day were all there. There was even an alert issued over some of the terrorists, and a warning that an attack was imminent, all of which was ignored.

But there had to be a response – swift, sharp, spectacular. Anything else would have been weakness, even cowardice. Right?

INSECURITY

About six months later, I travelled to the United States for the first time through a work scheme. Homeland Security was under way. They took my fingerprints – the authorities in Britain don’t even have my fingerprints – as well as a retina scan. And this was after I’d already done the funky chicken through security, trying not to let my trousers drop clown-style while being groped by a bear on the security staff. Feet away from me, an absolute monster of a guy in an army uniform with an automatic rifle kept a close eye on things. He was built like the type of henchman James Bond might have a fistfight with, and may only just escape from alive.

“Welcome to America, Mr Black.”

I understand why all this happened. You make a mistake once, you don’t make it again. But it felt disproportionate. And I also thought: the resourceful terrorist will bypass all of this, anyway. Sooner or later, bombs will be placed inside people’s bodies. “Bomb mule” will be a new phrase for the dictionary. What will the response be then? “You must drink this emetic and take these laxatives before you fly.”

I also joked that they might as well make us strip naked before going through the scanners, for all the dignity they’d taken from us. Not that I had much dignity in early-noughties cargo pants anyway.

But sure enough, we’ve got machines that do that for us, now.

Solving the world’s problems will take action of a more fundamental nature than improved security screening and surveillance. You can’t let your guard drop, that much is obvious – but you have to look at root causes of terrorism to stop it happening in the first place.

FEAR AND LOATHING IN THE TURKS AND CAICOS

A couple of years after that, I was in the Turks and Caicos islands. Nominally part of the British Commonwealth, it was a US-run place which, at the time, was in the process of being turned into a playground for rich people. All around me, building work was going on; high-rises, more vertical lines and solid geometry on what was otherwise an island paradise with sugar beaches and dolphins gambolling in turquoise water. Looking back on it, it doesn’t seem real. As if such a place could not physically exist.

I had a fantastic time there. The islands’ subsequent history makes for an interesting read, if you can be bothered to look it up. And on an individual level, every American I met was generous, polite, friendly and treated me like a king, albeit a strangely-accented one.

But it was here that I first encountered what appeared to be rather blunt attitudes from American people. In talking about my experiences with Homeland Security, I was reminded that “people are trying to kill us”, and if anyone didn’t like airport security, well, no-one was forcing them to come to America. How welcoming, I thought.

Then it got even more bizarre. One intelligent, articulate girl, who was clearly Hispanic in origin going by her name and complexion, spoke about erecting walls around the United States and barring immigrants. Without much prompting, she also opined that the US should get tougher on international issues (bearing in mind the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan was already under way) and, “if anyone gets out of line or disagrees with us – bomb them”. I was taking that to mean great big bombs rather than little ones.

Respect for George W Bush, long viewed as an utter buffoon in the UK even before he caused chaos worldwide, was also a given. That any educated person should profess adoration for a leader – far less a warmonger – baffles me. There are people out there, even now, who probably miss George W Bush.

On that trip, I noticed an appalling atmosphere between the Canadians and the Americans. It sounds more like a clash of clichés than a meeting of individuals, but the Canadians were more moderate and considered; the Americans a little more combative and right-leaning. In the United Kingdom, there’s a sense of rivalry between the separate countries, with the Celtic nations sometimes rubbing up the wrong way against England, “the auld enemy”. But in truth, to remove competitive sports from the equation, if you had a table full of English people and they were joined by a group of Scots, the two groups would mingle and there would be no tension whatsoever.

I was staggered by the differences between the Americans and Candians, and supposedly among articulate, intelligent people, too. The polarity of views shocked me, and there was a lot of spite.

We can now see that ideological dualism running across internet message board forums wherever you care to look. Left and right, Democrat and Republican, sliced as thickly and as crudely as that. I suggested to people on Facebook a while back that the atmosphere of political spite in the States was unprecedented; I was pointed to any number of dirty campaigning tricks carried out in history in response.

But this missed my point. The difference is the interaction element, the plugged-in feeling we get from debates through the internet. There are worrying attitudes out there, often espoused by those who can shout the loudest.

America has got to get away from this dualistic thinking. What’s happening now in America – where Barack Obama has to get on his knees and beg for any legislation to be passed, even with the economy on a ventilator – is an obvious consequence of this polarisation as much as a flawed political system.

And we’re getting more and more extreme views out there, circulating in the mainstream. I read an article on the Guardian this week where the film-maker Michael Moore recounted how a well-known right-wing commentator in the US fantasised on air about killing him. He then detailed the security measures he had to go to in order to protect his family as well as himself, often involving direct intervention by security guards to halt physical assaults.

That’s where we are, now, when someone tells the truth and questions the rhetoric and the motivations of the right.

We all should cherish the freedom of speech, but sometimes there are side-effects. Sometimes, there’s discharge.

This was one consequence of September 11th on the United States – the creation of mass paranoia, a nation hostile and suspicious of the outside world, vengeful and bloodthirsty abroad. It’s just one way in which the terrorists won.

WAR PIGS

Just under three months after September 11th – on the morning of my birthday, as coincidence would have it – I returned to my alma mater to speak to some pupils about journalism at the invitation of an old teacher of mine.

The school had changed names and religions in the ten years since I attended, but I still felt a chill at walking through the same old corridors, smelling that same smell (asbestos probably), seeing that same reassuring lack of solid geometry in the campus’ haphazard blocks and crumbling brickwork.

They were a matter of weeks away from knocking part of the school down, preparatory to building a new one on the spot, so this was my last chance to look at the place one more time. I have very fond memories of that school.

The children I spoke to who were interviewing me for the school magazine that day asked me about the unspooling situation in Afghanistan, and the war on terror in general. I remember wondering if I’d overdone it a bit in my answers; I was quite forthright, more than I would be anywhere else in public. Do not trust everything public officials say, or what you might read in the papers, I told them. Question everything. We might find ourselves in Iraq – but what did Saddam Hussein have to do with September 11th? I asked.

We now know the answer: “Nothing.”

And yet the US – with Britain’s Tony Blair trotting faithfully behind – invaded Iraq anyway. The reasons behind this were spurious. Invading Afghanistan was on equally flimsy pretences.

America wasn’t attacked by a country, or even a religion, as some people still believe. It was attacked by a set of fanatics, extremists, with an anti-US, anti-Zionist agenda. Those wars were a gift for the hawks in the US government who want their hands on some lovely oil and to feed what is known as the military-industrial complex. The world is a far less safer place. And if there’s long-term peace and stability to be had in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’re a long way off it.

That’s not to say that the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were ever nice guys. But what gave the US and Britain the right to invade them on false pretences?

I refer you to the answer I gave above in relation to Saddam.

SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP

At least in September 11th the US had a viable excuse for taking some kind of action. Doing nothing was out of the question.

But quite what was going on in Tony Blair and his cabinet’s minds at Westminster, I don’t know. I suspect Blair, a committed Christian who only recently came out of the closet as a practising Catholic, had a missionary zeal, a need to reform and to win hearts and minds based on fundamental teachings. In this, Blair isn’t too far removed from the people who planned to crash the planes.

It’s unfortunate that Blair had something of a success on his international CV already, owing to Nato’s intervention in the former Yugoslavia. And he shares the regret Bill Clinton feels over the west not going into Rwanda when they had the chance (though this was before Blair was in power, of course).

But after September 11th, Blair’s time for righteous action had come. And didn’t he just dive in there, for the greater good?

As I type, Britain’s former Prime Minister has weighed in with new comments in the media about the “long-term” challenge of defeating Islamic extremism.

What, you mean like a crusade? Jesus Christ, Mr Blair.

HYSTERIA AND HISTORY

History rolls on. Hey, that’s 10 years already on the timeline.

Some people – even some who were directly affected – want to draw a line under September 11th. They are tired of hearing about it, they are tired of seeing those Towers fall on their televisions, and some of them appreciate that hundreds of thousands of people have died in acts of war and terror across the world since then.

But I have a feeling that we have an awful lot to go through before we can consign those events to the past. I do want to finish this piece with a rallying cry to fairness, a plea for people worldwide to ditch their holy books and dogma and divisions and to embrace a future of shared goals, shared wealth and common humanity, but I want to burst out laughing even as I type that. I might as well get into the sea and hold back the waves.

We won’t learn, and we won’t stop repeating our mistakes. We are too frightened to let go of hydrocarbons as a fuel source, too frightened of the Middle East without a strong Israel. What’s interesting now is that our greed-fuelled free-market western economies are shuddering to a halt – and war is an expensive business.

Perhaps the terrorists’ ultimate victory from September 11th is still to be fully realised. It feels as if we are inching towards some vertiginous drops, these days.

Even mountains fall, never mind towers. The world is changing. The Arab Spring happened all on its own, and there was no input from the United States on any visible level. That tells us something.

No empire lasts forever. 2012 should be an interesting year.

REBUILDING

Only joking, I can’t finish it like that.

Humans are pretty good at rebuilding. Well, apart from me; you should see the state of the plastering job I’ve just done in the bathroom. I don’t think my brain functions too well when it comes to flat planes and Euclidian purity. It does just fine with porridge, though.

But by and large, we can rebuild things. It can be done; there can be peace and harmony. I’m going to brave the laughter and outline how we can do it. I am drawing in very simple lines, here, but bear with me – I’m using a ruler.

The foundation stone of the rebuilding process must be moulded by the spirit. We’re one species, and we have to look out for each other. Alternative fuel sources that don’t rely on burning oil – thereby marginalising the Middle East’s global importance – would be a start. Simplistic? Impossible? Sure, but consider that humans went from hansom cabs and steam power to the moon in the space of 70 years. Human ingenuity can do it.

Avoiding the idea of a utopia where the poor are fed, clothed and educated properly across the world – how silly! – and assuming that market forces will continue to have free rein – why not actually be proper capitalists and pay these countries for their oil and resources, instead of invading them for it? Another simple idea? Fundamentally weak? Oh, we can’t be seen to be weak, can we?

As an agnostic, I fully respect anyone’s decision to follow religious teachings. There are a lot of good things to be gained from the Koran, or the Torah, or the Bible. But here’s a crazy idea: why not throw them away? They’re out of date. Why not acknowledge the ultimate truth: that without mutual co-operation, trust, empathy and compassion, we are doomed as a species to be cruel, suspicious and bloodthirsty? A drop of blood in Baghdad or Sangin Valley is worth the same as a drop of blood in Manhattan or Madrid or London. If you don’t believe that, then you are part of the problem.

Let’s imagine a new era of openness, common goals based on fairness, equity, justice and prosperity. It’s sickening to think that there is wealth, food and energy enough in the world to give every human being a decent life, but we can’t – or won’t – make this happen. If the victims of the Twin Towers attacks were to magically have a say on the events that brought them to their ends, I have a feeling their sentiments wouldn’t be far away from that idea.

But let’s turn away from fictions and happy endings. Even if they’re only in my dreams.

POSTSCRIPT

After a long shift, I made my way to the hospital that night to see my father. He was long beyond the point of no return, receiving only palliative care in the cancer ward. He was on what would turn out to be one of his last doses of chemotherapy.

Even there, people wired up to their chemo and saline drips watched the footage of what happened on the television in the common room. Again and again and again, the strikes, the fireballs, the collapses, the screaming. It was horribly reminiscent of a big explosion in a Hollywood film, repeated from several angles to make sure they got plenty of bang for their buck. You couldn’t stop it. Everyone – the healthy, the sick and the dying alike – watched, disbelieving.

Islamic terrorism was suspected by that point. “I’ll tell ye how ye deal wi’ that. Ye drap the big one,” my dad growled. “Drap the big one on the lot o’ them.”

Later, a junior doctor tried to inject a drip tube into my dad. But his forearms, once the size of hams taken from a wild boar, were like brittle sticks. He’d had so many needles put into him over time that the doctor couldn’t find the veins. It was like injecting a wax candle. She had several goes at it with more than one needle before finally plugging him in. My dad asked if she’d gotten her medical degree off a cornflakes packet, but, bless her, she gave him as good as she got.

We had to laugh at all this, and we did. On my way out at the close of visiting time, the doctor walked along with me. I had a good chat with her. She was beautiful, and after I said goodbye to her I came away with the distinct feeling that if I’d asked her for her number she might have given it to me.

What can I say? Life goes on – no matter what happens to you or anyone else, you can rely on that.

I wouldn’t have asked her for her number, of course, as my girlfriend was waiting for me in our flat. Later on that night, we sat next to each other on the couch, numb, while we watched that footage spooling out, over and over again. There was nothing you could say, and nothing you could do.

There’s still nothing we can say, and nothing we can do. May we never know a day like that again.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: