If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Where were you?

It is said that for any major event, we can always remember where we were at the time we heard the news.

I can remember the assassination of John F Kennedy in November 1963. I was ten, and had just moved to Leeds a few months before. I was walking to a friend's house and he met me in the road outside, tears rolling down his face, saying "It's all over!" He was 10 too, but had an advanced sense of social responsibility. Where we used to write the names of football teams or pop groups on our Maths book covers, he would just write the word CARE. He was a bit of a knob, really, but a good friend, too. I might be wronging him: he might have been 11.

It seems incredible that the terrible events of 11 September 2001 are nine years in the past. I was working as the duty manager of a call centre (anyone remember ITV Digital? Heh.) and was sitting with a team of technical support guys, working on some coaching programme or other. We supported the 'new' digital televisions (massive things the size of a small car) and had several running in the wing. I was watching one out of the corner of my eye, and couldn't believe what I saw. There was a skyscraper, with huge amounts of smoke coming out of it, and the voiceover was saying that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre. I was watching in horror, when another plane flew into another skyscraper. I assumed it was a replay of the first plane, and so did some of the presenters, as they were watching the same feed as we were. There was a lot of talk of an horrific accident, probably involving a light plane, but when the second plane hit, the awful truth - that this was a deliberate act - came home to everyone. As the knowledge sank in, I remember a cold, crawling feeling up the back of my neck, as I realised that the world had just changed for ever. Call volumes dwindled to nothing, and we all sat motionless and speechless as the awful events unfolded.

Even at the time, my main concern was with how the Americans would react, and I fully expected a violent and crushing response somewhere along the line. What I didn't expect (and neither did anyone else over here, except perhaps Tony Blair) was that America would wage horrific war on a country that had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or global terrorism, and in so doing turn what was an isolated act of nihilistic brutality into a massive and global jihad against the West and Western values.

One difficulty I had in the aftermath of these awful events was the American reaction on a personal and social level. I hope any American readers will take this in the spirit of kindness it is meant, but the American reaction was as if nothing like this had ever happened before. I wanted to tell them that we had had decades of the IRA placing bombs in pubs and under cars, killing innocent women and children, we had had an MP killed by a car bomb in the House of Commons in 1979, and we had seen an attack on the Grand Hotel, Brighton in 1984 in which an attempt was made to assassinate the Prime Minister, in which five people died and many more were horribly injured. We knew all about terrorism, thanks very much; even though the scale of ours was less, it lasted for decades and we learned to live with it. And all this at a time when the IRA was substantially funded by NORAID, an American organisation which supplied the IRA with funds and (it is alleged) armaments, and when on every visit to the USA Gerry Adams was fêted as a hero. I suppose in those days there were 'good' terrorists and 'bad' terrorists. That stuck in the throat a bit.

This is not to minimise the dreadful events of 9/11. It was the worst terrorist atrocity in the history of the world, by a big margin, and we join together to offer sympathy and solidarity with our American brothers and sisters. As a nation, you handled it with dignity, and you have my respect for that.

9/11 changed the world for ever. The reaction of Western governments was always going to be a difficult call, but from where I am sitting the world is a far more dangerous place now than it was on 9/10. Instead of dealing with the cause of the fire, we seem to have thrown petrol on it. But that's politicians, not people.


  1. "I was watching in horror, when another plane flew into another skyscraper. I assumed it was a replay of the first plane, and so did some of the presenters, as they were watching the same feed as we were."

    My mother was on the phone to me, telling me about the first 'accident' - yes, the initial report was indeed of a 'light plane' - when she said 'Oh, hang on, they've got film, they're replaying it now'.

    Of course, it wasn't.

  2. I watched a YouTube clip of one of the US news channels covering the whole thing, and I still get this feeling of utter horror as the planes collide. It's the stuff of nightmares. You can see it, but you still can't believe it.


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