Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years On

"From the firefly, a red orange glow. 
See the face of fear, running scared in the valley below."
Bullet The Blue Sky, U2, 1987

Ben Hughes was an 11-year-old Massachusetts schoolboy on the day the world changed forever. "When I arrived home [from school] I asked my mother if I could watch the news reports, and for what seemed like days we sat there, in both awe and terror. It was the first moment in my short life where I felt entirely helpless."

Hughes wasn't alone on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. His nation's president was helpless. And we were helpless, too, as we watched the enflamed North and South towers of the World Trade Center and saw people jumping from windows 100 floors up - choosing that over being burned alive.

Ten years on, a generation has grown up in a world changed forever. Almost 2700 families still grieve for the loved ones who vaporised in the toxic pile of concrete, steel and flesh that the Twin Towers became, little more than an hour after Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi sliced them open with the planes they were piloting.

Husbands and wives still ache at the absence of wives and husbands who went out to work one day but didn't return. A city remembers the firefighters who went up a staircase and never came back down. Proud parents, partners and children remember the courage of those who tried to do something about it before perishing in a Pennsylvania field.

Ten years on, there are still troops in Afghanistan, conducting what began as a fightback but has become another attritional war in that country's long and bloody history of attritional conflict. Osama Bin Laden may be dead, but air travel remains more inconvenience than convenience thanks to his followers who continue to regard commercial aviation as a viable platform for further savage mayhem.

Ten years on, people still struggle to make sense of it all. Myself included. Trying to understand what and how and why 19 young men could carry out such an audacious act of searing violation. The roots, origins, motivation and planning of the 9/11 attacks have been examined inside and out by commissions and investigative journalists alike. The conspiracy theorists have had their say - some with arguments that definitely warrant explanation.

In the run-up to today's tenth anniversary of 9/11, the hand-wringing has intensified. More theories as to what may or may not have happened and what should or shouldn't have been done. With every year beyond the original event, more information comes to light - tapes of air traffic controllers, the decision-making of military officials, and new insights into the hijackers themselves, all adding further pixel-level detail to the picture of that day.

Knowing more might help understand it more, but only just. Yes, Bin Laden had declared war on American decadence and, yes, New York represented that. Yes, Bin Laden wanted to punish America for its post-Gulf War military presence in his Saudi homeland and, yes, Washington D.C. and the Pentagon represented that. But with terrorism, beneath the ideology - flawed or not - beats a psychopathic appetite for carnage.

Poignant reflection
Of all the countless documentaries, books and articles about 9/11, the most poignant media reflection on the atrocity came from an unlikely and, on initial thought, inappropriate source.

David Letterman returned to his late night CBS talk show on September 17, 2001, a week after the attacks removed all entertainment programming from the 'big four' US TV networks' schedules.

The Late Show has always been a 'New York show’, recorded at the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway. That Monday night it opened without its usual Manhattan-themed opening titles - just a fluttering American flag.

Letterman sat behind his chat show-staple desk, with a sombre expression on his face. "This is our first show on the air since New York and Washington were attacked," he intoned, "and I need to ask your patience and indulgence here because I want to say a few things, and believe me, sadly, I’m not going to be saying anything new, and in the past week others have said what I will be saying here tonight far more eloquently than I’m equipped to do. But, if we are going to continue to do shows, I just need to hear myself talk for a couple of minutes, and so that’s what I’m going to do here."

Now whether you regard this as indulgent, mugging for the cameras, or over-the-top American sentimentalism, Letterman's apparently unscripted opening monologue remains one of the most emotionally charged moments I've ever seen on television. It ran for the best part of 20 minutes and was a more impassioned, more heartfelt and display of raw emotional expression that I'd seen or read or heard in any presidential speech or newspaper leader column on the 9/11 attacks - then or since.

"I just want to go through this," Letterman continued, "and again, forgive me if this is more for me than it is for people watching, I’m sorry, but uh, I just, I have to go through this, I’m…", and he broke off to gather his composure.

"The reason we were attacked, the reason these people are dead, these people are missing and dead, and they weren’t doing anything wrong, they were living their lives, they were going to work, they were traveling, they were doing what they normally do. As I understand it (and my understanding of this is vague at best), another smaller group of people stole some airplanes and crashed them into buildings. And we’re told that they were zealots, fueled by religious fervor… religious fervor. And if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any God-damned sense?".

The applause that followed was polite and enthusiastic, but respectfully lacking the usual whooping and hollering typical of talk show audiences. Letterman had captured the world's hurt, anger and bewilderment. Who cared if it was an act of misplaced religious zeal or an inside job to justify war with Iraq - did any of it ever make any sense?

Folded corners
Commemorating a first kiss, first date, first argument, starting a new job, passing a driving test, buying a house - whatever -  anniversaries make retrospection easier. They provide a sense of order, a notch on our own timeline, like folded page corners.

Some don't see the value of looking back; some only look to the future, out of positive hope. I can appreciate that.

Anniversaries of unhappy events open wounds that probably should have healed a long time before. 9/11 is no different. But if nothing else, the 9/11 anniversary draws a necessary spotlight to how a sequence of savage events changed the world forever, and how it led to a further sequence of savage events - Afghanistan, Iraq, Bali, Madrid, London.

If Al-Qaeda's intention was to wipe the look of affluent contentment off our faces, it achieved that. 9/11 brought to an abrupt halt the good times that had preceded it and commenced a decade of uncertainty, jitteriness and mistrust. It wrought havoc on the global economy, and no sooner had things improved, than the world was plunged into another mess we're clearly not out of now.

Materially, there's not a lot of difference between the ninth anniversary of 9/11 and the tenth. And I somehow doubt there'll be much difference between the tenth and the eleventh next year. We have lived for ten years with near-perpetual economic uncertainty; a generation of Muslims has grown up with nothing but hate for the US, Britain, Spain and the other willing participants in the War on Terror; and all this time, the piles of soldiers' limbs have mounted in Afghanistan. All because, ten years ago, 19 hijackers, four planes and the deaths of almost 3000 people changed the world order again. Forever.

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