Apparently a previous generation would at social events ask each other “Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?”. It was a touchstone event, the kind of event where you remember when you first felt that sinking feeling when you heard the news.
The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 are an event like that. News so extraordinary it is burned into ones memory.
I was living in a share house at the time. I was about to leave one morning when my housemate turned on our shitty little television. This was Wednesday morning, the 12th, our time. The first thing I saw footage of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. I can still see the shot – a female reporter interviewing a man in front of the burning tower, then in slow motion a plane destroying itself hitting the second tower. The two people in the foreground cringed in terror.
For a few moments I thought I was watching a movie. I said “What movie is this from?” My housemate said “It’s not a movie, it actually happened.” I asked what had happened to the towers. She said “They’ve both collapsed.”
The next thing I said was “Oh fuck, there’s going to be a war.”
As a student of history, the first thing I thought of was the 1993 Bombing of the World Trade Center, which was committed by Al-Qaeda. I assumed, and it was eventually borne out, that they had tried again to destroy the World Trade Center. This time they succeeded.
I had not visited New York at that time, but when I did finally make it there in 2009, I visited the area. By then, it was a massive building site. But mostly what I noticed was what an amazing, diverse and inclusive city New York is. One that happily welcomed people of all faiths and backgrounds. The attacks revealed this, those killed were from all over the world, including significantly a number of Muslims. Why, I wondered, would you attack a city like that? The Pentagon and the White House as targets makes significantly more sense. If your angry with the United States, those are two of the centres of power and two powerful symbols. But the twin towers in New York, what did they hold that made them targets? They were mixed-use commercial buildings, owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But they were also for a time the tallest buildings in the world, and dominated the New York skyline. If your view of United States included New York as the centre of American capitalism – which is not an unreasonable assumption – then the Twin Towers become a powerful symbol and indeed target.
After the attacks I called my sister, who was living in Indonesia at the time. I worried that there might be more attacks about to happen. She’d been up all morning fielding calls from people.
The television here in Melbourne played American news channels almost solidly for nearly two weeks after the attacks. It took a long while for the shock to wear off and for normal programming to resume. And I watched it, day and night. In fact that’s what I had been doing the night, our time, the attacks happened. If I’d have stayed up for ten more minutes I’d have seen it unfold in real time.
Can anyone else remember the extraordinary wave of sympathy that the world had for the United States? In the weeks and months afterwards everyone the world over was hugely supportive of the US. And what did the leaders of the United States do with this? Did they harness the help of the entire world to catch and persecute the people who had attacked them? Did they use the diplomatic help of powerful allies to make sure this never happened again? Did they start a global movement to address the root causes of terrorism and try and cure the ills that make people angry enough to fly planes into buildings? No they did not. The neoconservatives in the White House, Bush and Cheney chief amoungst them, but particularly Cheney, used the attacks and the aftermath as an excuse to start two wars in Afghanistan and Iraqi. Like I said within minutes of hearing of the attacks, there was a war.
Invading Afghanistan made some local sense. That lawless nation was host to terrorist training camps and other support for attacks outside their borders. But attacking Iraq made no sense at all. History has shown that they had planned that before the attacks took place. For the record, Iraq and Saddam Hussein and his regime had nothing to do with September 11th.
And so, not eighteen months later, in early 2003, I found myself with millions of other people marching against an unnecessary war. One which everyone said at the time would end up lasting for years and kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. And how right we were….