9 / 11
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I've been talking to a lot of people about what their version of 9/11 was. Where were they, and what did it feel like for them? Here's my account.
I didn't know anyone in the building or in New York, and I didn't lose any friends or family. It seems slightly odd that something a continent away had so much effect on us in Europe, but it was massive. Everyone was astounded by it ... like watching an accident that you can do nothing to stop.
I was teaching in North London. I finished the last class of the afternoon at around 4pm, and was packing away my stuff to get upstairs to afternoon registration, when Panayiotis, a generally hysterical greek drama teacher in his fifties, burst into the room sweating and all wild eyes. He burst out with "Pakistan have bombed New York City! Everybody is dead! Look on the news - this time tomorrow Pakistan won't exist any more. The Americans will wipe them out!"
I couldn't really understand what he was trying to tell me, but as a child of the eighties I'd hidden behind the sofa during 'Threads' and'When the Wind Blows', so a huge chill went down my spine at the words 'Pakistan won't exist any more'.
I went upstairs where I usually registered a sixth form class in a computer room, and asked them to log onto CNN to find out what was happening. That was the second scary moment - when we realised that CNN was down.
Nobody could raise any news. We all agreed to go home and listen out for what was happening. Some kids decided if America had been bombed, there'd be a war, so they wouldn't have to do their exam projects or come in tomorrow. I wandered in to the empty staffroom, and scoffed at the latest rubbish that Panni had come out with, and one or two stragglers interrupted to tell me it was true.
I decided to go home and find out. It was a two hour drive, and I heard the real story on Radio 4 as I sat in various traffic jams. I'd been up the WTC the year before, and was thinking about the photographs of us all standing and waving on the viewing platform. Later on, when the buildings fell, I thought more about the pictures of us in the malls deep below.
I'll never forget the moment when they interviewed a bystander who was describing the scene before her, the confusion - then she screamed and screamed as people first began to jump. I had to pull over then. It was too horrible - a situation where people were alive, but had so little chance of escape that they would choose this.
They replayed that sound clip again and again, on into the next day, and the next. It's the sort of thing that sticks with you way beyond the sell-by date.
It wasn't till I got home that I saw the images on the news. Most people I know recall it as a visual thing, and certainly, when the second plane crashed, it was as chilling as watching the first smart bombs explode onscreen in the first Gulf War. But, it was radio that told me about it first, and that really humanised it, because it was all ordinary people, standing in the street, just like Londoners do when there's yet another bomb scare, and chatting about what might be going on.
When the second building went down it was horrific. There's a beauty and majesty in watching buildings being demolished at any time, and in a horrible sense that fascination was mixed in with the realisation that this building was full of innocent people. The scale, the occupants, the symbolism of it all - it was really tangibly a 'big' moment, and I remember stuffing my hands into my mouth in horror.
That was the start of a really really hard year at that school. The anger felt by everybody at what had happened was palpable. For us that was a problem, because the majority of our students were immigrants, recent immigrants, many of them from Afghanistan. They hadn't bombed America, and it became a matter of urgency to avoid a religious war happening at the school. Fearing a riot, we took care to hold our two minutes silence for the victims of the four plane hijacks, the people killed, and for victims of terrorism everywhere.
The next day, the personal attacks on the children travelling to school began. The school was situated in an opulent, middle class area, and the students were by and large bussed in from areas like Haringay, further into London. My 17 year old female students often stopped coming in - if they wore a headscarf in public, they would be spat at by fellow bus passengers, and told that the deaths were their fault. Young girls, told that they'd killed thousands of people because of a piece of cloth that represents piety and religious faith. It was incredible, really.
For the next six months, the whole school had a bomb threat almost every week. At one point we'd be stood shivering on the sports field every other day. Because there were Afghani refugee children at the school. One particular afternoon, the police who by now regularly patrolled the place deemed the threat real, and we were all told to leave the site and go home, as it would take six hours to secure the building from any threat. It was raining, October, kids had no coats on, no money, and lived ten miles away. The teachers had no money to give them to get home, either - all our cars were trapped in the car park, and our car keys stuck inside the school. There was nothing for it, but to ask children to look after younger siblings, and to walk home in pairs and threes; make sure they weren't in public alone. I recall that time sitting down in the playing field to wait the six hours, unable to walk the 16 miles home, watching these little kids shivering as they set off. Because some of them were Afghani. Incredible how some people's minds work.
This year, I tried not to memorialise it at work, although I had last year. Today I chatted to one student with learning difficulties who had been in NYC at the time - his memory of 9/11 is of being grounded for no reason, being unable to fly home for an extra week, and being stuck with a family who didn't dare to let him out of their sight for an instant. His feeling about 9/11 is simply that he hates America, because he got grounded. It's sad and kind of innocent, at the same time.
This morning I started to wonder about the reasons that it had felt so shocking, given that we in Europe were so far away.
(treat as a given that it felt shocking because it was shocking - yet it's not the only such carnage in living history - look at the entry titled 'Have You Forgotten' on 3rd September on here for a reminder of times when we were the terrorists.)
I think obviously the increase in global media meant we witnessed a visual record of tragedy as it happened in a way that had never happened before.
But it wasn't just that - it was the sense that this was not a media event. If anything, it was the first truly unmediated media event. You could see that the picture behind the newsreader wasn't meant to be doing that. You could see that the newsreader was as stunned as you were; he just didn't know what to say.
And you could also see too much. I never want to see the pictures of those people jumping ever again.
Each year I have to give seminars contrasting American and European cultural attitudes. This year was the first I had to specify we were discussing a time and a culture that was 'pre-9/11' - to an outsider, American attitudes to themselves and the world seem to have changed irrevocably since then.