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Thursday, 11 September 2003

9 / 11

Mood:  don't ask
Now Playing: Jazz

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.

This page graced by sarsparilla at 8:51 PM BST
Updated: Thursday, 11 September 2003 9:26 PM BST
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Friday, 12 September 2003 - 3:35 PM BST

Name: Jan
Home Page: http://later maybe

I was sitting at my desk in Toronto on a lovely bright and warm morning when my boss/friend told me 'a plane just hit the world trade centre'. (Is this where I confess I didn't even know what that was! ) I turned on the radio just in time to hear that a second one hit and that answered our question, 'was it an accident?'

My reaction was odd, I suppose. I scanned the view in front of me and waited. I thought perhaps it was the first of a chain of such attrocities. None came, not in Toronto anyway. (Canadians were the first 'foreign' helpers on the scene and I worried that they might be targets for that reason. They weren't, of course.)

We all stopped working. There was nothing much to say. I phoned home and to my boyfriend who was overseas. I kept thinking what if I never saw them again. Then I left the office and went home to give my son, Robin, a big hug. He had been predicting a disaster for days. That haunted me for quite a while.

I did get caught up with the horribleness of it all. I did go to the American Embassy, barricaded and surrounded with candles. We went to a candlelight vigil but left. It was far too religious but we did stick it out for a song or two, somewhat enraptured by the atmosphere.

After that I just got annoyed with the US jingoism/nationalism and it never had quite the same effect. But, yes, the jumpers were the most poignant memory. Ah, there's one other: On a documentary...the sight of New Yorkers in a bar drinking beer and watching CNN. Tragedy had become a spectator sport...

Saturday, 13 September 2003 - 3:51 PM BST

Name: Alex Buell

I'll never forget 9/11. A day of infamy that'll go down in history until something much, much worse happens (possibly some nutter will succeed in letting off a dirty bomb). I was at home working, I had my TV switched on to the news. And I watched appalled and terrified as I watched the first plane hit the building. Minutes later, I watched the second plane go in, and this was live on air. Everyone thought that noone would dare to attack the Americans in this manner and they were wrong, I knew it would be a matter of time until those loony fundamentalists avenged themselves. My Mum remembers the assassination of JFK in Dallas all those years, and 9/11 did the same thing for our generation. Wild rumours were thrown around; that George Bush had fled to a safe place in a panic (that's why I hate him, he is a coward) and was going to give the order to nuke Pakistan and Afghanistan, but that the Russians had threatened to bomb them if the order was given. I mean it, this really did happen.
Fortunately cooler heads intervened. We wouldn't be here today if any of those people under George Bush weren't made of stronger stuff.

Monday, 15 September 2003 - 5:27 AM BST

Name: Aubry, Baltimore, USA
Home Page:

It is very interesting to hear/read a non-American's perspective regarding the events that occurred on 9/11. Unfortunately, I do not have many opportunites to personally hear an outsider's perspective. September 11, 2001 hit close to home for me... literally. I live three hours from New York City and only one half hour from Washington D.C. I knew at least two people who were killed at the Pentagon and several who died in the World Trade Centers. It's definitely a day I will never forget.

Monday, 15 September 2003 - 5:37 PM BST

Name: Vanessa

Here's the best thing I've read on Europe's attitudes to 9/11 - it's from Mark Steyn, writing a fairly pro-Bush article in a right wing UK magazine:

"There are basically two lines on Bush these days. At home the media and the Democrats argue that Americans are somehow reeling under a terrorist onslaught. [...] Meanwhile, in Europe, the tin-foil hat brigade has gone mainstream. [...] 9/11 was a neocon conspiracy to give Washington a pretext to grab Iraq's oil and Afghanistan's, er, rubble. [...]

"Looking back at the columns I wrote in the first days after 9/11, I'm pleasantly surprised by how perceptive they were on the self-loathing of the West, the uselessness of the Cold War alliances, the duplicitousness of America's 'moderate' Arab 'friends'. etc. But I seriously underestimated the degree to which much of Europe would be unhinged by 11 September. [...]

"The story of the summer is that the American people refused to be panicked by the media, the Democrats and the Europeans. Indeed, the awesome divide between the postmodern sophists and everybody else is the real legacy of 11 September. As the day itself recedes into the past, the splinter it opened up in the settled international order gets wider and wider to the point where 9/11 is a fault line though reality itself. Depending on which side you stand, success is failure, victory is disaster. [...]

"If 9/11 liberated the Bush administration to put into action its scheme to take over the world, then it also liberated the Western elites to embrace finally and whole-heartedly anti-Americanism as the New Unifying Theory of Everything. [...] The intellectual class could have sided with the women of Afghanistan or the political prisoners of Iraq. But the advantage of sour oppositionism is that whatever happens there's always something to sneer at."


I don't agree with everything in the article, but the sense that this was politically a fulcrum event for the world, (and that "sour oppositionism" has created a voice for multiple anti-capitalist factions in Europe that will not go away) seems to ring true.

As a teenager, I travelled a lot in the Middle East, and learnt something about the power of hypocrisy when allied with political strength.

I think there will be less visible echoes of 9/11 in Europe, the Middle East, and the States, for some years to come.

Wednesday, 17 September 2003 - 4:27 PM BST

Name: Me
Home Page: http://no

Vanessa, some good and compassionate comments from you. Thanks for that. As someone who lived through it and knew people that died, it's not something I will talk about anymore with most people. It is always there.

The poster Jan attributes New Yorkers in a bar drinking and watching CNN as tragedy as a spectator sport. As one of those New Yorkers, I remember it somewhat differently. I remember the complete shock, the need to be with fellow New Yorkers and the almost compulsive need to watch every bit of news to try and figure out what was going on and what might happen next. I guess it all depends on your point of view.

Wednesday, 22 September 2004 - 12:57 AM BST

Name: Alycia
Home Page:

I live in Indiana, and I am 16 years old. On 9/11, I was in the 8th grade, in my homeroom taking a standardized test along with the rest of my school. In the middle of the test, my teacher's phone rang. After she answered it and talked for a few minutes, she started to cry. As soon as everyone handed in their tests, she turned on Fox News, and we saw the towers on fire, and everyone below crying. I remember we were outside for lunch, talking about "what was going to happen now" and whether we were going to war, when our principle announced that the Pentagon had been hit. Everyone just went kind of quiet. Even the kids who were normally really obnoxious and loud were subdued. When we walked through the halls that afternoon, every teacher was crying. Not tears-streaming-down-your-face crying, just ?oh my God, I cannot believe that this is happening? crying. My mom picked me up from school, and we heard reports that the towers were about to fall, and firefighters were still inside. I got home just in time to see the first tower fall, and hear estimates of the amount of lives lost. That entire night was spent in front of the television, attempting to make sense of thousands of deaths and so much carnage. I read the post that contained "Tragedy had become a spectator sport...? and while I respect your opinion, and can see how you would arrive at that assumption, I don't think that anyone who has not lived in America, and become used to taking the idea of "absolute safety" for granted, can understand how we felt that day. It was not just two buildings that were destroyed, but a feeling of security shared by a nation.
I also wanted to mention that my best friend is Muslim. She was just as hurt by what happened as anyone else, and nothing in the Que'ran supports what happened. The people who committed those crimes do not follow the widely accepted branch of Islam. And to blame an entire people for the crimes of a few...well, that's kind of what happened on September 11. I hope your students were ultimately able to wear what they felt was right, and that everything safely subsided.
I'm sorry I went off on a tangent; I really just wanted to say that I enjoyed your entry about September 11. Even though things are bound to be viewed differently in diverse parts of the world that were raised with different views, a lot of the feelings felt that day and in the days that followed were shared by people from all around the world.

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