Tuesday, September 11, 2007

On September 11th, what else would I think about but the anniversary of the destruction of the twin towers? I remember Thomas was ill and we'd just had lunch, being in the UK. The children loved Neighbours, an Australian soap, and so I allowed them to watch it while we had lunch. I used to find that though the acting and plot lines were terrible, the one useful thing about Neighbours was that it often dealt with difficult moral issues, like lying or cheating, or stealing, and we could often have a useful family debate about the rights and wrongs of a character's actions by using the series.

Downstairs, we turned off the tv the moment Neighbours finished, but upstairs Thomas continued to watch tv, and came hurtling downstairs a few minutes later to report that the first plane had hit the twin towers in America. We watched the smoke and heard inane commentary from journalists who couldn't work out what had happened and had little information to go on.

My initial thought was that it was a tragic accident. I thought maybe the pilot had lost concentration, and had crashed into the tower. I was aware of the tragedy for the people in the plane, and those killed or injured in the tower, but I thought that the Americans would mobilise the emergency services, and... another plane crashed.

The commentators still wittered on about the possibility of accidents, having no confirmation about terrorist attacks, but it was obvious to anyone that this was deliberate. One tragically distracted pilot was unlikely, two was just not possible, on the same day in the same place.

Even though I lived through the time of the Irish bombings in London, indeed, my sister was at Harrods and assisted people at the scene when it was bombed in the 1980s, 9/11 changed things for me. If terrorists could hijack and fly planes to the heart of the richest, most technologically advanced country in the world, then where could they not hit? For a while, they achieved their aims of invoking terror, because I was terrified... I felt that planes could drop out of the sky any where, any time.

The children, once they had established that the twin towers were not in London and that it was a long way away, drifted away from the television, but I stayed and watch ed, and didn't know what to do. I longed to talk to the people I loved, to share my fears and compassion for the people caught in the towers, but I didn't want to drag them into this feeling of fear and anguish that I found myself in.

I thought that bombs had been set inside the planes, when the towers collapsed. I felt angry at the wickedness which would put them into planes knowing that good and courageous people would be trying to rescue the people in the towers, to kill them too. Of course, we didn't know for some time that the first events had destroyed the towers, it wasn't clear. I was hungry for news and for information, partially for selfish reasons, I wanted to understand and to know what the danger was. Initially I thought the planes driven into the towers were light planes, with suicide bombers on board. It quickly became clear they were hijacked passenger jets though.

The horror of being able to empathise with the people became almost unbearable... the people trapped in the tower, their friends, their families, the firemen and ambulance men and officials who went to the scene, their families, their friends, then realising that there had been people in the planes, their terror, their friends and their families.

The same images, over and over, gradually joined by others, over and over, the planes into the towers from different angles, the people jumping, the people running from rivers of dust and debris, the desolation.

I have wondered why it has such a huge impact on the world, because there have been natural disasters, earthquakes and hurricanes, which have caused bigger destruction and have hardly made a ripple. I think the immediacy of the news coverage was one thing - we were experiencing the event just as vividly as most Americans, watching it on tv.

The second thing was the number of people involved in such a concentrated area. The third was that with an earthquake, there is little warning, one minute you may be asleep and the next under the weight of your house. For a lot of the people involved in these attacks, they had to live for some time with the knowledge of their impending deaths, and everyone can empathise with the idea of a mother, son, husband, grandfather, trapped in a situation like that and wanting to reach out to the people they loved.

In an age of mobile phones, a lot of them were able to do that, to share the last moments of their lives, tell people they loved them. Many though found answerphones and unanswered phones... we can all feel the tragedy of that, too.

Most of all, it was the fact of being face to face with the evil which would allow a human being to plot the destruction of so many others, deliberately. That would allow them to ignore the ties of love which fanned out from the twin towers into homes all over the world, proud parents, brothers and sisters, who saw their relatives trapped and then die.

Finally, and I am ashamed to say it, it was the vulnerability which it exposed, the feeling that all over the world planes might drop out of the sky and exterminate the people in any famous building or landmark. When news of the plane which hit the pentagon, and the other which was heroically crashed into a field, came, it began to feel as though no place was safe. It seemed incomprehensible that the Americans could not protect these places, initially, but of course when it became clear that the planes were civilian commercial aircraft, with innocent people on board, it was obvious that the authorities had been put into an impossible situation.

Later still, I began to wonder if it was compassion or incompetence which had stopped them knocking those planes out of the sky, but really, there was no way that they could have done the right thing, in the circumstances. Would it have been right to bring the planes down somewhere else? I don't think it would, really, have been a decision that could have been taken, or could have been easily lived with after taking it.

In the years since the attacks, I hav begun to feel that we have lost sight of the things worth fighting for. Freedoms are taken away easily, and clawed back with difficulty. Tales of American airports refusing entry to people, or demanding access to their email and mobile phones before allowing them into the country, strange behaviour at airports, detainment of people in the UK and US without charges.

Most particularly, the detainment camp at Guantanamo Bay is a symbol of the loss of all idea of right and wrong on that part of America. It is a symbol of repression, tyranny and lack of respect for human rights.

The fact that people are detained there without right to an opportunity to prove their innocence, overriding the development of our judicial system and that of the Americans, expunging it even, to withdraw the right of habeus corpus to people "we know" are guilty... is an affront to the whole idea of liberty. I am now more scared of America and her warped idea of right and wrong than I am of terrorists, and more scared of a future in which our rights to be left alone unless we have committed a crime and can be proved to have committed a crime, have vanished almost entirely, already.

I think most people love their families, have compassion for others, and want only the opportunity to live their lives in peace. To run western countries as though everyone is a potential terrorist is absolutely wrong.

So in the six years since 9/11, my feelings have changed from overwhelming sadness, compassion, empathy for the people caught up in that event, and their friends and families, to horror at the reaction which tries to protect us from future terrorism by removing our freedoms, to hatred for Guantanamo Bay and the people who maintain it. And I am a white, middle-aged woman from London. I can imagine how much more strongly I would feel if I were the brother of a detainee.

I can't finish this post without drawing attention to Project Hamad, campaigning to get someone who has been incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay released. Read it, and if you feel able, join the project and campaign.