Saturday, 5 March 2011


I wrote this piece about a week after the attack.

Out of a clear blue sky.

Life is linear, or rather; perhaps it flows like a turbulent river where sometimes we get caught in whirlpools, swirling powerlessly round until somehow we are ejected to continue the journey. Watching television reports this week of the destruction of the World Trade Centre was to endlessly replay the moments of impact from a growing number of vantage points. Collapse, stately and seeming silent, grief in all its guises. Even when no longer in front of the screen that silent film of destruction replayed itself across the mind's retina. A dark whirlpool.

I was to return in imagination over and over, stepping into the experiences of the survivors who provided such devastating soundbites. Phone calls broadcast from a plane hurtling towards the ground, forced to miss a cruelly chosen target. Death for them was as complete as if the target had been reached, but sacrifice in extremis pulled their best from them in their worst moment.

Those potent mobile calls, last declarations of love to mother, wife, son. Here preserved, a parting word that will become a kind of torture for the future. The voice preserved, the people disintegrated. Ten years away what does the new wife do about that particular ghost in the machine? Even erased from the tape the messages will grind themselves into the psyche.

The whole city, that whole country has been caught up in the whirlpools; well we all are even from afar. When will we be released? To an extent that ‘linear’ idea holds: travelling along through disbelief to shock, anger, from hope to despair. I sat in horror as the second tower collapsed in front of my eyes. It seemed to leave almost nothing behind it. Deceptively 100 floors somehow evaporated; a three story pile of dust with some metal sticking out. Quite quickly it got so much worse, scores of rescue vehicles had disappeared under rubble that signalled to us extra victims; the men who had arrived in them were buried and would not return to the fire, the police or ambulance stations. Details emerged that one of the hijacked planes had been the carrier and flight time and route we three had taken just a month ago: Boston to San Francisco, United Airlines. Was the feeling evoked empathy, or that vicarious desire for a connection? Whatever, it made me shake.

Down this black turbulent river flows a nation guided in their emotions by New York’s Mayor Guliani, connecting unerringly with his people, gentling them into a realisation of the scale of their loss, explaining as tactfully as anyone could the need for so many body bags; each part of a body, each limb would need its own bag. The President belatedly accessed emotions publicly and drew his people in. Clinton would have done it so much better, but he surely has to be relieved that he is now a bystander. Bush, schooled in at least some political skills, the awfulness whispered into his ear while he is sitting in front of class of kids in a school; the only immediate give-away his eyes widening.

There is such despair on the part of the waiting hospital staff. After 24 hours there was no one alive to find, to treat, no one being rescued. Even bodies seem to have been spirited away from the site. Somehow the Pentagon pictures had comparatively little impact. It looked like a substantial house where a large tree had collapsed onto it. But four days later, the most sophisticated and well equipped country in the world couldn’t find a way to subdue the fires.

That no doubt brutally peeled another layer of security off the Americans. For a space the churches are full again. Why do we push God into allowing these things, again providing a thirst for intimacy with him? Was He with all those people who struggled down endless flights of stairs never reaching the bottom? Some people thanked God they were late for work that day and were spared. Could he not have made a whole lot more people late? How about sparing the whole lot?

How many thousand dead is still in doubt. That word ’doubt’. To raise it in a context of faith is to suggest that so may loved people may have been consigned to oblivion. Instead we hope there is a finer place in which they are somehow safe. A tepid hope raised amongst the ruins of so many lives.

Patriotism has taken a hold in the US. I believe a war is in preparation. But against exactly who? Someone will be made to pay. Will it be the Afghans, who seem already to have bombed themselves back to a stone-age? Terrorists can hide successfully in mountains from any possible deployed army. The US is not trained in guerrilla warfare. From Alexander through to the Russian Iron Empire; no one has subdued these people for any significant period of time.

But some city will have to be reduced to dust, the American psyche needs it. That thirst for closure will open new avenues of hatred against the US, storing up a malignant harvest against a future generation of Americans. There must be at least a corner of almost everyone in the West that wants to see retribution. People are lining up at Army recruitment offices, blood will have blood. Commentators in Russia have suggested that a new Holy War between Christianity and Islam is in preparation. Some Arab journalists claim it all revolves around Israel; yet again that small plot of land changes our lives, yet again for the worse.

Stars and Stripes by the hundred thousand have been snapped up and unfurled and hung up and hung out. This business of flags had puzzled me on our recent trip to the US. In Rhode Island many of the houses sported large flags and often they were atop flagpoles thrust into front lawns. I asked American friends why the flag held such totemic significance. In reply I was told the following story.

My friend was driving past a fast food outlet, he could see that the flag outside it was slowly sliding down the pole. He stopped the car and just managed to rescue it before it was desecrated by touching the ground. He then folded it in the prescribed manner, took it into the shop and tore the manager off a strip in his outrage at the laziness and laxity of the staff. That highly charged totem was part of his identity as an American. We talked long about the differences between their outright patriotism and my cynicism, possibly a European trait. The purity of their fervour was enviable.  

The concept of the ‘special relationship’ was strong on their side. It seems clear that no matter what harebrained scheme their harebrained president will come up with; faithful old Britain will be there like an affectionate poodle. We laughed ruefully about what scrapes Bush Junior would get us into. Well we are not laughing now. Only one month later here we are floating together down this blackest of black rivers into rapids, probably a long and painfully jagged concourse of them.

We will be first to put our hand up and last to leave the stage.

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