13 years on

I don’t know how many documentaries and programs I’ve watched about 9/11 over the years. Many, somewhere I reckon between 20 and 30. Though tragic, it remains fascinating. It’s one of those moments that people will never forget.

Last night I watched another on what was the 13th anniversary of the attack. This one was quite simple, without any commentary of any sort: 102 Minutes That Changed America. It was made up of myriad scraps of video taken on the day, amateur and professional, stitched together to cover the attack from the moment the first plane struck and the 102 minutes beyond that in which the towers burned and then tumbled, one first, then the other. Because it was a patchwork of sources we heard the voices of real folk observing this as they filmed, the shock in their voice and growing horror.

There was a sense of awe that such a thing could happen, that someone could pilot two 747’s and plough them into such an iconic set of buildings. The buildings burned, smoke billowing into the air in thick, dark plumes, as the crowd gathered looking upon the buildings while they still stood, hoping still that the survivors could be rescued, that the firefighters – whose voices we listened in on – might put out the fire and bring those trapped out to safety. Then that didn’t happened. The firefighters we listened to moments before perished as the first tower went down in the thundering, billowing heap of debris.

Like most people who lived through that time I remember exactly where I was when it happened. I had returned from a trip abroad a few days before. I’d gone away following a girl, but when that turned bad found myself jaunting from one place to another too restless to be kept alone with my thoughts. I flew from Singapore to Paris. From Paris I spent a few days in Normandy. At some point I had enough of that and flew from Paris to Ho Chi Minh City. I went up and down Vietnam for about 10 days before I returned to Singapore. I stayed with friends there, morose, perhaps a little bitter (though trying to rise above it), and in general avoiding a woman who by now was remorseful. I watched Hewitt beat Roddick in the US Open, I watched DVD’s, I ate at neighbourhood halal restaurants, I caught trains and wandered through shopping malls. I was lost, and finally returned to Melbourne.

In some ways it was a time not dissimilar to those recently. I had burned my bridges to follow the girl, and came back without anywhere to live and only a few dollars in the bank account. I bunked down with mum and her husband, my stepfather, in their lovely home in Canterbury. At least there I had my own room. I was withdrawn and sad. I know my mum was concerned for me. And then one night I turned on the TV and this happened.

I recall it so vividly. Who doesn’t, those who were here? It was early morning in NYC, but in Melbourne it was the evening of the same day. They had gone to bed. I sat in front of the TV watching Talking Footy, an AFL program. The finals had just begun, and my team were in the thick of it – we would make it all the way to the grand final. The show had been running for about 30 minutes when it was interrupted by the host reporting that there had been reports that a plane had flown into the World Trade Centre. Things unfolded quickly after that.

At first it seemed it might have been a horrible accident, or at least that’s what I thought. I flicked between the TV channels by now all reporting and broadcasting from the site. Then the second plane struck.

Of course now it was clear it was no accident, but like those I watched in the documentary last night I felt a sense of bewildered shock. I watched, transfixed by the sight, by the developing action, by the obvious distress of so many reporting on it. I watched for hours, and then somehow went to bed in a daze.

The next few days were crazy. It’s hard to imagine what it was like if you weren’t there to see it. Even looking back I’m surprised at recalling how disrupted the world was. Of course it was huge, horrible news, and there were all sorts of political and social reverberations immediately after. Everything was shocked, violent, harsh. At that stage we didn’t know how many had died in the disaster, and in fact the early projections were much greater than the eventual total (terrible as it was, it seems almost miraculously few given the potential scale of disaster).

There was great uncertainty about flying anywhere. Airline schedules were disrupted by fears that the terrorists would strike again. Domestic flights in the States were curtailed, or stopped – my dad was stranded in Washington DC. I remember feeling some relief that I had returned home when I did.

There was an economic impact also. I had returned hoping to get back into work quickly, only to find the bottom had fallen out of the job market after the attacks. There was uncertainty and near panic wherever you looked. No-one had really experienced anything like this before. It was a shock to the system, both personally and as a culture. Emotionally I felt filled to the brim. Coming on top of what had happened to me in Singapore I felt more fragile than I have before or since. The events of that iconic day shadowed my own story.

I’ve always believed that the world changed irrevocably from that day, and not for the better. Casting my mind back there seems a time before 9/11, and a time after. The time before in retrospect seems carefree. It seems a simpler time when we took our pleasure with little thought of the dangers that lurked out there. Though it was far from perfect, it seems a time of relative innocence. Come 9/11 all of that was gone.

The world couldn’t go on as it was after 9/11, but it did not have to become what it has. You understand the need for vengeance, in ways you accept and encourage it. There had to be a response. In hindsight you understand the difference between the right response and the wrong one. By and large we got the wrong response, and in so many ways that has crafted the dangerous and extreme world we now live in.

As I write this I find myself becoming angry. Though I lived far from the events of 9/11, the consequences of that day engulfed me, as they have just about every person on the planet. I live in this unsatisfactory world knowing it didn’t have to be so, and bitter at those relatively few men who made it so.

I’m not going to go into that. It’s been covered before, we all know it just about – the muddled politics, the hijack by the neo-cons of the political agenda – and this is not the time.

We should never forget 9/11, and not just for those who died and were sacrificed on that day, but what it has made of our history. We are a different world because of it.

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