On 9/11


There is absolutely no lack of words floating around online about the 11th of September 2001, and what that day means a decade on. There are huge and beautiful features, stylistic interviews with those involved, analysis from ageing academics, reminders of how dramatic those days were, economic perspectives, insightful analysis and infinite personal reflections.

I’m lying in bed next to my snoring boyfriend, watching ABC News 24, wondering what I could possibly add. It is the end of Australia’s September 11th, and the beginning of America’s. Experts are discussing the legacy of that day, while muted in the background those that survived read out the names of those who did not.

Ironically, the best illustration of it’s legacy is at the bottom of the screen, below the chatting experts. A decade ago, in an effort to get more information across clearly and quickly in the days following the attack, CNN placed a news ticker at the bottom of their screen. Even after the uncertainty of those September days faded, the tickers remained. And there is one now, at the bottom of the ABC, flicking through the stories of the day with casual urgency.

President Obama and his lovely wife sit behind bulletproof glass with President Bush, and his lovely wife. At 8:46 a.m. New York time, they observe a minute silence for when the first plane hit. They do so again after 17 minutes, to mark the second plane. When Bush takes the lectern to read a letter from Lincoln to the widow of a Union soldier, he is met with enthusiastic applause. Obama reads from the Old Testament.

I was not there, and while I can empathise, the grief of New Yorkers is not my own. But I grew up in a generation whose first political memory is that of those towers coming down and the world, which we didn’t understand initially, changing irrevocably. Our introduction to the wider world was through vials of anthrax, the wars on terror, protests, division, fear. Like a cornered beast, the greatest country in the world was thrashing wildly, with fear and anger in it’s eyes.

This day is more than a day for America to remember the scar inflicted on it’s national psyche, and to mourn those they lost. It is a moment for the world to contemplate the last decade, a decade marked by the war and division unleashed in those attacks. We must wonder how well we rose to the challenges that the attacks presented us with.

It’s 9.37 a.m. in Washington, a plane hits the Pentagon. The Vice-President bows his head, as an a-cappella navy choir sings The Star-Spangled Banner in perfect harmony. Military, glitz and grief. A very American affair. There will be a tribute concert later, A Concert for Hope, opened with the words of President Obama.

Despite their resolve, the commemoration betrays how unsure America is of itself. The new World Trade Centre tower, a decade later, is unfinished. There is anger and hate for political leaders, who despite their lofty words could not even come together to pay for the cancer treatment of those who rushed into the dust to pull out bodies. More Americans are out of work than any time since Total War, and the crumbling American position has given radicals brandishing tea-bags the license to devolve national debate further.

It’s 9:59 a.m. The South Tower falls. The bells toll. Names continue to be read out, they are up to the C’s.

To a distant observer, emotionally softened via the distortion of television, it is easy to view 9/11 as a challenge for America and the world. It is even easier to see this as a challenge that they, and we, failed. The decade that followed was one of overreaction and destruction; a decade that saw war, inequality, division, recession and fear, as norms of society. As liberal governments became flippant with our freedoms, and unconsidered in their use of war, we became introverted and callous towards the outside world.

10:03 a.m. Hijackers drive a plane into the ground in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers fight back.

But today, we see freedom blooming across the Arab world. A new fight has begun, and no longer tormented by the shadow of a mass-murderer, America is no longer blind with anger. A new understanding is emerging from 9/11 – the need for freedom and equality, that does not require destruction and stupidity to achieve those goals. Despite recession, debt-insanity, war and uncertainty, the world is becoming better. And the true challenge that 9/11 presented – of building a world order that is both equitable and stable, where such unthinkable acts are never even contemplated – waits to be fulfilled, but inches closer.

It is far too easy, on this delicate anniversary, to see failure. What we should see is possibility, and renewal.

10:28 a.m. The North Tower falls. The world is changed.