9-11 – the world changed on that TV screen

It had been a warm late summer Tuesday morning
I hadn’t long finished eating lunch in my office in central Reading. At around 1:50 I took a call from a friend.
“Hey, Rob, you all right?”
“Aye. But listen. The North Tower of the World Trade Centre is on fire. It’s pretty serious, go and have a look.”
“Oh, really, thanks.”
“Call me back.”
“Cheers, will do.”
I walked along the corridor to the Labour Party’s South East Regional Office who were on the same floor. They hadn’t heard. I suggested they put the TV on. Sure enough, smoke was pouring from the North Tower.
Nobody on whichever news channel it was seemed to know what had caused what was clearly a very serious blaze. Those Labour Party staff who were in the office and my staff who I had shouted to come have a look, stood around watching a disaster movie and speculating. In less than 10 minutes we knew.
The world changed live on that TV screen.
The images were on every screen on the planet - the ultimate act of terror. What would follow was immediately evident – it was an act of war and war would surely follow.
My children were ten and a few days short of eight. There was no way they could, nor should, have been sheltered from the day’s events but I had no idea how what to say to them.
Quite a few years earlier I had sat on the WTC observation deck on a steamy afternoon looking north from lower Manhattan, on my first visit to the USA. There are some pictures somewhere. You could sit inside with your legs dangling by the windows - all perfectly safe but still vertiginous. The buildings themselves divided opinion, the observation deck was a bit 1970s crummy and little worse for wear but the view was unforgettable. I remember thinking, ‘Imagine working every day with this view, it would be brilliant, but it wouldn’t be special’. Some say the building was unloved by its occupants.
Visiting Ground Zero, was every time a moving experience. The many scribbled messages, informal memorials and tributes deserved and got time. They have now been superseded by the official memorial, though hopefully somebody recorded or preserved them. What struck me most was the void. The absence of something so immense and apparently powerful. A plane flies across the void and, inevitably, you see the image.
I’ve no idea how many words have been written about 9/11. I know it’s a big number. I cannot do justice to either the events of their consequences nor add much to what has been already said easily, though I do have my own take on it all.
Suffice to say the event, or something like it, had been coming. In my view the moment of change that had led to 9/11 was the Iranian revolution of 1979 that brought the ayatollahs to power and set in train a struggle within the Islamic world involving medievalist and more humane interpretations. That struggle remains unresolved, its damage is immeasurable.
In the last two weeks there has been a lot of writing about the ‘end of the war’. I find the premise absurd. The war hasn’t ended - only its current phase has ended. Like the Hundred Years War between England and France, it will flare up and die down, but this one will run and run.
Talking about ‘how it all affected me’ is the self-indulgent way that’s people in the comfortable first world seek attention. Objectively, individually really hardly at all - but the global implications were the end of the era of ‘post Cold War’/‘post history’’. I remember feeling rather numb, of being confused and fearful for my children’s lives in a way I had not previously. The headlines on the day of my daughter’s birth eight years less three days earlier were of the Oslo peace agreement with pictures of Arafat and Rabin - historic and hopeful, or so we thought.
Eight years after 9-11 she and I visited Ground Zero again. At the north east corner on Broadway is St Paul's Chapel, which like much else served as a living memorial. We sat there for a while in what is for me a symbol of the great contradiction of religion - a place where all seems peaceful across the road from the evil perpetrated in the name of god. The nearly 3,000 who died in the attacks were just the latest of the endless victims of the gods man made.