9 September 2011

Nobody asks for it

Rest in peace
Like everyone else, I remember the moment very clearly. I was on MSN at work and the guy I was chatting to said “just heard a plane went into the World Trade Center?” I imagined a light aircraft. I didn't imagine what followed.

We all know what happened that day; we all remember. I don't need to go into detail about the events. What I can tell you is the helpless horror I felt as I sat in a meeting room, thousands of miles away, watching it happen on TV. Seeing my country undergoing a previously unimaginable attack, on a scale we never could have guessed. Knowing that two of the flights were from Boston, the city where I was born.

A co-worker asked me “are you ok?” I slowly nodded. Tears standing unshed in my eyes. Stomach tied up in a tight knot. Trying to take it in.

I'd lived in the UK for 11 years by then. I moved to the UK when the IRA were still bombing London and other English cities on a fairly regular basis, so terrorism was already something I comprehended in a way that a lot of Americans didn't. I'd been around at the time the Lockerbie atrocity happened too. And like everyone else, I was aware of the concept of plane hijacks. The last time the mainland US was attacked by an external force, it was the British in the early 19th century. We're not used to it. It was a shock to many Americans that the rest of the world hated us, but it wasn't a shock to me.

But this was something so nightmarish that nobody in her right mind could have dreamt it would happen. The sheer balls of this attack, the unprecedented scale of it, was something nobody in her right mind could ever have imagined.

I was profoundly relieved that nobody close to me was lost that day. People my family and I knew died though. A tennis partner of my mother's. My parents' parish priest, who gave them spiritual sustenance and kindness. A girl I grew up with in my small town. The wife of one of my brother's co-workers. The grief touched me like a piece of paper scorched at the edges. I watched the footage obsessively. And I cried. God, how I cried.

I also don't need to go into the aftermath. The politics. The war. The thousands of other innocents that died as a result of that terrible day.

What I found profoundly depressing at the time, and still find depressing today, was the tone I saw in a lot of the posts I read on the Internet. Americans had asked for it, commentators seemed to say, with their aggressive foreign policies and cultural imperialism. There was, in some of the comments I saw, a touch of schadenfreude. Take that, America, you global bully! Have a taste of your own medicine! Stop making such a fuss; we've been dealing with this shit for years! It's about time you got your comeuppance!

People were saying this at a time when mobile phones buried under rubble were still ringing, people still desperately hoping that their loved ones didn't make the flight, were delayed on the way to work. Ten years later, as thousands of people struggle with the grief that landmark anniversaries bring, I'm still hearing it.

Here's the thing. People need to separate the people from the policy. The people who died that day, and the spouses, friends, children, siblings, parents that were left behind didn't ask for it. Nobody asked for it. We didn't ask for the war and the further carnage that Bush and Blair unleashed on the world, either. And nothing justifies those deaths. But nothing justifies the death of those innocents on September 11th 2001 either. Don't blur the lines. George Bush didn't speak for all of us. The innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan didn't deserve to die, and more Americans than you give us credit for believe this. Nor did the innocents from America who died deserve it. Of course.

I've seen recently, on Twitter, a fair amount of snideness, and embarrassment about the remembrance ceremonies, and even a bit of anti-Americanism. Complaints about the fact that Americans say 9/11 instead of 11/9, for God's sake. Now is not the time.

I hope that the 10-year marker allows those who grieve an opportunity to move on; to lay ghosts to rest and find peace. While I've watched the aftermath and the deaths mounting upon deaths, the chipping away of civil liberties and privacy, with utter dismay, that doesn't detract from the grief I feel for the terrible wound my country suffered that day.

Rest in peace, all those who lost their lives that day, the civilians, firefighters and rescue services. While we've lived through a terrible day and an equally horrific aftermath, I hope that the 10 year anniversary marks a new beginning.

Image: digitalart at freedigitalphotos.net