“Someone’s declared war on America. Turn on the news, any news, any channel, it’s everywhere. Car bombs, planes flying into buildings, do it, it’s crazy.”
We all have these memories and recollections. “Where were you when…” We time travellers, visitors from the future watching endless repeats of the initial attacks, the aftermath; foreknowledge being a terrible thing.
How does timetravel seem now, with all of history expanded out around us with its gore and death and apparent seamless planning? Would we tell office workers in New York to stay well clear of the World Trade Centres completely? How many parents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan could be warned in time?
Timetravel seems a concept flawed enough without adding the realities of moral choices. How many dead Iraqis could have been saved for the want of the world turning in a different way on 10th September, eight years ago?
Of course, all the memories we have of that day are tainted by our very particular circumstances. The woman at my then place of work joking, “I hope my pilot has better eyesight than the one who has just crashed into the World Trade Centre”, had no idea what catastrophe would follow. Nobody did. Not entirely sure the other woman I worked with had any idea of reality at all when she declared with absolute sincerity that one effective way to beat Al-Qaeda would be to purposely mispronounce Osama Bid Laden’s name. I remember her saying it as clear as any memory could be, standing by the window, arms folded like a stereotype of the Northern Housewife. “Yeah, so I’m going to say Uzama,” sure and smug.
(Also, of course, from office colleagues and my dad the following weekend, “There’s a group of Asians [sic] celebrating outside Preston Sorting Office, they’ve all been sent home”)
The consequences of the attacks still crash upon the shore today. History recalls the (false) claims of WMDs in Iraq, the (false) claims of Cyprus being in the firing line of weapons “with only 45 minutes warning”. The hanging of Saddam, smuggled onto YouTube via mobile phone, a very modern, Western, way to die.
We have our DNA on databases, our movements watched by CCTV, our own versions of PATRIOT Acts banning the reading of certain library books. Freedom tainted by necessity, in this “strange new world”. I wish freedom tasted better. I wish faith in our leaders was stronger.
(“This is how it starts, Armageddon,” said my mum, at the time, watching the attacks on BBC News, endless loops, like a gruesome highlights package. ITN News, I recall, set the attacks to music. Enya. Got a slap around the wrists by the ITC or OFCOM.)
My mother had a point, I guess. No, not entirely. But how the “war on terror” will end nobody has decided. Withdrawal from Iraq leaves behind an altered version of the country but not one with flawless democracy or absolute peace. Any original aims seem somehow lost, distorted, if not entirely forgotten.
Afghanistan is a slow motion slaughter of innocents, its original aim (insofar as Bush had one) removed from the collective memories of man completely. History has been here before, Afghanistan does not suffer invasions lightly. The Presidential election is as tasteless a show as it is blunt an instrument.
(“The world will never be the same again,” said the man on the radio, during the attack. With no internet at all or television, the office in which I worked at the time had to listen to the unfolding event on the radio. The overall effect of which was very unsettling, as though the commentary was nothing more than a play, the voiceover an over-wrought script. When I first heard the claims of “world changing events”, I suppressed a giggle.)
Recent programmes on British television re-ran the news coverage and camcorder footage. Some scenes were too graphic to watch, which I found a sobering personal reaction. Suddenly the stunned faces, the voiceless gasps, the dust-covered streets empty of people but full of stories, filled my mind with the absolute reality of what remains an unbelievable day.
But today, what to think? Congratulate the “war on terror”? Feel sorry but stoic? How would timetravel work, knowing what we all do now, about the failure to stop terrorism from killing innocent people. “How would a timetraveller help” is not the question to ask; maybe “when” or “who” would be more accurate.
Today, eight years on from the attacks, history continues to be written. Lessons have not been learned at all.