Thursday, September 13, 2007

Where Were You?

Do you remember where you were when the planes hit the Twin Towers?

I certainly do. I was in a history lesson in my last year of A-Levels. I didn't hear the news for another hour or so, when friends came into my next class. Almost every classroom around the school was at that point turning on its TVs, to be greeted with the sight of the first tower collapsing into the ground. What had seemed so certain an hour earlier had turned into a mass of rubble and dust in just a few seconds.

An hour later, I was picked up from school as usual, and went home to watch the news, in a state of shock and fear. What was coming next? A year which at the start of the day seemed full of hope and excitement as I embarked on the last year of my high school career ended with the world seeming a more evil, more unsafe place.

That is only one of millions of stories that could be told, though. My history teacher, who in that lesson had been discussing his trip to New York over the summer with us, spent the next hour running around desperately trying to contact the friends he had stayed with to make sure they were alright. Another teacher clearly hadn't heard the news with the rest of us, when he told me to cheer up as we passed walking around the grounds. One friend told me that his father was worried for he was about to enter a business deal with a company based at the World Trade Center.

My point here is that all four of us were in pretty much the same place when we heard the news. Our instantaneous reaction to the inevitable question "Where were you?" would be the same. But our reactions were all coloured in different ways. Just like on the day of the London bombing, I found out the news in an internet cafe in Amsterdam, on holiday with my friend. His reaction, being a Londoner familiar with friends and family using the Tube on a regular basis was considerably different from mine. We both had the familiar emotions of shock, grief, sorrow for the terrible losses suffered. Pretending that we were united in those emotions, though, masks more than it reveals.

The sixth anniversary of 9/11 has seen the familiar outpouring of articles and blog posts commenting on how we should remember the anniversary. Many express the idea that life would be much better if we displayed the unity that was shown in the immediate aftermath of the outrages.

Yet in many ways, we weren't united. We all grieved, for the attacks are as horrible as we can imagine. What horrors those in the Towers saw that made them think jumping was a more rational choice than staying we can only shudder to think about. The use of an aeroplane as a bomb, trapping hundreds of innocents on a collision course with a building, is beyond the realms of any normal understanding. And there is something seriously wrong with anyone who does not feel anything other than sorrow and grief when contemplating the loss of children, parents, husbands and wives, friends and loved ones.

Our responses to a tragedy on the scale of 9/11 are determined by all kinds of factors - our personal connection to the events; our physical proximity to the tragedy; our familiarity with the means and places of attack. And those will ultimately determine our view of following reactions to those kinds of events - the more so with the passing of time.

It is of course only right that we should mark the anniversary of the outrages, and stop and pause to remember the lives of those who perished on 9/11 - those who were the innocent victims of a backwards ideology and those who gave their lives trying to save the lives of people they had never met.

As we pause and reflect on that day, though, we are all bringing our own perspectives to a collective act of remembrance. We will never show the same unity as we did on September 12th, because the things that made us think differently on September 11th are now more important in our minds than the shock and sorrow we felt at the time. The reaction to 9/11 was the reaction of millions of different individuals; in that sense, it is no wonder we view those events so differently now.

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