10 years ago (plus a few hours, given the time difference) was the day that supposedly changed the world. Two hijacked planes were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center on what has come to be known, in US date notation, as 9/11. But what struck me, on tonight’s Channel 4 News, was a report on how Afghanis saw the event that led to the invasion of their country. Apparently, the vast majority of people didn’t even know that happened, even when shown photographs.
It got me thinking about the relationship between the universal and the particular, how something can both take on such widespread significance (Headline from Le Monde on the day: ‘We’re all Americans now) and yet be of varying import in individual lives. 9/11 probably felt like the ‘end of the world’ for Americans, New Yorkers, for people who knew someone who died, for the emergency service workers. On the other hand, it was a day that never happened as far as many people in Afghanistan were concerned, even though they’ve probably been affected the most by it.
Obviously, 9/11 has become one of those days where people will always ask, ‘Where were you when you heard about the planes crashing into the Twin Towers?’ Well, I know exactly where I was.
I was working as a journalist for a business-to-business magazine in the West End (in London). It was my first job after graduation and I had worked there for just over a year. It was about 2pm on a Tuesday and I was sitting at my desk, trying to research and write up a feature article. I remember a group of colleagues crowding around a TV in the corner of the office and one girl came over and said about a plane flying into one of the Towers. And the only thought going through my head was, ‘I so don’t feel very well’ – not because of the news but because I really was feeling a bit flu-y.
I didn’t feel up to getting out of my chair and walking to the TV, so I tried to look at the BBC or CNN website at my desk. I just couldn’t get through – obviously because everyone else was trying to do the same. So, I just struggled for the whole afternoon with my work and feeling ill. Honestly, that afternoon was all about me. It felt like the longest three hours of my life. I do remember reading the front page of the Evening Standard on my way home, but when I got home, I just went straight to bed.
I found out the next day, when I went to see the doctor, that I probably had gastroenteritis (stomach flu). I was off work for about five days. Anyway, for me AT THE TIME, a terrorist attack in which 3,000 or so people were killed was not the most important thing to be happening in the world.
This blog post is not meant to minimise what happened on 11 September 2001; it is just a few thoughts of the tension between universal and particular that can reside in a major event that will no doubt have some historic value now. Of course, one could argue that the only reason why I remember being ill on that day is because that day was worth remembering in the first place.
Of course, even the question of memorability is subject to same tensions of universality and particularity. Because of the needless and great loss of life, the nihilism of the attack and the response of the US government, 9/11 appears to have immense significance to us in the present. But, with the power of hindsight, people such as Francis Fukuyama suggest the future will see 9/11 and al-Quaeda as a “blip” on the temporal landscape.