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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.
All this time I thought he was a make-believe character that parents told their children about to get them to behave and whom Coca Cola turned into a marketing gimmick. Oh wait, wrong make-believe character. I thought he was an American creation to justify an imperialistic grab for oil. Now it turns out that there really was a Bin Laden. (All we need now is someone to wage war on Finland to find out the truth of Father Christmas.)
But I wonder why they didn’t just capture him so that he could be put on trial, like Saddam Hussein? Surely there was plenty of evidence of his connections to 9/11 and the attack on the USS Cole, not to mention the 7/7 bombings in London and the metro bombings in Madrid and, God knows, how many other terrorist attacks. I mean, that is why we invaded two sovereign countries after all, isn’t it?
If the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were just wars, then surely Bin Laden should have been subjected to the criminal justice system (American, Pakistani, Afghan, even International) and been convicted and sentenced. His death won’t, I don’t think, put an end to the conspiracy theories.
It’s interesting that, in his speech, Barack Obama said that the families who lost loved ones to Al Quaeda could be sure that “justice had been done”. But, in western liberal democracies, the administrator of justice is the judge, not the executive or the military. The big fear now is that Bin Laden has been turned into a martyr. Surely it would made have been more just – not too mention pragmatic – to treat him as someone who had committed crimes (terrorism), put him on trial and, if found guilty, sentence him to multiple life sentences. He wanted to die. Why not humiliate him by having him languish in prison for the rest of his life?
The White House spokesperson also claimed that Bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed, although one of his wives did try to rush the special forces team. Why would you admit to killing and unarmed, old man (even one who is the inspiration for a global terror network)?
And, of course, that is even if he is dead. According to Obama’s speech, the dead body of Bin Laden was “taken into custody”, given the Islamic funeral rites and then dumped in the sea to avoid his tomb become a shrine. But of course this means that they can’t really prove that he is dead. As a Christian country like America ought to know, the authorities tried to question Jesus’ resurrection by paying people to say he was dead, but they could never actually produce the body.
Despite Obama’s talk of the “pursuit of justice”, it seems that all the Americans wanted was revenge. And, as a result, they may well have made the world an even more dangerous place.
Western powers, led by America, invade Afghanistan and Iraq in order to change the regime and impose democratic values. The troops are still in Afghanistan and neither country is in a good condition.
In a grassroots movement, the people of Tunisia and Eqypt overthrow their own regimes in the space of a matter of days/weeks.
Makes you think!
So today is Remembrance Day. Before I say what I am about to say, I believe in the importance of Remembrance Day, I believe in the memory of all those who have fought and died for our country to protect our freedoms, human rights, liberty and democracy. And herein lies the irony. On the day that we are suppose to look back to the horrors of war and utter “Never again”, we (as in humanity) have never seemed so eager to go to war for whatever reason than since the day was first instituted in the aftermath of the First World War. If we really are going to take Remembrance Day seriously, let’s bring our troops back from Afghanistan, let’s get rid of Trident and our stockpile of nuclear weapons (three words: Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and let’s offer a real, genuine hand of reconciliation (and eventually friendship) to countries such as Iran and North Korea.
I think part of the problem is the way that we ‘celebrate’ Remembrance Day. If you go to church, you’ll probably have it included in this Sunday’s service – although if your church is anything like mine, it will probably be en passant. You may (or may not) be wearing a poppy to show that you are marking the day, but are you really? What exactly are you doing? Donating some money to the Royal British Legion or Help the Heroes, possibly having a two minutes’ silence but otherwise getting on with your day as usual. And let’s be honest, did people die to set us free just so we can be a slave to the system? (I’ll let you decide what the system is.)
Remembrance Day is, for us, what 4th July Independence Day is to the Americans. Former British colonies, such as India, Sri Lanka and Canada, celebrate Independence Day too, to mark the liberation from our rule. So why don’t we really celebrate today? Let’s make it a National Holiday, perhaps an extended weekend (such like Thanksgiving in the US). Let’s have some kind of procession in the street – and not just a military one but a showcase of pluralism, multiculturalism and peace, kinda like Mardi Gras and May Day all rolled into one. And perhaps let’s name it World Peace Day or something.
Which brings me on to my final point. Yesterday demonstration in Central London by students and lecturers against the coalition government’s cuts to higher education and plans to increase tuition fees for 80% of students is perhaps the best celebration of Remembrance Day. It is why people died in the first place, so that we can have the freedom to protest and to express our views.