The 9-11 Decade: Who gets to define the next ten years?

20110911-223936.jpgI don’t have anything new to offer with regard to September 11th; no insight that hasn’t already been made over the last ten years, no epiphany to give meaning to the whole situation. I wasn’t directly affected by it – I’m not American, I didn’t witness it with my own two eyes – and I guess I’m not really qualified to comment.

And yet, in another sense, I’m a child of 9-11; we all are, ever since the 21st century started on that autumn day ten years ago. We’ve all been shaped by it, whether we acknowledge that or not, and now we’re a decade down the road, a decade into a storyline that few of us would claim to understand. Maybe trying to comprehend things in those terms is a mistake – the politics that defined the aftermath soon became a nightmare, let’s not let them overshadow what happened before.

“Left the house this morning
Bells ringing filled the air
Wearin’ the cross of my calling
On wheels of fire I come rollin’ down here.”

What did happen? Initial reports were jumbled and confused – I remember hearing that something was happening in America, either Washington DC or New York, but I was at work and the internet had suddenly slowed to a crawl. We heard rumours and half-truths of calamities – people were agreed that something had happened to the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but stories began to circulate about the White House and the Empire State Building. In spite of this, the truth began to coalesce and images emerged – the now iconic pictures of the WTC burning, the collapse of the towers, shellshocked survivors running down empty streets covered in dust, firefighters heading in the opposite direction to everyone else.

“I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher,
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire.”

It was the firefighters of New York City who became the heroes of 9-11. The political aftermath has a legacy of ambiguity and moral difficulties, but no-one’s about to argue with the the praise directed at those who run towards the fire to save others. The heroism of so many carried with it a terrible cost, one that’s difficult to even imagine in peacetime. I remember an awards ceremony being televised here in Britain, a commemoration of men, woman and children who had served their communities or overcome terrible odds. Alongside a host of celebrities presenting these awards were two NY firemen, who walked onto the stage to immediately receive a standing ovation. And I remember the tears streaming down my face, because no matter what happened in Iraq or Afghanistan or Guantanmo Bay, nothing could take away the heroism and the sacrifice of the emergency services at the World Trade Centre. That should be 9-11’s legacy – it isn’t, and it won’t be, but it should.

“Without your sweet kiss
my soul is lost, my friend
Now tell me how do I begin again?”

But ten years is a long time to be defined by anything. Some people are calling the years since 9-11 a lost decade, and you can see where they’re coming from. Those planes slamming into those towers feel like an interuption to history, like we were heading one way, then we all got diverted by something so utterly unexpected that it left the world in a state of shock that it’s still trying to overcome. After all, America wasn’t attacked by the military might of a rival nation, but a terrorist cell using hijacked planes and wire cutters. There’s something enormous about that, that the 21st century could be redefined by, what, nineteen hijackers plus Osama bin Laden as their organisation’s figurehead? Let that sink in – twenty people, and most of us would be hardpressed to name the majority of them.

And now that’s occured to me, I don’t want to live in a world defined by people like that. That sounds petulant, reading it back, but it’s not, it’s really just common sense. I don’t want to live in a world created by anonymous terrorists; who would?

I want to live in a world where we commemorate the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, who brought down the plane before it could reach another target.

I want to live in a world where we remember the names of those who died helping others.

I want to live in a world where someone like bin Laden becomes a historical footnote, but we tell the story about how Rick Rescorla made sure over 2,000 employees of Morgan Stanley were safely evacuated from the World Trade Centre.

I want to live in a world where we learn from those who spent countless hours working at Ground Zero to either rescue survivors or grant some dignity to those who died.

And I want to live in a world where we’d rather rise up than drag ourselves down.

God bless America. I ❤ NY.

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