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Anniversary

This weekend, for those who have been asleep, marks the tenth anniversary of 9/11. So we’ll take a slight detour in this post – we’ll get back to philosophy and all that good stuff next time, promise. It’s hard to say anything about September 11 without offending someone. So be it. My aim is not to please. But some reflection back on this Orwellian decade since the collapse of the World Trade Center in NYC is perhaps a worthy exercise. And so I’d like talk about what it has meant for me personally.

It was the ultimate “where were you when” day. On September 11 2001 I was working at London’s Canary Wharf, in what in our minds rapidly became the “next most likely target”. The office was an open-plan area that had some television screens tuned to Sky News. The first couple of hours were all very confused. A plane had struck a building in New York. It was a small plane – a light aircraft perhaps. A second aircraft involved? Maybe they nearly collided and in the effort to avoid each other one swerved into a building. Terrible accident. What? Two planes had hit buildings? What a mess – who’s running traffic control out there? That’s what you eventually get, Mr Reagan, when you screw with air-traffic controller unions. Our early impressions marked a sadly missed naïveté that died on that day. And then… A plane has hit the Pentagon. Fuck – we are most certainly not in Kansas anymore, Toto. The video footage started to come through. After what felt like a very long time the towers collapsed, live on TV, the zeitgeist in hi-def. This was big – too big to grasp. My nicotine intake accelerated through the day, never quite came down again after that day. The internet died, well, the news websites at least, were unusable – I couldn’t raise the BBC for love or money. After far too many hours, the security alert was raised and we were all thankfully sent home from work. I needed human company. Badly. I went to a friend’s home nearby. I sat there for hours watching the hypnotic and surreal footage of the two planes arc and glide into the towers, arc and glide, arc and glide, arc and glide. I was mesmerized. I called a friend on the other side of the world, woke him up in the middle of his night. Turn on your telly, mate – the world has changed.

Over the next few days the analysis started. I never got very excited by the conspiracy theories – controlled demolitions, WTO7, CIA involvement, cabals, and all the rest – they were, in my eyes, simply surplus to requirements. Dick around with arming dictators for a half a century and the only surprise should be that something like this hadn’t happened sooner. (What a strange coincidence that September 11 was also the anniversary of the overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government in Chile by Pinochet, complete with CIA involvement, less than a week before my own birth). I visited Belfast that weekend. I quickly learned that joking about with airport security was a thing lost to the past. A small loss, perhaps, but losses have a way of compounding quickly. Northern Ireland was deeply sombre and introspective – “See? This is where it all leads to.” I briefly held a hope that the crazy week just past might lead to a similar reasoned reflection in the US on their past of interventionism. And then Bush-the-lesser made his “They hate us for our freedom” speech, ending whatever hopes I may have had for an enlightened and balanced response. A couple of years later I put extracts of that speech to music: I spent a lot of time editing out the long periods of ecstatic applause and cheering which I found more than a little depressing. I visited NYC that November (a trip I had booked well before September). First visit there, so I had nothing to compare it with – no “normal” NYC to benchmark against. The city was understandably subdued. The number of flags I saw in the city scared me.

I struggled with the contextual issues. The victims of 9/11 were innocents (one different choice for me a few years earlier and I might have been one). But a question that I have continuously wrestled with ever since is the nature of the responsibility of people in a democratic nation. Does responsibility for the acts of your government end at the polling booth? I have yet to find any satisfactory answers. It wasn’t all bad – in the months afterwards, the highest selling books in the UK were on Islam: people wanted to understand. And, of course, the news-coverage sure did improve our Middle-East geography – who honestly could point to Afghanistan on a map before then? While I was certain that this was a huge event in history, I couldn’t make that fit with the fact that, in a modern historical sense, it was also small – compare to the number of people dead in WW2, or even just Hiroshima and Nagasaki; compare with Vietnam; compare with the Iraq/Iran war; compare with the gulags, compare most definitely with the war in Iraq that has raged since 2003: it just didn’t come close. Our perception of these things is, as one comedy show put it, “racially adjusted”. Of course it was spectacular and much of its power comes from this. But the seriousness is rooted in who was attacked. I knew then that the bloodlust would come and that freedom, truth, and reason were likely to be the first casualties.

So Afghanistan kicked off. Bombed into the stone-age, if that was even possible any more. And then came the drum-beating leading up to Iraq. The circus in front of the UN, Colin Powell (who seems to me an honourable man), sent out to make a lame case that the Neocons didn’t feel they needed to bother with anyway. Hans Blix and all that. Unilateralism has no time for facts or discourse. Blair, with what later become known as the “dodgy dossier”. Many of us told ourselves that Blair was involving himself in order to temper the excesses of the Yanks. We were wrong – he was a true believer – clearly there was more than enough messianic double-vision to go around. A million people march in London, and many more elsewhere all around the world. It was around then that I started to suspect that our democracies weren’t in good health, a sense that has weighed on me ever since. I was in Venice, Italy on the weekend when the invasion began. The Adriatic jewel was covered in rainbow “Pace” flags – Peace. A large group of protesters made a lot of noise by the Ponte dell’Accademia. The police responded with gas bombs and riot gear. Peace. In the hotel I watched CNN and the hysterical coverage of the opening moves. It would all be over in days. Shock and/or Awe. Followed by Hearts and/or Minds. Return to step 1. Repeat. We’re still there.

July 2005. Bombings in London. A stoic and chilled response from Londoners – is that the best you’ve got? We’ve survived the IRA and the Blitz! And we all vowed to get back on the Tube the next day. The spirit didn’t extend to our erstwhile leaders. More chest beating from the government and the War-on-Terror (TM)(All rights reserved). More eloquent and vacuous rhetoric from Blair, who later professed himself to be a self-styled “peace envoy”. Visiting NYC again mid-2006 as Israel invades Lebanon, again, causing massive damage, dispossessing a million or so people. In the hotel watching CNN again. Apart from a very short story about an American ex-pat woman in Beirut, telling the viewers how nice and cool the locals are, the news was wall-to-wall WWIII and Armageddon and interviews with people who said too much and thought too little. No mention of the history of Palestinian dispossession or any other annoying relevancies. The brief flick-overs to Fox “News” were too appalling to even mention.

The overwhelming impression is that the period since 9/11 has not been great for intellectual honesty. The press have been complicit all the way, or at least until they saw opinion start to swing the other way. When they dared to present an opposing view they were severely disciplined, as the BBC learned the hard way. Too much has been said, and too much has been left unsaid. Language hasn’t got away without a few wounds, Dubya’s open belligerence against the English language aside. The ugly verb “to democratize” found an ironic existence among those who habitually confuse violence and mercantilism with democracy. The “Axis of Evil”, like the “Evil Empire” before it, gave us a metaphorical void, a brutish generalisation, within which to place fears and prejudices, calculated to automatically refute all discussion, reflection and examination. The “Patriot Act” made it honourable to be suppressed. Barbarism was given names like “Operation Freedom”. “Mission Accomplished” meant anything but. And the “anti-isms” have run rife, making a wonderful friend to ignorance and hatred. It’s fun and easy to take your own myopic view, define it as an absolute, and then exclude everyone that disagrees as being the enemy – anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, anti-Capitalism, anti-Freedom…(ahem)ism, anti-[insert-whatever-you-are-too-cowardly-to-face-here]-ism. Death to all open discourse, just wave your flag and welcome fascism with open arms. Woe to all Americans, Semites, Capitalists, lovers-of-freedom, and all the others who disagree or think that we can do better. Newspeak is the new speak.

All of this was a godsend to the “small-state” ideologues. “See!”, they say – “see what government can do if you don’t shrink them”. But then, of course, these are the same folk who profited from the bloodshed. Shrink the state so that it does no good, but for God’s sake don’t shrink it so much that it can do no harm – just remember who owns you. The trillion dollar war ensured that money was cycled away from the working class and public services and into the pockets of Haliburton-and-friends, a trickle-up effect that ensured that the former have no viable voice. Rinse/repeat in 2008 with the banks. The moral of the story is to never confuse small government with good government.

Perhaps the most enduring effect of this decade is the sense that the American era is coming to a close. 9/11 marked the end of myth of American imperviousness to the outside world. The Iraq war busted the myth of their military omnipotence. It survived the disaster of Vietnam because there was the ever-present Evil Empire, but in the face of petty guerrilla warfare it looked frail. The banking crisis and the subsequent years displayed a nation that no longer has a workable economic model (and, with perfect hindsight, hasn’t had for quite some time). An unbridgeable ideological divide is ensuring that the only way is down. And descending with it is the 51st state – a Britain that continues to reject its geography and history in favour of supporting the outdated ideals of a nation separated from it by a common language.

For me, it’s been a period of waking from my dogmatic slumbers, to steal the line from Kant. My life has been coloured by 9/11 ever since that day. Born in me was that nagging sense that things were not right with the world. It has seeded what music I’ve written. It has been present in the oceans of reading that I’ve drowned myself in ever since. Most of all it has ignited a passion for political philosophy and thought, and history, and the search to understand something about the nature of human relationships in society, something that has come into its own since 2008. Some days I sympathise with friends who think that humanity is beyond redemption. Some days I feel that heavily. But I drag myself up from it. Sleep was warm and cosy, even as the external noises intruded on my dreams with ever greater volume. The awakening has been reluctant and I still have a long way to go. But I’ve learned a lot. It’s not easy to suspect that something just isn’t right. It’s harder to discover why it’s not right. And it’s harder still to then have the courage to articulate it. But it’s worth it. Periods of fear and uncertainty are powerful tools for those who would like to burn bridges and build walls rather than construct commonality. The result is more fear and uncertainty. We must fight harder than ever when the fighting is more difficult. And now, at least as much as during the war on terror, the danger is great. And it’s ok to be wrong if you can admit it and learn from it – error is our greatest teacher. I’m not certain of much, but on that, at least, I know that I’m not wrong.

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