I will be one of maybe millions who will write something today about September 11, 2001, as the anniversary is celebrated. I was not in the US on that fateful day, but thousands of miles away, in a Muslim country, on a work assignment. My home in the US was not far from one of the many government agencies that are in the Washington metropolitan area. One of my children was attending a school very close to one of the US’s main intelligence agencies, and we talked this morning about how the school had been put on lock-down, and then the children had explained to them why: most had thought it was a drugs bust.
At the time of the attack, I was just about to have lunch in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, known for its windiness and sand-covered everything. I remember entering and seeing the television in the restaurant showing images of demolished buildings and a plane hitting of skyscraper. I remember that several of us thought it odd that they would be showing an adventure film in the middle of the day, when they normally had the channels set to CNN. Then, we got closer and began to hear the commentators talking and realised that this was a live event and happening in New York City. None of the local people had reactions different to ours, as they looked on with open mouths and bulging eyes, shaking their heads and asking who would do such a thing and for what purpose. The rest is a blur of calls to Washington and trying to get messages about families and friends, as we heard about a subsequent threat of a plane crashing into buildings in the area of the US capital.
Mauritania is not a country with much of a radical Islamic feel, and it was interesting to hear comments from Mauritanians that were about the sadly damaging reflection that was being cast on Islam by an act that was claimed to be by those who were radicals of that faith. None of us in our group of economists felt that by staying in that country we were under any threat. One of our team, a Muslim, was close to tears as he felt fear for his family back in Washington DC, wondering if they would now be under threat.
I know from conversations that day and after with those who were in New York and Washington DC, that there was a lot of panic, uncertainty, distress, disbelief, hate, fear, and much more. So many parents were concerned immensely about their children and started to pull them from school and try to get them home. Families wanted to be together for what perhaps seemed like Armageddon. People clung even tighter to their faith and places of worship saw a notable influx.
I remember conversations about whether we should leave the west African post we were working in and try to head home. Then, despite any desires to be back in the US and close to families, we were faced with blockages as airports were not open. We resigned outrselves to having to hope that things would be alright. We stayed and returned to Washington days later to hear more stories of that day’s events and see the faces of those who had been in the US. Much of the recollection focused on the sense of finality that the attack seemed to signal. So many lives snuffed out. So many last minute efforts to contact loved ones, some successful, many futile. Then, afterwards, the days of trying to rescue victims, remove debris, trying to reinstate some sense of normality.
I did not go to New York City to see the site of the destroyed World Trade Center for several years, and remember going there with a child who had not been born in 2001. Walking with her in a stroller and with a Norwegian friend who lived in New York and had later come back to the US to work for the UN. I remember feeling hollow as I looked into the cavity that was then the cleared site.
Nearly a decade after the attack so much has changed and so much has not. Over the past few weeks it has been quite mind-boggling to try to understand some of the events that have occurred that have a bearing on the site of the former World Trade Center, now called ‘Ground Zero’. The controversy over the building of an Islamic Cultural Centre nearby has placed into sharp focus issues about sensitivities, religious freedom, religious stereotyping, what is really a local or national issues–if indeed they can be separated–about political grandstanding, about real concerns, about opportunism, and more. On each, and other issues, there is really no clear answer, but plenty of scope for disagreement. The noise of the disagreement often drowns out whatever sense there may be on any or all sides. The last few days, when a pastor in Florida threatened to burn copies of the Quran on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks over plans to build that Islamic centre, has flagged how one set of religious zealots can ignore that which they say they abhor and act just as those they say they feel are posing threats. To say that the plan was “to expose that there is an element of Islam that is very dangerous and very radical,” seems to somehow not acquaint the threatened act with another very dangerous and very radical set of religious positions. Even though that the immediate threat has been removed (see report) and the publicity has been achieved, life will not go back to what it was. I avoid saying ‘normal’, because that is something that has been changed, and perhaps one has to remember that events never allow things to go back to what they were before.
But, we always have lessons to learn from tragedies, and they are often uncomfortable. One very sad lesson is that the pursuit of religious beliefs has been at the root of some of the world’s most devastating acts of human destruction. Life is full of contradictions, but that is one that stops me in my tracks.
Remembering those whose lives were taken so cruelly and abruptly nine years ago.