Once in a while something happens that changes the way we see the world. The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, was one such event.
I am old enough to remember the Cuba missile crisis in October 1962 and J.F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. Although I was a child at the time, both incidents loom large in my memory. I remember my parent’s nervousness when they were putting me to bed and anxious kisses before I was left to sleep for perhaps my last night of rest. I remember watching open jawed when the news came on the television that President Kennedy had been shot, then a little while later a clearly upset BBC newsreader announcing his death. Surely, these things didn’t happen in the real, grown up world around me? But they did and continue to do so.
I had just returned to my office from lunch (I was in the UK, where we were a few hours ahead of US Eastern-time) and found my office manager hunched over her transistor radio. Her boyfriend was a DJ at the local BBC radio station and he had phoned her to say that something had just happened and she should turn on her receiver. We heard sketchy news stories that there had been a terrible accident in New York and an airliner had crashed into one of the World Trade Towers on Manhattan Island.
Several months earlier, I had been in New York where my ex-wife was visiting her mother. I had spent a splendid morning walking around the wonderful Guggenheim Museum then I decided to see the city from a different perspective. I would go to the top of one of the astonishing city sky-scrapers. The Twin Towers was my first thought, it was after all the tallest vantage point to see the city from. Then there was the most stylish of all these blocks, the Chrysler Building. In the end, I decided to spurn both of these choices and headed for the Empire State Building. After all, this was the place King Kong chose to escape to in the classic 1933 movie produced by David O. Selsnick.
From this vantage point, I had a magnificent view across Central Park, the Hudson River, Liberty Island and towering above all the other buildings the iconic twin towers of the World Trade Center. This was not my first visit to New York, but the sight of the city, laid out beneath me took my breath away…
These thoughts were in my mind as we sat listening to the first reports. We had no news about those killed or injured yet but there were constant reassurances that all was well and there was no chance of the building collapsing. After all, there had been an attack several years earlier and it has survived unscathed. Then the second plane struck. My heart missed a beat and it was clear that this was no accident.
Seated in my office some three-thousand miles away from the action and not being an American citizen, my perspective was different from those directly involved. As the minutes passed however, and the enormity of the events became clearer, I realised that this was another of those points in history when everything changes and the world becomes a different place.
A couple of hours after the first plane struck, we still had no idea of the scale of the human suffering that had taken place. But by then, video footage of crashing planes and collapsing buildings was starting to emerge and being played endlessly on the television, as more and more witnesses came forward to describe what they saw.
I was initially fearful that the Bush administration would make some immediate retaliation on one or other Middle-Eastern country, precipitating an even bigger crisis and was surprised and grateful for their restraint. This was not a time for action. The country was in shock. Americans needed time to mourn, to reflect and then to act. This they did in due course.
On that day in September 2001, ordinary citizens of the United States of America received a rude wakeup call from the rest of the world. Suddenly, issues related to foreign policy were no longer just of interest to the business community and the intellectual elite. Foreign policy became the most important issue for the Bush Administration between that time and the 2008 world financial crisis. Even now, the repercussions of what we have learnt to call 9/11 are reverberating around the world in Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently in Pakistan at the beginning of May this year.
On the anniversary of the event, I spent a minute in silence at another desk, in Azerbaijan, thinking about the tragedy, the loss of life and the aftermath. I also thought about the future and the sort of world we want our children to inherit.
Even in this age of globalisation and international travel, the world is still a diverse place. We live in a global village and as I am fond of saying, (misquoting one of my favourite writers Edward Lorenz) a butterfly beats its wings in the Whitehouse Rose Garden and on the other side of the world a hurricane ensues.
Global terrorism is still a real threat. In Mexico at the end of August, a terrorist attack relating to drug crime that took place in city of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. Government sources revealed that fifty-two ordinary citizens were killed, but local reviews mention that sixty-one bodies were eventually found after a few days. This terrorist attack left over a dozen injured, and over thirty-five trapped for several hours before Mexican forces arrived at the place to release them.
There is room in our global village for diversity and difference but at the end of the day, we owe it to those who come after us to find a way of living together in peace and harmony. My hope is that this will be the true legacy of the events of September 11th 2001.