Sunday, 11 September 2011

A Day of Remembrance

The 9/11 attacks will be one of the defining events of my lifetime, both historically and personally.

The historic importance of the terrorist atrocities committed on American soil that day is well documented and people across the world are still experiencing the aftershocks of those events, through the wars fought in part because of them and the laws that were passed after them.

However on a personal level it will always carry a huge amount of importance that goes beyond the socio-political ramifications of Al-Qaeda attacking the American mainland. The 11th of September 2001 was the day that, as cheesy/melodramatic as this sounds, I lost some of my innocence about the wider world.

I was 10 years old, coming home from school when my best friend’s mum told us that America had been attacked. I doubt I even really understood what that meant when she said it, but I went home and sat down in front of the TV on my own and watched the news for around 4 hours, trying to understand what had happened and more importantly why.

I’d already had some exposure to the cruelty humans are capable of through my already well developed fascination with WW2, but this was different. At that age events 60 years ago may as well be 600, they’re so detached from the life I was living and to some degree they may as well have been fictional stories I was reading. This was different, I sat and watched the events unfolding live, seeing the confusion, the panic and most of all the destruction.

I wanted to try and understand what the news readers meant when they talked about concepts like religious extremism, terrorism and martyrdom. That September day woke me up to some of the realities of the world; the fact that killing based on religion, politics or just hatred wasn’t some historical phenomenon but something that was still happening around me.

It wasn’t an immediate shift but I know both from memory and my parent’s assurance that I took a growing interest in politics from then on, an interest that has now led me to study politics at university.

The 10 years since the attack have seen more events that like 9/11 have had huge political ramifications but also played a huge part in forming the current 20 year old version of me; Afghanistan and Iraq, 7/7 and the Oslo shootings, Obama’s election and the Arab Spring, but none of them will ever have that same power as the day I sat and watched New York under attack on the BBC.

Though the 10 year old me wouldn’t have been able to express most of this, especially the wider desire to understand how people could carry out acts of terrorism, take so many innocent lives and believe they were right to do so with such certainty, that day expanded my awareness and my inquisitive nature in a way no other has. A decade later, I've consumed countless books, articles and TV documentaries on the subject and I sit here on the 11th of September 2011 aware that I still don’t fully understand the events I watched unfold that afternoon or the motives behind them. I could list a whole range of political, religious and social factors that may or may not have had an influence on that tragic day, but the truth is that I doubt I will ever understand the mind-set that could lead to what I saw on that TV screen. I don’t think I want to either, 9/11 may have changed how I viewed the world, chipped away at the shiny veneer with which you look on life as a child but I don’t think the actions making sense would bring me any comfort.

Memories fade over time and even a day as formative as 9/11 isn't immune to that; I can't guarantee I remember all the things I thought and the emotions I felt, I can only write about the day as I remember it and from what my parents have told me about my reaction. However one thing I clearly remember is the anger that filled me that afternoon. It was a simpler and purer anger than I am able to muster now. Modern disasters and atrocities still make me angry, but it is a more complex feeling, anger diluted by a knowledge of the complex motives and various groups that might be responsible, aware that in the history of the 20th and 21st centuries no country or religion comes out smelling entirely of roses. I'm also more aware of and fearful about the repercussions, the responses whether foreign or domestic that can follow a bomb attack or shooting. The adult me sees the million shades of grey, on that 2001 afternoon I saw only black and white and it granted me a righteous anger, assured of who the good guys and the bad guys were, who were the heroes and who the super villains. I don't know whether I'll ever feel that mix of confusion, sadness and anger again, it's hard to imagine a situation that the current, politically aware me could view with that same cocktail of emotions.

9/11 changed the world and to varying degrees will have impacted on each and everyone of us in the years since. My thoughts today are with the families of those who died on 9/11 and with everyone who has lost loved ones at least in part due to the actions of those terrorists in the decade since.

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