Monday, 11 September 2006

In a New York minute...

"In a New York minute, everything can change..." --Don Henley

Five years ago, on the 11th of September, in a New York minute, everything did.
I can't even bear to use the phrase anymore. At 8.45 am EDT, it was simply a bright, crisp, autumn morning during the second week of school. At 8.46, to quote another Don Henley song, "Oh beautiful for spacious skies/but now those skies are threatening..."

I know there are going to be millions of these on the web, and I really have no right to write one - I was lucky, I didn't lose anyone, and I knew that within three days. And I knew how blessed I was. I knew people who waited for weeks, and even on this side of the pond, there were whispers that so-and-so hadn't heard from their child/sibling/friend. But even though I don't have a special angle or a personal loss, I'm thinking about it, so I'll talk about it.

At about 1.30 pm BST on 11 September 2001, I was in the library, supposedly working on my thesis. I had actually deliberately sat myself down at a computer with AOL messenger to talk to my friend Erica, so I could complain about my friend Anni's choice of bridesmaid dress - trumpet sleeves are so not my thing. I was whingeing away, and Erica was clucking sympathetically. Suddenly, there was silence on her end - and the next lines she typed in made me feel as if I'd stepped into either an alternate universe or a Salvador Dali painting:

"Oh my God."
"What? Erica, are you ok? Is it Kelsey [her daughter]?"
"My co-worker just came over and told me that a plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center."
"WHAT? No. Oh my God. You're kidding."
"No. Wait a minute."
(Pause - I presume Erica was checking the news, then she came back and said:)
"Oh my God."
"What a HORRIBLE accident. But that doesn't make sense. Any pilot worth his salt would ditch in the Hudson, or the Atlantic. You wouldn't fly into a building..."

At that point, I turned on the television in the library resources room, which was right next to me. I still don't know if I saw the second plane live or not, I was so numb. I went back to AOL, and by now, Erica knew there were two. And we knew it wasn't an accident. She went offline and I went back and stared vacantly at the television. I remember that the BBC commentators were brilliant. My friend Vince said he thought they were too calm, but it was EXACTLY what I needed - a lifeline to some kind of normalcy, something to hold the world together. Especially when the next pictures were going to take my fear to new heights, just when I thought it wasn't possible...

Suddenly, the scene changed...and it was familiar. Too familiar. A scene I'd seen through a car window...and there was smoke beyond. The commentator was Peter Sissons, I think, but don't quote me on that. He was saying - and it was the first time I'd heard emotion that day - "We've changed pictures and I can't tell where we are..." And I nearly said to the television, "I can. I know those houses, and the Pentagon is over...there." I cannot tell you if he had mentioned the Pentagon beforehand, but even if he hadn't, I would have known...because I'm a Washington girl.

Ok, I was born in the Maryland suburbs, and driving around Washington drove my blood pressure through the ceiling. [Where do you think my younger brother *learned* all his four letter words?] London taught me what it was to fall in love with a city - truly, madly, deeply; but Washington was *my town* - my local news WAS the national news, and I cut my teeth on programmes of political cut-and-thrust [Go, John McLaughlin! One of my early crushes was - oh God, how embarrassing - Morton Kondracke, then editor of the New Republic]. Washington was bad traffic, cherry blossoms in spring, the Mall, the Smithsonian, Adams-Morgan, Georgetown, the river and...untouchable, even during the chilliest years of the Cold War. Not anymore.

I had to leave and go work reception at church, so I asked for a radio, kindly brought down by Alexander, who then said something like, "It's hard to believe the Towers aren't there anymore." It didn't register till I went home and turned on the telly and watched them fall. Even now, if I see an 80s video or an early episode of "Friends", there's a lump in my throat every time I catch a glimpse of them in the frame.

An immediate email went out to everyone, heart in mouth - and I was certain some of my ex-students would be working in New York. That night, my mother rang in tears of shock, but thank God, my cousins in NYC were ok. Over the next few days, emails came back from everyone - all present and accounted for, each with their own story of trying to get home, trying to find friends and family. I learned the true meaning of "Thank you, God" that week.

Five years on, I've stopped ducking when a low-flying plane passes (otherwise, with RAF Benson and RAF Brize Norton not too far away, I'd have turned into Quasimodo by now); I am still stunned that my countrymen thought that GW Bush was actually a possibility for President (TWICE, no less...); I make sure arguments with friends are sorted out as soon as possible, b/c you never know; I have a deep appreciation and love for the apparently ordinary days that make up the vast majority of our lives. And I know that as much as part of me would love to look the other way should Osama and others involved die a slow and painful death, I know that if we let ourselves do that, we'd lose our humanity and he will have won. He must have due process, to protect who we are and what we are to become.

And the world? We're at war, because we needed to channel our grief, rage and helplessness somewhere when we couldn't find the guilty parties. Underneath the apparent return to normal, there is chaos, closer to the surface than it has been for a long time, brought there by fear and awareness of how fragile the society we have built really is - despite our technology, economy and all kinds of advances - our society is really only as strong as our relationships with eachother - individually and collectively...that is the tapestry we cannot afford to unravel.

As they have been ever since that day five years ago, my thoughts and prayers today are with the victims of 9/11 and their friends, families and everyone whose lives they touched...and for our world. And I know I'm not alone.

Today, 11 September 2006, I stepped out of my house and closed the door behind me.
It was a bright, crisp, autumn morning during the second week of school.

May history record it as such.

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