It's one of the truisms of our generation that we can all remember where we were on September 11th, 2001. More specifically, we can all picture very clearly how we learned that two passenger 'planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in the USA. The last one, the hijacking of Flight 93 seemed to creep up a little more slowly. Maybe because there were no great landmarks to seize in the imagination. It was a confusing day; one which left those who experienced it (even from afar) breathless with the possibilities and stunned by the actualities.
I was at work, in the Graduate School of the University of Wolverhampton. The room was in an Edwardian building, all high ceilings and lots of light. Campus the elderly cat was curled up in my inbox, as she was wont to do. Best inbox I ever had! It was quite warm, but not stiflingly so. Just an average autumn day on Castle View, in Dudley.
Being in the heart of the Black Country, it didn't mean that I was unconcerned with American affairs. In fact, this was towards the end of my dinner hour and I was in furious e-mail conversation with a friend from Wyoming. We were always going to be opposed. She tended towards the right wing and I was a Red Flag waving Socialist. She was more worried about what to cook for tea; while I was incensed about the situation in Palestine and Israel.
I was obsessed and she was only engaging me in debate, because I kept criticising America's foreign policy. She didn't even know about said foreign policy, until I brought things to her attention. However, she did hear someone not loving her country, so she went on the attack. It got quite nasty in the finish. But that day, we were at least communicating.
She'd said something along the lines of America being the policemen of the world, and always promoting democracy and freedom. I replied unkindly, then rushed off to Google News to find an article that would back up my position. That's when I read about the first 'plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I told my Wyoming friend and she freaked. All arguments were off.
The boss was out and my work was up-to-date. My colleague was supposed to be giving me work for the afternoon, but she was struggling to find any for me. As we discussed what I could do, the news up-dated to say that a second 'plane had hit the South Tower. Until then, we'd believed that it was all a terrible accident. The second one changed things considerably. That made it deliberate, especially when other reports were coming in.
Meanwhile, my Wyoming friend was in bits. She was convinced that the next 'plane would be landing on her house. I e-mailed back that this was highly unlikely. She wasn't consoled. My colleague suggested that I went into the boss's office and spoke with my friend in real time in chat. My work, that afternoon, was to keep everyone else informed on developments.
I did that for the next two hours, flitting between internet news pages, while trying to keep the woman in Wyoming from having a nervous breakdown. She barely mentioned New York, Washington nor any of the other places. Bear in mind that, at the time, information was very confused. There were a lot of 'planes in the air and every second brought a new scare. My friend kept on about Wyoming definitely being a target. I couldn't think of any good reason why it should be, so told her so about every other minute. For the first time ever, she trusted my world affairs savviness over her own. She eventually calmed down enough to drive, then left to get her kids out of school.
Meanwhile, it was knocking on half 3. Another friend, who lived locally, would be leaving her place of work and collecting her own kids. I called her and she invited me round. I had lots of flexi-time built up, so I spoke with my colleagues. They were happy to kick me out for the day. So off I drove to Bradley, in Bilston, listening to the radio en route. Me, Kate Morgan and her two young children sat and watched the constant coverage, on the television, until late at night.
In the zest for information (and being calm for the Wyoming woman), the events hadn't really hit me emotionally until then. I wasn't completely dispassionate, but I was analysing it all with an historian's mind, against a context of all of those news stories that I'd been arguing with for weeks.
But sitting on that settee, we saw close-ups of the people trapped above the crash-line. They were waving white sheets, perhaps a handkerchief or a shirt. I'd just assumed that people had been evacuated or were dead. Seeing them up there really brought home the scale of this crisis. Also we were watching something which barely turned up on the news footage after that day - the jumpers. Cameras followed some of them down, so we were well aware of what was happening. As a pyrophobe, it really shook me, when I thought of the conditions they must be escaping from. Something so bad that leaping to certain death was preferable.
My friend's daughter was only little. She viewed it all like a movie. After all, she'd seen New York destroyed in so many films before - Ghostbusters, King Kong, the list goes on. Since then, it's still gone on - Day After Tomorrow, Cloverfield. She was getting bored. "When will there be another 'plane crash?!" Her Mum had to sit her down and explain that this was real.
One thing that is throwing me, in memory, is the timing. I distinctly remember seeing the Twin Towers collapse, while in Bilston. But according to the accounts, I couldn't have. The South Tower went down just before 3pm, while I was still in Dudley. I'm wondering if I left work at half 2, not half 3, but that wouldn't explain why Kate and the kids were home. She didn't get out until 3pm, unless she was on holiday that day.
For all my previous raging at my friend in Wyoming, I was utterly naive on my prediction for what this catastrophe would mean for America. I was convinced that it would lead to world peace. That it would alert the American people to the fact that their country's foreign policies were leading to terrible atrocities in the Middle East. That it would make the American government think twice about their assumed safety. Just about everywhere in the world, there was sympathy for the USA right now. I thought they'd use that to create treaties and resolve all of the ills that had contributed to the events of 9/11.
In short, I was believing more of my Wyoming friend's bullshit than I realised I was.
The first sounding of a wrong note was when it was announced that Al-Qaeda had done this before that organisation had claimed it. I remember exchanging puzzled glances with Kate, because that was way too soon. We're British and we grew up with the IRA bombing England for decades. We both knew how this was supposed to play out. It didn't even sound like speculation. It was Al-Qaeda and that was that. I let it go, figuring that the truth would come out in the wash. Al-Qaeda did subsequently claim it, so that early call was proved correct. However, it's always left a small grain of suspicion in the back of my mind. I have nothing but that too early call to fuel it and I don't genuinely believe that anyone but Al-Qaeda flew those 'planes. It's just a niggling deep inside.
In the months and years that followed, a great wave of anti-Americanism swept over Europe. Someone got knifed to death in Hyde Park, just for being American. All of the old, racist Irish jokes got brought back out with the nationality changed. New ones were added to it, all of which perpetuated the stereotype that all Americans are unintelligent, as well as being vicious thugs. The jokes became so commonplace that even I, usually so vigiliant in cracking down on racism, stopped noticing them. It took a wake up call from an American friend, shocked that I hadn't spoken up, to knock me back on track.
The reason for it all was disappointment. We'd seen an opportunity for world peace, which instead became an excuse for endless war, the removal of civil liberties and a concentration camp built in Guantanamo Bay. Ten years on, I still feel so sorry for all and everyone who was lost that day; and all killed since in the name of 9/11.