Stop telling Bin Laden he won he won – he didn’t

[This article originally appeared on the Electric Review website.]

Before I start, perhaps I’d better make a couple of things clear. I was born in the United States, I grew up there, I studied there, and even though I now live in London I still hold a US passport. My family has lived in America for centuries. Plenty of them fought for their land, and plenty died doing so. I am proud of them, and I am proud that wherever I go in the future, my roots will always be, at least in part, American. So I hope that what follows will not be taken as being somehow ‘anti-American’. It isn’t. If anything, it is a plea for America to get on with being the great nation she often is and certainly ought to be.

So, here’s the point. Please, can’t everyone just stop making such a fuss about September 11th? Yes, I know that on that one terrible day, nearly 3,000 people were killed on American soil in terrorist attacks. No, I’ll never forget the sheer unbelievableness of that television footage, as our minds and our hearts struggled to keep up with the ghastly events unfolding in front of us. I don’t think anyone who saw those scenes, let alone lived through them, will ever forget them. Nor should they. Terrorist violence is evil, pure and simple, and September 11th was as shocking an instance of it as the world has ever known.

Yet is it just me, or is there something a little bit numbing, a little bit sickening, about the coverage of the first anniversary? On September 11th, BBC1 is airing more than six hours of live coverage of various ceremonies presumably patched together with commentary of various sorts. The other UK terrestrial channels are following suit. So are several radio stations. The BBC news website heralds its One Year On feature in which, freakishly, one can apparently ‘chat with New Jersey children’; The Times offers a 26-page colour supplement; the Evening Standard attempts to tantalise us with ‘never before told’ stories of … well, degrees of suffering that none of us will ever really understand, no matter how many thoughtful or, alternatively, faintly tacky features we read.

To pick but one example, the Sunday Telegraph carried a long interview with a little girl whose father had been in one of the Twin Towers when the jets struck. Poignantly, the only television she watches now is a cable food channel, because whenever she tries to watch anything else, she is served up footage of the moment of her father’s death. It’s a powerful detail – but then the Sunday Telegraph was awash with September 11th material, and included on its front page an image of the second plane approaching the wounded towers, which I suspect would have brought this little girl no consolation. Sensibly, she and her mother plan to spend the morning of September 11th at a church service, and then to go to the seaside in the afternoon. She has happy memories of playing there with her father. Her dignity should stand as a reproach to the more mawkish and ghoulish commemorations of this sad anniversary.

It is natural to wish to mourn the dead, to salute heroism and to remember anniversaries. But I think the treatment of this particular anniversary has, both in Britain and America, moved from the realm of the natural to that of the manifestly foolish, if not downright deplorable.

This may seem a harsh thing to say. Who, though, does all this media frenzy, all the full-colour supplements and the radio coverage actually help? Certainly not those who lost family, friends or colleagues in the terrorist attacks on America. Quite a few of them, like the girl I mentioned above, are quite clear that they would prefer less fuss made over the anniversary, leaving them to deal with it in their own ways – when they want, and how they want. For some, the coverage may well open wounds that are only now beginning to heal. And for the rest of us – those who watched the attacks on television but were not personally affected by them – what’s the point of raking over the details of that horrible day again? I watched, once, the footage of people leaping from buildings – people making the sort of choice one could not wish on anyone, ever – but I actually wish I had not seen it, and indeed I think that anyone who would willingly watch it over and over again is either mentally or morally ill.

That’s an extreme case, of course, but surely repeated exposure to images and stories of September 11th will, ultimately, simply numb those of us not directly involved in the tragedy to its full impact. And how can that possibly be a good thing? Who wants footage from this time last year to end up with the emotional charge of, say, newsreel images of the Hindenburg going down in flames? I fear, though, that this numbing is already underway. I also fear that the force of public pressure – from governments, the media and so on – is so great that some people may feel they have to put on a mask of sorrow or hurt or reverence, simply to fit in with what we are told that we all should be feeling. And this, if true, is simply sickening. It’s an insult to those who grief is all too genuine and whose suffering will be in no way lessened by here today, gone tomorrow interest in their plight.

Excessive attention directed at September 11th also risks setting up a hierarchy of suffering which is morally unjustifiable. I mean no disrespect to those who died in the attacks a year ago when I point out that they were neither the first people to be murdered by terrorist atrocity – not even in America – nor, sadly, were they the last.

On 1 August 2002, for instance, David Caldwell, a 51-year old civilian contractor working at a Territorial Army base on the outskirts of Londonderry, was killed when the lunchbox he picked up turned out to contain a boobytrap bomb which had been placed there by republican terrorists. (Despite the ‘ceasefire’ there have been several such attacks on army bases in the Londonderry area during 2002, one of which left a man critically injured. And these, of course, are only a handful of the thousands of terrorist incidents – murders, assaults and bombings as well as the endless low-intensity intimidation and criminal racketeering – that have gone on since the ‘ceasefire’ was concluded.) Here’s the point, though. Mr Caldwell leaves behind him a wife and family. So will anyone publish colour supplements, or drop bundles of rose-petals, or fill an evening’s television schedule in his honour? Will statesmen flock to memorial services, and will the stars of film and television put on benefit performances in his memory? Will ‘1 August’ become common shorthand for the enormity of a life cut short by terrorist violence?

Of course not. On the day he died, Mr Caldwell’s murder was not even one of the top five or six items on the BBC’s evening news broadcasts, and by the next day it had vanished from the news altogether. Obviously I don’t know how his wife feels as she watches the ubiquitous commemorations of September 11th. I do know, however, that for some victims of IRA and INLA terrorist violence, seeing all that footage again has, strangely, provoked flashbacks to their own bereavements or injuries. Furthermore, although these sort of people tend not to shout about such things, the ongoing public interest in September 11th has surely led them to wonder why their own dead loved ones somehow mattered so much less, why their deaths were less important, and why the press tells them and us to care so much more about terrorism which, though terrible, happened several thousand miles away from these shores. In the immediate wake of the tragedy, it is unsurprising that most people in Britain reacted with wholly genuine sympathy and warmth. What is surprising, however, is that they are apparently being told to feel this all over again one year later, yet are still to be preserved in comforting ignorance about the fate of their own countrymen.

This is what I mean about hierarchies of suffering. Since 1969, more than 3,000 people in Northern Ireland have been killed by terrorists; many hundreds of thousands have been injured, bereaved, forced out of their homes and communities, and made to live for decades with the non-stop day-to-day threat of serious violence. And before you say, without thinking about it very carefully, ‘only 3,000 …’, remember that Northern Ireland is a small country and that this means that most lives there have been directly touched by terrorism in a way that a dozen September 11ths could not do to the United States.

People in Northern Ireland should not have to live this way, yet the international community’s solution – with the USA leading the way – has been to contrive a ‘peace process’ whereby a convicted terrorist receives lavish public funds for carrying out the duties of Education Minister, and other terrorists and their supporters serve as health minister, sit in the Assembly and on the board that oversees policing, and so on. In Britain it is apparently impossible to prevent the desecration of modest memorials to victims of homegrown terrorist violence. Yet it is possible to arrange endless commemorative services, create a special garden in central London, and fill our newspapers and airwaves with reminders of one day of terrorist violence elsewhere. And by the same token, what about the victims of America’s own Oklahoma bomb? They didn’t receive anything like this level of national and international attention. Does the suffering of midwestern federal employees matter that much less than the suffering of people in Lower Manhattan? Of course not – and yet one sees how the confusion might arise.

But surely, you say, the sheer scale of September 11th – the number of dead, the high profile of the attacks, the devastation in their wake – surely that puts September 11th in a different league from any other terrorist act? Which brings me to yet another reason why I think the wall-to-wall coverage of September 11th is a mistake.

Yes, by any standard, September 11th was, in the repugnant language of terrorists, a ‘spectacular’, and a good one at that. The attacks on the Twin Towers took place on a brilliantly clear day on very tall buildings in the midst of one of the world’s great centres of art, commerce and finance in what must be the most media-saturated nation on earth. Never before has any terrorist attack been so photogenic, or so often filmed and photographed. An enormous number of people were killed. The international context of the victims’ work meant that many of them had friends and colleagues all around the globe. For several days, normal life in the US seems to have come to something of a standstill. Even now, the US Attorney General issues frequent warnings about future terrorist attacks. Quite rightly, expensive precautions are taken to ensure that these do not happen – expensive and very widely-publicised precautions. Huge troop movements back up bellicose rhetoric from American politicians. We are told that after September 11th, ‘everything changed’.

All of which must make heartening reading for al Qu’aeda operatives everywhere – whatever the Arabic for ‘result!’ is, you can bet they’re hollering it wherever they are. For yet another unfortunate consequence of these endless evocations of September 11th is the way in which they reinforce and indeed amplify the ‘success’, from a terrorist point of view, of this particular terrorist tactic. For if we think, for a moment, what al Qu’aeda activists must have hoped these attacks would achieve, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is exactly what is now being dished up with every evening news broadcast. What do terrorists want? Not simply to destroy, but to be seen to destroy. Not simply to kill, but to intimidate as well. Not simply to create one unspeakable day of horror, but to ensure that people live in fear for months and years to come. For all the patriotic rhetoric, the main message that comes from most of the post-September 11th commentary is exactly what they must want to hear – that a small group of believers not only managed, in a mere few hours, to wound the most powerful nation on earth, but that the wound still hasn’t begun to heal.

I hope what I am about to say next will not sound callous, but even if it does, it strikes me as important enough to need saying. If America is going to occupy the role of world power – not an isolated nation, but one that attempts to any extent to project its peculiar vision onto the rest of the world – then it will have to accept that not everyone will welcome this, and that some of the people who do not welcome it will be wicked enough to resort to terrorism in order to force America back into quiescence. This much is obvious. The real question is how America will choose to deal with the open-ended, vague sort of threat which has now been made so terribly real to its people. The answer, I think, does not include endless public displays of anguish and desolation, at home and abroad, over the events of September 11th. Instead, it involves not only preparedness in the face of terrorist threats, but perhaps more importantly, demonstrating – hard though this must be – that terrorism does not achieve the goals the terrorists hope it will achieve. And that means, to a large extent, not being seen to react to terrorism as terrorists would have us react.

This is as important at the individual level as it is at the national or international one. On a personal note, I was immensely proud that on the morning of 12 September my husband set off, as planned, on an international flight – not only that he set off, but that it simply didn’t occur to him not to do so. There was simply no way that terrorism was going to disrupt his daily routine. This was, obviously, only one simple individual act. But taken together, thousands of such acts really do send a signal about a nation’s self-confidence and determination not to give in to intimidation. After all, if America really is a great nation, she ought to be able to survive this sort of thing, no matter how devastating it must be to individuals directly affected by it. But this is why I also worry a little about the sort of patriotic American who congratulates himself on attaching the Stars & Stripes onto the back of the pickup truck, or on adorning her website with waving digitised flags. Losing 3,000 Americans and friends of America should not make us prouder of being American than we already were. True patriotism is neither about a morbid cult of victimhood nor the obsessive pursuit about revenge. True patriotism should be able to wipe away tears, put things into perspective, and look to a positive, proud future. Optimism is a quality for which Americans are rightly famous, and this is the perfect opportunity to see it at its best. What to do? Rebuild the shattered cityscapes, make sure the damaged have what they need in order to start to heal, but above all, realise that what is great about America is something no terrorist attack, no matter how wounding, could ever destroy.

Rather than bowing down before the barbarism of one year ago, and standing wide-eyed before its horror, we have to confront it, to remind ourselves that our humanity and our goodness, however soiled and compromised they might be, have and will continue to triumph over their wickedness. I worry, though, that in the public sphere America has already gone far too far down the road of bending with the terrorist wind. Surely no one can account it a triumph that much of that which the United States has long represented, and for which it stands in glorious contrast to its enemies – a firm commitment to habeas corpus, for instance – is being in part squandered in the response to September 11th. John Ashcroft is no monster, but at the same time I do not believe that my country now suddenly needs to prove or protect itself by detaining without trial literally untold numbers of people. This, the America of law and justice, is the America they want to destroy. We should not do their work for them.

By all means, then, let us remember September 11th and its victims, dead and living. But let us remember them quietly and with dignity. Let us not give in to the cheap imperatives of totalitarian grief which attempt to force us into some huge, collective, potentially bogus mourning. Let us not feign emotions we do not feel, or attribute feelings where there are none or few. September 11th, 2001 is not the moral caesura of this century – its scale, alas, is all too recognisable and awful and human. Let us think, then, on all the other people who have been killed, and who are still being killed, by terrorism or by tyrannical regimes. Let us remember all these people in a solemn church service, or if that doesn’t seem right, remember them in some silent and personal moment during the day. And then, please, let us get on with everyday life. It’s the greatest tribute we can pay to those victims, and the strongest statement we can make in the face of those people everywhere who seek to change the world through violence. They have not done it yet, and God willing, they never will.

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