9/11 and afterwards

We are about to have another anniversary of 9/11, this being the 20th, and it is also marked by a rather messy withdrawal from Afghanistan by US and UK troops at the end of last month. No doubt we will hear a lot more about the events of that day; as I finish writing this, there’s someone on the radio talking about it. I wrote at some length about my reaction to our military incursions in the Middle East which stemmed from 9/11 some years ago; while I might criticise the manner of the withdrawal, withdrawing is definitely something I regard as overdue.

Tripp Fuller, of Homebrewed Christianity, has joined with Brian McLaren and Diana Butler-Bass to do a set of meditations on Christianity in the years since 9/11 which is in its third week now. I wasn’t going to subscribe to that, for two main reasons. The first is that the shock of 9/11 was primarily an American one. Yes, I can remember where I was when I heard of it – I was in a coffee break from a Law Society continuing education course (on money laundering) at a Leeds hotel and was telephoned while in the car park by a friend who was in international banking, and he told me about the first plane strike and suggested that I find a television. A friend on the course said I looked as if I’d had a severe shock – which I had; my banker friend and myself had a couple of mutual acquaintances who should have been in the Twin Towers (as it happened, we found out later that they weren’t there at the time). Going back into the hotel, we found many staff members in the hotel office, and watched over their shoulders as the second plane impacted the towers.

It was intrinsically shocking. But it wasn’t as shocking as it was to my American friends. It wasn’t my country’s iconic skyscrapers which were falling down, after all, and whereas the States had prior to that been free of major terrorist attacks (OK, with the exception of some home-grown ones), I’d lived through the “troubles” in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1998, and quite apart from being a weekly event in Northern Ireland those not infrequently spilled over into bomb attacks in England. We were used to terrorist attacks, and we were not used to feeling completely safe from them – even those of us who were not, like me, from the now disbanded Civil Defence establishment and were therefore used to thinking of potential dangers to society beyond the nuclear attacks which the system was primarily intended to deal with. Tripp suggested in one of the sessions that the whole Western World was shocked, but in conscience I think that is elevating the USA to the leadership status it would like to think it had, but which the rest of the West have been less willing to acknowledge. I didn’t, for instance, feel any great sense of shock that this huge military power could be “proved weak” in this way, if indeed that represented weakness.

I also fancied that the sessions would be far more about the effects in American Christianity than in that in the UK. OK, I’ll admit here that I succumbed after getting a taster of the first session, and will probably follow until the end, but I think I’m right in thinking that they will continue to have far more applicability to Americans than to the British (or, indeed, Europeans more generally), and that is not a criticism, just an observation.

The second reason, though, is a purely personal one. Barry Taylor recently mused in a patron-only reflection on the fact that we can be moved by far off catastrophes but things are completely different when someone close to you is involved. In my case, the personal is the fact that on 9/12/2001, my father died suddenly and unexpectedly, and a fixed light of my life until then vanished. He felt unwell in the mid-afternoon, and was dead by 9 p.m.

And, of course, every time 9/11 comes round and is remembered, it is my own loss the next day which looms largest in my mind, even as people quite reasonably mourn the deaths on 9/11 (after all, I’m very keen on John Donne’s “No man is an island”, so
“Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee”),
and I have to confess to feeling irritated by that reminder. I feel guilty about this, even though it’s a completely natural reaction, because one death after a very full life hardly equates to nearly three thousand, many of them with many years cut short. But they weren’t people I knew, and in particular they weren’t the man I most looked up to for 48 years.

But then, maybe it is actually good that I be reminded every year. I’ve lost many other relatives and friends, and with one exception I don’t remember their dates of death and pause then to think of them – I do that when something else reminds me of them, and in some cases that’s fairly seldom. I wouldn’t want to let my dad’s memory fade, and it isn’t likely to.

The exception? Well, that’s my mother, who died on New Years’ Eve 2014, halfway through eating her pudding at dinner time, missing seeing in 2015 by about 6 hours.

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