Late in 2001 my school asked me to write an article for the alumni magazine as part of a collection of essays on the terrorist attacks in September that year. They asked me because I live a long way away, and I guess they thought I might have a different perspective. I understood that what happened that day would probably prove to be the most significant event of the early twenty first century, but, nevertheless, I wrote personally about how it felt to me. I’m pasting it in here and hope my readers will forgive the every day tone. In hindsight I don’t think I would write it very differently, except to say that it is pretty obvious now that our response was wrong (though I should make it clear that the country my daughter said we were about to bomb was Afganistan, not Iraq).
Reflections on 9/11: A view from afar
I watched the events of Sept. 11 from a distance of thousands of miles. I was working at home in my little English village and exchanging occasional e-mails with an American friend.
“Is your radio on?” he wrote. “Two planes have just flown into the World Trade Center.” I switched on BBC radio and listened for a few minutes.
“They are talking about the problems of nappies in landfill sites,” I wrote back. “The planes flew into the WTC?” I thought my friend must be having trouble with his prepositions.
His response made me turn on the tele. That medium, which seems to me less natural to the British character than radio, was showing live pictures, and I watched as the second tower collapsed.
The British know a lot about living with the random violence of terrorism, and, when I thought about it, the orderly airing of an environmental program in the midst of attacks—even while planes bound for unknown destinations were still being reported missing—was just as I would have expected. It is not so much that in Britain terrorism is a daily fear, but it is a part of daily life, and life carries on. I accidentally leave a bag in the library and I return only minutes later to find the bag sequestered and to receive a cold rebuke for raising unnecessary alarms; someone is careless with a suitcase at Heathrow Airport and we all file out into the car park. Luggage lockers are gone from train stations. Litter bins are scarce.
The precautions reflect real threats. Seventeen years ago we woke up to the news that the hotel in which the prime minister and all her government had gathered for a conference had been blown to pieces. Nearly all the ministers survived, but, with dust still rising from the ruins, the IRA issued a chilling statement: “You have to be lucky all the time; we only have to be lucky once.”
So it was now for America, and Britain wept for the loss of innocence as much as for the loss of life. There was not a hint of exultation—now you see what we have suffered—though there might have been; there is widespread belief here that Americans funded the terrorism of the IRA. There was, instead, simply a recognition of the sense of anger and outrage, a sharing of the grief.
The queen ordered that “The Star Spangled Banner” be played at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and at a special service at St. Paul’s in London she stood and joined in the singing of it herself. The media were amazed. Her Majesty, they said, had never before been seen to sing the national anthem of another country.
In my little village I walked my dogs, and neighbors approached me as they would someone bereaved. A newcomer down the road who had for months merely glowered at me (not a dog lover, I guess) stopped his car and got out. “You are an American, right?” he asked. I said I was. “I just want to say how sorry I am.”
The following day my next door neighbor of nearly two decades also wanted to make a formal declaration.
“I would just like to say to you, as an American, and to the American people, on behalf of, well, on behalf of myself, how sorry I am.”
I accepted his and others’ sympathy gratefully. I have never felt less foreign than I did that week, nor more longed to be home.
I was at the school in the dark, angry days of the Vietnam War, when I would have as soon burned the flag as flown it, and even now I wear my patriotism uneasily. I do not know if what we are doing is right, and I suspect that only the outcome will make it clearer. But what happened on Sept.11 was the talk of playgrounds as well as of cabinet offices, and that is as true here as in the United States.
One morning in mid-September when I coaxed my 9-year-old awake, and she resisted as usual, I spoke, unthinkingly, with mock sternness.
“Catherine,” I said, “little girls have to go to school!”
“Not everywhere, Mummy,” she answered. “In that country America’s going to bomb they’re not even allowed to go.” And she snuggled back under the covers, confident in a point well scored.
So I focus on that and hope for an outcome where all little girls must trundle off to school, where bombs do not lurk in suitcases, nor under bus seats, nor in litter bins, and neither do they fall from the sky.