“Ten years? Fuck me!” That’s the thought of a lot of twenty and thirty-somethings like myself today, if not the feelings expressed to those around them, or online. Or perhaps we’re a little more tactful, as I imagine those in their forties and over to be.
“Ten years? I can’t believe it.”
Or maybe, in misjudged reliance upon the phrases we usually use to express the passage of time someone says “Ten years? Doesn’t time fly?” as if remembering Missy Elliott hitting the charts, rather a sledgehammer blow to the western world.
And now that I’ve mentioned Get Ur Freak On perhaps your thoughts are drifting sideways in time, from matters of global importance to songs less relevant to today’s youth than Garry Glitter was to ours. The kids of today probably think it’s an old song, if they know of it at all. Missy Elliott, as distinctive on 2001’s music scene as Eminem, now drowning in a beige swirl seared by Lady Gaga’s odd light. Music’s changed so gradually over the past ten years it’s only when you stop to take stock that you realise it’s changed at all. Where were The Jonas Brothers and Selena Gomez ten years ago? Playing in the sandbox, probably. Spilling bubble formula on their toes while rubbing transfer tattoos onto their arms.
Meanwhile, indoors, their parents are in front of the television watching the world burn.
You can see it now, can’t you? Splayed open like a misfired cartoon gun barrel. Elmer Fudd went a-hunting and Bugs Bunny popped a carrot in the rifle’s end. Boom! Soot everywhere and white, blinking eyes, only the eyes turn red, tears open gullies in the smudge surrounding them and there’s choking, and wailing, and crowds step back to avoid the dust cloud billowing out to greet them.
You remember the confusion as if it was yesterday: you also remember the panic, but that comes later as more survivors emerge and New York’s rescue forces arrive en masse. Those initial images of people standing at the base of towers yet to fall, wondering what the hell’s going on.
“Someone’s flown a ‘plane into the world trade centre.” The utter disbelief of it. A half-smile, perhaps.
“The rest of the joke.”
But the rest of the joke was that a second jet would arrive like the ghost of the first, to fly into the second tower and set them both smoking. The world’s largest chimneys belch the sky black; soon they tumble sending Manhattan into a sooty, ash-covered nightmare. Streets filled with sirens and ash clouds. Movie scenes most reminiscent of Independence Day at the time, now echoed a thousand times on the big screen as the movie industry tries to come to terms with–and perhaps capitalise upon–a nonsensical, unthinkable tragedy.
The Martians came and tore down our monuments. They bowled at Easter Island. They tied a knot in the Eiffel Tower. They played darts with the World Trade Centre.
But these weren’t Martians–though they might well have been. Intellects strange and cool and unsympathetic, regarding our civilisation with envious eyes, slowly and surely drawing plans against us. Not a religion, not a people but a movement, setting themselves apart until we’re little more than flu germs to be eradicated. The Eleventh of September strikes upon the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre were attacks upon symbols, where consequence and the cost in human lives weren’t considered because they were meaningless. Their mission wasn’t to eradicate us but to send us a message.
Like any message in an alien language, it’s one we can never comprehend.
I don’t want to hear about the wars that followed, the years of strife, the spiral downward–winged and smoking–we’ve flown in ever since. It’s easy to point out bad decisions made by people we understand, who’ve capitalised on the worsening situation more thoroughly than Hollywood could ever hope to. Maybe, in our fear we’ve become too easily led. Maybe we’ve spent so much time fretting over who’s at the front gate others have burrowed in behind us and grown fat on our fear–I don’t want to hear about it. Whether we should have fought back is another matter: no ireful retribution has lessened the impact of those planes; no securities enforced since have made us less vulnerable than we were on that day.
And I say ‘we’ because this was an attack on our very way of life: the symbols were our symbols, burned by people hating us. Criminal, inhuman, gloating, taunting servants of capitalism; virulent invaders sweeping the planet, destroying the old ways; areligious, anti-God, goat-hoofed, bare-breasted, amoral, corrupt and corrupting we are, every one of us, to a man, to a child. Our babies are maggots crawling in the wounds we’ve infected. The attackers don’t ask we stay out of their affairs: they demand we perish. Be in no doubt: if they could have flown a plane into every one of our houses that day the world would have wept ash for a century.
It’s difficult to comprehend that level of malice, we who watched shell-shocked as survivors emerged from those rolling clouds. Though it’s easy to get on with our lives after watching charity appeals for starving children just for a second our hearts go out to the– those dark, wide-eyed phantoms curled over in dust–and we want to help, we need to help before the advert ends and every day concerns reassert themselves. Can you imagine how it would feel to see regard those poor children as less than human? As animals, or worse? As a plague that’s–thankfully–eradicating itself? Papery bone-sacks that deserve the death they’ve brought upon themselves?
How far can you remove yourself from those images without something inside screaming “They’re children, only children!” and, weeping, you must do something to help or look away.
That year, that day, people cheered as bodies fell from buildings. They passed popcorn as the World Trade Centre collapsed. This was their entertainment.
Can even the most callous of us imagine how those proud warriors against our way of life must have felt? Or are they as alien to us as we are to them?
The hammer falls. Ten years on, the world still vibrates from its blow.
But it’s a softer vibration we feel today as we remember the many lives lost in the attacks and subsequent rescue efforts. These symbols were, to us a symbol; to many those deaths were all too personal and all too real. Husbands, wives, children, parents–private losses we can understand if never truly mourn. The candle flames lit at the reflecting pools today burn for people most of us never knew; for all our opinions and fears, the day belongs to them and their loved ones, for whom the dust cloud will never blow past. Standing at the foot of ruined buildings holding candles in the dark, this isn’t a political matter or a matter between them and us: it is only bereavement, a sentiment surely shared by humans and aliens alike.
Ten years for us is but a blink in time for those still mourning. Life becomes easier, but pain of such magnitude never goes away, not fully. The photographs you see today–in newspapers and on television–of those who died that autumn day are people frozen time, ice-shards lodged in the hearts of those who remember them. That buildings were rent apart is incidental; for those who remain, the world changed with their loss.
Rebuilt, the Pentagon survives, and New York is still the city that never sleeps; its skyline familiar from across the bay, it’s difficult to believe it’s just a bunch of buildings.
Ten years from now–when Lady Gaga’s just as quaint as the Real Slim Shady–there will be more buildings, more towers in that skyline. Twenty, thirty, a hundred years from now who can say what will be–what we will be?
The healing process–such that it is–continues.
But pain of such magnitude never truly goes away.