What can meaningfully be said today, 20 years after the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the loss of nearly 3,000 lives?
I was in an office in Glasgow University when a friend walked in and said the twin towers in New York were on fire. He said something about planes crashing into them. He’d heard as much on the radio. It was the days before smart phones and instant access to news and so we ran to find the nearest TV – which was in a pub.
I watched at least one of the towers being unmade, dropping into its own pile of dust as though stamped upon by an invisible boot. I’ve seen so much footage over the years since, a hellish loop of all that terror and destruction, that now it’s all a jumble in my head.
What I do remember clearly is a sense, as it was happening, that nothing could ever be the same again, that the world had been permanently and irrevocably altered. It was too much to take in, too unthinkable and too terrible. World War One has been described as a set of iron railings separating past from present. It was still possible to see through those railings, to the world of before, but it was forever out of reach and we had made it that way. We could look at the old world, and marvel at how different it had been, but there would be no going back.
That destruction of the twin towers, two decades ago, was another line drawn, a page turned. A change that was irreversible and forever. I believe the United States of America is the best idea for a country, for a nation, that anyone has ever had. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. Some of those words are graven into the plinth beneath the statue of liberty. I believe in all of that. I believed it then and I still believe it now. The world needs, at the very least, that idea of America.
The sonnet those words come from was written in 1883. Sadly, the hopes that gave birth to them did nothing at all to stop the horrors of the 20th century, or the 21st. That doesn’t mean the idea of America has failed – only that it has not yet been fully realised. Happiness must be pursued relentlessly, and with tireless devotion.
Now, 20 years after the towers were ended and 2,977 people died, the Taliban are proclaiming their victory – after so much killing and dying. 20 years after 9/11 – and look at us.
The Taliban – a bunch of murderous thugs from a medieval past, but at least they know precisely who they are and what they want – were at liberty to choose the anniversary of all that murder to declare their victory. We had all the clocks, they told us once, but they had all the time and so it has proven to be.
While some of us in the West were fretting about pronouns and privilege, or being made to feel shame about the colour of our skin, and censoring ourselves rather than telling the truth, murderers with no such concerns were getting ready to be winners and to take all.
For a year and a half we have lived as though nothing matters but a virus. We stopped our world dead in its tracks and went into our houses and hid, as though there was nothing to fear but the chance of getting ill.
Let me pause and take a breath, so that we might remind ourselves that the vast, vast majority of people who catch Covid, get over it with little difficulty. And for this, on account of this, we have stood by while our governments have taken our Western world apart, piece by piece. With every passing day it gets harder to deny the thought our world is being dismantled deliberately by those who want to see it gone forever.
We’re still at it now. Harder to know is what might replace that old world, and what we will be allowed to do there.In the process, we appear to me to be quietly surrendering the freedom and rights that our ancestors fought and died to give us. Not content with just our freedom, our own Boris Johnson and his ilk wants to take away people’s cars and gas boilers as well, along with any appetite for foreign holidays and the freedom to go to a nightclub or a gig unmolested by people demanding ID papers.
In Australia they’ve been firing rubber bullets and pepper spray at anyone who won’t lie down and roll over. They’ve built quarantine camps. They’ve ordered everyone into their homes and even stopped some of them buying alcohol to get them through the misery of it. The French government is playing some of the same game. In the South Pacific Jacinda Ardern thinks she can keep Covid out of New Zealand forever. Justin Trudeau is paying Canadian businesses to close the door on the unvaccinated lepers.
In the US, President Biden is passing laws to make every last American take jabs, some of them simply don’t want. He’s making it no jab, no job. Even some service personnel, dedicated and highly trained soldiers and pilots, left with no alternative, are walking away from their careers instead.
All of this in the world in which we were raised to cherish freedom above all – and to pay homage every year to those that had died for it. Vaccine passports? Over my dead body. Meanwhile, Taliban 2.0, looking, sounding and behaving exactly like the original marque – and, I’m prepared to bet, completely unvaxxed, unmasked and caring not a jot about social distancing – are riding around in American Humvees. As free as the birds. I saw today, Boris Johnson loftily declaring that the Taliban had failed to undermine freedom and democracy. He's right there. It seems to me, that's his job.
After the iron railings of the First World War, and then the destruction of the World Trade Centre, America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan felt like a third partition raised between what had been and what might be to come. It was impossible to watch the coverage, of planes taking off and tiny figures falling from them, and not have flashbacks to thoughts of other tiny figures falling from those twin towers. It was also impossible to forget the soldiers sent from here, and from America and elsewhere, to defeat those that had made it all happen. What on earth or in heaven do the families of those soldiers who died or were terribly injured in the effort, say to themselves now? How might our leaders look them in the eye?
English poet WB Yeats wrote about troubled times, when anarchy is loosed upon the world. When, he says, the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. There is evidently a passionate intensity in those who are taking apart the world we have known. Also full of that same passion and intensity are those in the world who are watching our self-destruction and laughing, marvelling at how we in the west seem to have forgotten who we are.
I say it’s blinkered, ideologically driven madness and yet it’s all over the West. If the West isn’t careful, it might shortly be all over for the West.