Remembering 911

Where were you when the planes hit the twin towers? It’s one of those moments etched into memories, the equivalent for Generation X and Millennials of “Do you remember where you were when JFK got shot?”  

I was running continuous business improvement training at the time and spent most of the day cut off from the news that was flashing on everyone else’s computer screens.  I heard snatches of rumours about a plane (just one at that point) hitting the World Trade Centre.  I assumed it was someone in a small micro-light plane and that it was a tragic accident for the pilot.  It was only when I got back to my desk and refreshed the BBC page that I first got a sense of the horror that was unfolding. Then at home in the evening, like many others I watched and rewatched the moment. It still seemed so unreal, like we were watching a movie clip.

I remember travelling on business and the sense of silence overhead as we passed Heathrow with the skies eerily absent of aircraft. In fact the only plane I and my colleague saw was a military jet that buzzed us low over the motorway having obviously been scrambled. Those were uncertain and fearful days. You may remember the confused and nervy initial response from the Whitehouse as George Bush was kept on the move in Airforce One. No doubt you will remember the iconic moment when he and America found their voice as he stood at the site of destruction and in response to a heckle of “we can’t hear you” responded with:

“I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you and the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon.”

Working in the defence industry, the next weeks were busy as we prepared for the response that was coming.  Our focus was on the ability to provide surge capacity to respond to an anticipated need to support the RAF and other air forces with round the clock spares and repairs.

The fear was there because we did not know when and where the next attack would come.  We were sure it was coming and we were aware that we were seeing a different type of enemy on a different scale.  It was one thing to prepare for a potential IRA attack in the decades previously but the new terrorists played by different rules, a lack of warning and a disregard for their own lives, even a delight in losing theirs.  As it happens, although there were occasional “spectacular” terror events such as the Bali, Madrid and London bombings we did not in fact see that level of onslaught on a regular basis. I suspect there were three reasons for that. First, there was a significant step up in security at airports as well as through the intelligence services. Many terror attacks were thwarted, some that we know about, others that we will probably never get to hear of.  Secondly, it is likely that Al Qaeda didn’t have the resources to sustain a campaign of terror at that kind of intensity over a long period of time. Thirdly, they probably calculated that they didn’t need to.  In the late 80s and early 90s, the IRA worked out that it could cause maximum disruption by warning about bombs without actually needing to plant devices every time. The police could not take the risk and so town centres were regularly shut down. Similarly, the threat of follow up events was enough to create ongoing fear and tension.

So, some reflections. First of all, this was one of those life changing, epoch defining moments. From the sky-line of New York to the family situations of those who lost loved ones or who experienced ongoing health effects, everything was different.  Our experience of travel changed due to the increased security.  It changed political careers and destinies. I reckon that George Bush would have probably been a 1 term president remembered most for the hanging chads, disputed result.  It’s difficult to grasp now but he had initially presented himself as a moderate with a theme of compassionate conservatism and a desire to focus on education with “no child left behind.”  Like so many recent presidents his campaign platform was based on the notion that America had suffered from foreign adventures and needed a president committed to domestic reform. We fully expected a time of American isolation.  A president mocked for his ignorance of foreign affairs became a war president whose time in office was marked by foreign adventures. Tony Blair similarly is remembered now less for the popularity of his new style politics and more for his involvement in Iraq. [1]

But if from one perspective, everything changed. From the other perspective nothing changed.  Why do I say this?  Well, first, we are now seeing how an event that dominated our waking and sleeping moments for those first couple of years and overshadowed the next decade and a half. My wife is a teacher and so each year the distance from the event is marked as she realises that events shaping the literature, she teaches on are not remembered by the children.  In 2012, we realised that she was teaching children who weren’t born in 2001 when the planes hit the tower. Next year, those young people will be graduating from university. There is a new generation whose lives will be shaped more by the questions “where were you when the Brexit vote was announced?” “Where were you when we discovered that we were going into pandemic lockdown?” and indeed “where were you when the US pulled out of Kabul?”[2]

Memories fade, events become distant. That’s why we need memorials and events to keep them in the forefront of our minds to help us remember.  It’s why each year there’s a service to remember the Bradford Fire Disaster, it’s why we have cenotaphs and poppies.  It’s why we have birthdays and wedding anniversaries. And in particular, it’s why Christ gave us the Lord’s Supper. Lest we forget is not just about something dropping completely out of our memories and history books. It’s lest we lose the nearness and nowness of these things.

Secondly, nothing has changed because as The Preacher said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  Did 911 bring a new shadow of fear? Yes it did. But it was not as though we had lived free from threats and fear before then.  I’ve already mentioned the IRA threat that we lived with but also, anyone born before the mid 1980s is old enough to remember living in the shadow of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear Armageddon. There is a reminder that Christ’s prophecy of “wars and rumours of wars” was not meant to say that unrest in the Middle East meant we were in the last weeks of time but that those things would be present and constant throughout  the time from his ascension until his return.

Indeed, nothing has changed because we see that human responses don’t change. There’s righteous anger at evil but also an uncertainty about how to respond. And if you are frustrated by the conspiracy theories and antisemitism circulating today, well those were there at 911 too.

Thirdly, this means that nothing has changed because there has only been one true epoch changing event that divides history. The shadow cast by 911 shortens and not everyone will live under it. However, we all live under the shadow of the Cross. We live in a world that is often shaken to its foundations, often uncertain and troubled, often violent.  Yet we can find hope, stability, security and peace in this troubled world whatever is thrown at us. We find that hope by clinging to The Cross.


[1] It is my opinion that this partly explains the seemingly close relationship between the Bushes and Obama. Despite being from different parties, Obama was perhaps in many respects more the heir to Bush Mk 1 than some of the prospective candidates from within  the Republican Party and definitely Donald Trump.

[2] The last one all the more poignant and ironic given that those whose lives are shaped by memories of that day aren’t old enough to remember why the Americans and British were there in the first place.