Yesterday was September 11th, or as we have come to know it more recognisably, 9/11, and consequently I spent most of the evening watching American disasters, past and present.
Most news channels were, understandably, showing the scenes of devastation wreaked by Hurricane Irma, which hit Florida after destroying several Caribbean islands on the way, most of them resorts. Not for a while they won’t be. Over on the documentary channel, it was not hurricanes that filled the programme schedule but endless footage of the day the Twin Towers came down and the Pentagon, America’s holy-of-holies, was struck. A fourth plane, apparently destined for the White House, went down in a forest in Pennsylvania, after the passengers valiantly, or desperately, tried to retake the plane from the hijackers. I had seen most of the coverage before, many times over, but it still makes for compelling viewing. At least it does to this viewer.
I could have changed channels, taken in a movie perhaps – but then most of those were apocalyptic visions of the end of the world – even if we were eventually saved by Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford.
My problem is that I still feel, illogically, what M calls survivor’s guilt. I spent twelve years working on the 104th floor of Tower 1. She spent several years working in Tower 2. We had been gone from the World Trade Center for ten years when those planes hit, but we can’t help wondering what might have become of us, just supposing we had still been there. The short answer is that I would have been dead, since my floor was above the point of impact. Everyone who was on those upper floors, many of them known to me, perished. My wife, on a lower floor in the second tower, would probably have survived, but not necessarily.
If I have written something similar to this before, forgive me. But the event is seared into my brain, and revisiting it, even though I was not there, is an annual ritual that I choose to observe.
I remember, of course, when and where I received the news. I was in London, lunching at El Vino’s wine bar, when M called my mobile. “A plane has hit the World Trade Center,” she said. “You always said it would happen one day.” So I had, but anticipating accident rather than design – some idiot in a private aircraft lost in a morning fog. But then the second plane arrived, prompting another phone call. No accident, this! I promptly curtailed lunch and rushed back to the office. What I could do there had not occurred to me. It just felt like the right thing to do. One reason was that I felt a special kinship with New Yorkers. My adopted city had been part of my life for half my adulthood – twenty-six years – and I shared their anguish, admittedly not as keenly as they themselves felt it.
Conspiracy theories abound. The United States government, the theorists claim, colluded with the terrorists. To what end, they fail to explain, other than speculating that certain people in the higher reaches of the administration probably had a vested interest in disturbing the peace of the Middle East. Every disaster brings these whackos out of their hiding places. The same lot could not accept that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963 – and not despite the findings of the Warren Commission but because of them. Earl Warren, the chief justice of the US Supreme Court, was in on it, too, it seems.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma (with Jose perhaps still to come) can’t be laid at Trump’s door, although there are more than a few who blame the meteorological disasters of late as sure evidence of global warming, on which subject Trump and his colleagues are, to say the least, sceptical.
I will go this far. There are certain awkward unanswered questions in the matter of the event in Dallas, not least the murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby. It is, moreover, perfectly plausible that the Mafia, allied with Cuban interests, arranged to have Kennedy killed, as many in the conspiracy lobby continue to claim. The problem with that conclusion is that there is not a scintilla of evidence that it is true.
Likewise, I am prepared to believe just about anything bad said of the Bush administration, but that falls far short of accepting half-baked nonsense about the Central Intelligence Agency, or the Defense Secretary, or evangelical television preachers, colluding with Arab terrorists.
As for hurricanes, they have been visiting the southern shores of the United States for centuries. “Ah,” say the advocates of global-warming, “but not with this ferocity”. Maybe not, but what does that prove? I am not a climate-change sceptic: I just prefer to wait to hear what the scientists have to say.
All in all, then, a rather dispiriting evening of telly-watching, but my heart goes out to my fellow-Americans (not to mention the less affluent and more helpless residents of those more southerly islands).
The New World disasters put the farce of the Brexit negotiations into perspective. In or out of Europe, whatever the final terms, at least in these islands we can expect no more than a winter storm or two, and just about strong enough to take down the occasional tree or inundate a village or two.
I just hope it is not tempting fate to say so.