My 9/11

11th September 2001 was a wonderful, bright and sunny day here in London, just as it was in New York.  You didn’t need a jacket outdoors.  I was on duty for a presentation to a prospective client that morning, at the client’s offices.  I was done by lunch time and walked through the lobby blissfully unaware of what was happening over the Atlantic, though it must have been on television screens in the lobby by then.  As I walked through the sun from Gresham Street to our office on Moorgate I was in a world of my own, relieved that the presentation was done.

It wasn’t until I reached the office with sandwiches in hand that I found out.  “Somebody has flown a plane into he World Trade Centre,” a colleague said.  I had in mind a light aircraft, or perhaps something a bit like the plane that flew into the Empire State Building in the war.  It was only as I tapped into my computer that the scale of it started to become clear.  The internet was overloaded, so the information only came through slowly.  At first there were the burning buildings.  And then the towers collapsed.  We held an emergency management meeting, since the trading and custody activities that we administered would certainly have been affected.  But there wasn’t much we could do.

Our management team had held a global conference in New York only that April.  And we’d had dinner at the restaurant on top of the World Trade Centre tower.  We’d used those lifts.

Nobody could do much work; we gathered in small groups.  Apart from trying to understand the sheer horror, the main concern was what the Americans might do in response.  Revenge attacks would only make things worse, we all thought – but were all too likely.

I went home a bit early, I think.  A lot of City workers had been sent home in the afternoon.  I joined my wife in front of the television – she had been home that day and had been watching the TV as the second plane struck, having turned it on more or less by accident just after the first one had.

I had a meeting scheduled for that evening. The local primary school where I was a governor had an OFSTED inspection going on – and the inspectors wanted to talk to governors that evening.  Would it be cancelled?  No notice to say it was, so I went.

And the meeting did go ahead.  The head of the inspection team, a self-important little man, carried on as if nothing had happened; he didn’t even mention it.  This was his day of power, and no terrorists were going to spoil it.  I managed to sit through it, but said nothing.  Back home to watch the TV.

And that’s what I remember.  How have we been spending the 10th anniversary?  We went to see Marlow’s Dr Faustus at the Globe.  We started in a shower, but the weather was mostly nice.  An interesting and enjoyable play, well produced and played to a packed house.  Going there and back we had to go to Waterloo, since the Bank branch of the Northern line was closed.  We worked our way through the crowds attracted to the Thames Festival – and had a delicious venison sandwich for lunch from one of the stalls.  On the way back we visited the Tate Modern to have tea in the Members’ Room and to see the Miro exhibition in its last couple of hours.  Mostly his work is beyond me; but some of the paintings were breathtaking – especially the huge triptychs.  The resonances with other Spanish artists, Picasso and Dali, were interesting, as was the relationship to political background in Spain (and Catalonia); I can only imagine the man’s total despair in the early 1940s.  As we hurried for the station in the rain we passed a carnival parade gathering for its moment of glory behind the National Theatre.

The South Bank was packed with people seemingly of all nations having a nice day out.  Apart from the rain the only blot was Transport for London’s decision to keep the York Road entrance to Waterloo tube closed – in spite of the crowds.  The folly of this was illustrated when they had to close one of the down escalators because of an accident.  Such are our everyday frustrations ten years on.

And later I will be joining some of my local Lib Dem friends in the Nightingale pub for our regular monthly drinks.  Life is well within its usual frame.  But we don’t forget.


3 thoughts on “My 9/11”

  1. I was working in Halifax (before it was HBOS) on 9/11, I remember the tv being put on in the trading room.

    It seems that the common response these days to big and shocking events is to switch on the tv. This is certainly what happened here in Norway when that man did his attack. At the time we were attending our landlady’s 70th birthday party, which was immediately turned into a tv seance.

    A couple of days on, we visited the greek orthodox church, which is usually closed, but was open as a gesture in response to the event. This was peaceful, I’m glad I saw it. There were a couple of greeks who were watching over the church. They were in the basement, with the ubiquitous TV. They weren’t watching it, but didn’t manage to switch it off, although they complained about it. For some reason one of them was always being rung up by people from greek media asking her what’s happening (her response – watch the news), and what her opinion was (her response – that’s my private business). She couldn’t take her phone off the hook, because friends and family were still checking in, but she was tired of these media phone calls. And after all, what did she know? – only the same tv story as everyone else.

    And the tv stepped up to the plate. The coverage was endless, involving reporters talking endlessly, repeating themselves, and endless repetitions of juicy shots, like the king crying at the memorial service. After all there was really only material for one half-hour program, but the public’s insatiability, and the tv’s sense of occasion, meant that we had to have this news-fest.

    Anybody who knows anything about trauma (I have studied SE, a form of Trauma Therapy), will notice something almost sinister in this. There is a common question – why are some people traumatised by an event while others are not? It turns out that the decisive factor is not the scale of the event, but the nature of the personal response. Some people come out of a low velocity car accident with full scale PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), while others can fight a war and not get it. The trap is set by the event causing anxiety which does not have any form of effective action as a response, and is sealed by obsessive thinking. The tv coverage, with its excited reporters and continuous flashbacks, has provided us a model for this obsessive thinking . Since the events have no adequate personal response, this style of reportage can quite literally give a whole nation post traumatic stress, even when they weren’t at the crime scene.

    The norwegian prime minister gained a lot of popular support because of the gravity and maturity of his response to this event – so much so he will probably win tomorrow’s election. But I believe his duty now is to stand up and say – “It’s over”, rather than the media’s favourite: “We will never forget!”

    Not that we should forget, but we should heal. The victims of PTS are the people who never forget. Those of us who heal, deal with it in a different way. One key to this is to realise that the active ingredient of all trauma is fear of death, and death is something we must make our peace with, as we cannot avoid it. In fact: “We shall forget, because we shall die.” “We are forgetting ww2 (60 years ago, about 10,000 deaths in Norway), we have forgotten the black death (650 years ago, killed 60% of norwegian population).”

    The tragedy of the Norway attack was that 80 people, mostly young, died needlessly. No more, no less. It is no more than the cumulative tragedy of 80 car accidents. It seems different because of the luridness of the images which keep it before the minds eye – but that is the trauma response, and should be challenged and dealt with.

    The truth is that life is made of millions on millions of small events. The news media report a few events which are important, and the rest are be ignored. Certainly there are some events which effect larger numbers, but they should be measured next to the sheer weight of numbers of rest. How many personal tragedies have gone by without being on tv – car accidents, suicides, death through illness, drug overdose and so on? Are they really less important?

    I was heartened by your personal description of 9/11, because I think you are doing the right thing – putting things in proportion. What really happens is what happens to us, every day. That includes tradegy – death in particular touches us all.

    If I had been a mourning father at my childs wake when the terror attack struck norway, I would have pulled the plug out of the tv, and made everyone switch of their mobiles, and I would have said “Now, for the next 2 hours, you must grieve my son, it is his time.”

    Sorry about the long comment.

    1. A thought provoking post. What strikes me is how much of what you say would have been treated as simple common sense a generation or two ago. This seems to be something society has unlearned. I don’t hold up much hope of a change. The best hope is that we start to educate people on self-awareness and self management, so that they can feel the harm being done to them, and so turn away from media coverage they dislike. We have just faint murmurings of such education actually happening.

  2. Sorry to go on, but there’s one more point I want to make:

    News media is in competition for attention with many other stimuli. It is not surprising that it sometimes leans a little heavily on it’s trump cards (to mix metaphors), which are threat and sex (sex is another story). Threat is attention-grabbing on a very instinctual level. A headline which implies danger is almost impossible to ignore. Horror stories hold us viscerally.

    For me, life is very much about the dialectic of risk and safety. I have reaped enormous rewards from the risks I have taken – leaving boring jobs, moving countries, doing new things – and I have most regrets about the many years I wasn’t doing anything, but playing it safe. R.D. Laing’s view is that much mental illness – catatonia, psychosis, schizophrenia – are actually brought on by the subject retreating into ‘safety’ – a prison which they see as a protective fortress. My personal brushes with madness bear this out. So I feel strongly that the stories which stimulate my danger/safety response are toxic, unless they are necessary and handled right.

    I believe media scare stories are bad for us, even if they are addictive, and most of them could be reported differently or not at all. I hope and pray that the understanding of the damage they do will become general knowledge, and that this will lead to regulation, just as in the story of smoking in the 20th century.

    So how would I suggest that 9/11 could have been reported differently?:

    1. The footage of the planes crashing into the buildings should not be shown often and indescriminately. It can be available, but the viewer should have to make a definite choice to see them.
    2. The people talking in news media must not be ‘activitated’ – this is a technical term from trauma therapy for a state of nervous arousal, which is highly contagious. Those talking are not to be detached, but are to be mental and emotionally grounded as they speak. Interviews with victims are to kept to a miminum.
    3. The horror must not be made vivid with detailed descriptive stories, the kind which ‘bring the event alive’. These can be made available in harder-to-get publications.
    4. Events need to be bounded. This is an import concept in trauma therapy. One key question you often ask is ‘when do you first know it was over’, because PTS is all about not really knowing it’s over, on the visceral level. So, without resorting to empty reassurance, the media can spend time covering the steps taken by the security forces to secure air-space, and so on.
    5. The events can be put into context of death in general. Trauma is like discovering death for the first time. Those who recover from trauma are changed by this, for the better, but it’s a lesson each one of us must learn for ourselves. Society can help by how the material is presented. I would suggest that recovered trauma victims should be employed as reporters and commentators (think of Victor Frankl).
    6. Keep reporting to the length that the facts need. If the media schedule is to be changed with regular updates, these can be of a reassuring nature – nothing new has happened, no new threats – they must not go over old traumatic material. Also a specific kind of programming can be prepared for the occasion. I was thinking of films, plays, music which all deal with mans successful handling of life and death. I haven’t quite worked out what, but maybe films like ‘Dr Zhivago’ and ‘Gone with the wind.’

    All of this would make the reportage much less exciting and attention-grabbing, even to be denying people what they crave. The news services cannot be expected to do that of their own accord. They will need to be regulated, just like the cigarette manufacturers.

    I hope you don’t mind me taking so much blog space – but this is important to me.

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