There Were Cameras...
Blake Morrison, The Guardian
(liberal), London, England, Sept. 14, 2001.
all of us, there is some banal detail, beyond the vast horror,
that brings it home. In my case it came from reading about
Seth Morris, a broker at the World Trade Center, who was calling
his wife from the office when the plane loomed up outside
his window. He had time to describe it before the phone went
dead. My elder son is called Seth and almost shares the surname.
Thats how this tragedy gets you. Even if youre
lucky and have lost no one, it feels like family.
too. That plane sailing into a skyscraper is the routine stuff
of dreams and childhood fantasies. Unimaginable,
we tell each other, but the scenes are ones weve imagined
already. The hijacking. The last I love you into
the cell phone. The office block crashing earthward like a
lift down a lift shaft. Which of us hasnt been there
in our heads? It is as though we were always waiting for this
that is the answer to those accusing voicessome of them
inner voicesthat say we are glutting on horror. How
much longer are we going to sit waiting for new footage, watching
New Yorkers cheer on the rescue teams, listening to grave
spokesmen prophesying war, channel-hopping to another rerun
of Tuesday morning as if in hope that this time the planes
will miss? What more can be learned now? Isnt it time
for us to move on?
its true. Most of us are fixated: by that skyline, the
backdrop to a thousand movies and a billion holiday snaps,
now shorn of its twin towers; by the thought of those passengers
calling home on their mobiles; by the varieties of fire we
saworange flames, oily black plumes, then those gray-white
clouds rolling down the street, easing themselves round buildings,
feeling their way through the concrete canyons, people running
from them like characters in a movie fleeing from a dragon
or dinosaur. Or by the dust.
the dust should be so emotive I dont know, but it is.
Thick as snow, it hoods the survivors and rescue workers in
all the footage, overlaying them like an extra skin and making
a desert of the place, so that the cars abandoned in the streets
look like marooned buggies in the Sahara. These shots intercut
with Osama bin Ladens training camp in the Afghan hillsall
sand and dust and craggy outcrops there as wellso that
the two are now connected in our eyes and minds: the scene
of the crime, and the possible criminals. Within the dust
are the ashes of many who died, burned alive in their offices.
And also a cliché, now revivified: when the dust
settles. When the dust settles, well know not
only the death toll but the vengeance the Bush administration
has in store.
havent there been other tragedies on this scale, the
accusing voices say. Do you remember where you were then?
What of Americas carpet bombing of Cambodia? And what
about Bhuj? Bhuj is the capital of the state of Gujarat, in
India, and on Jan. 26 this year it was hit by an earthquake
measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale. At least 30,000 people
died when the quake hitperhaps three times as many as
those who died in New York and Washington. Admit it, you cant
even remember Bhuj. Why hasnt it lodged in the same
way? Where was your compassion then? Arent you guilty
of supposing that black people matter less than white?
are various answers here. Of course, Indian earthquake victims
are equally worthy of our pity. But natural disasters arent
the same as war raids or terrorist attacks. With acts of God,
the events are beyond human control. With events like this
weeksthough there never have been events like
this weeks, and thats part of itwere
haunted by a sense of the avoidable: Had the timing been different,
had security been tighter, had the United States not made
so many enemies, innocent people might have been spared.
might-have-beens preoccupy us as a random natural disaster
never can. And whereas an earthquake is a single event (whatever
the aftershocks), the assault on New York and Washington was
a series of events, spread out over hours, and each a vast
drama in itself.
there is the history and symbolism. America has just been
violated as never before. Weve seen the heart of the
worlds greatest empireits military brain and financial
nerve centergoing up in smoke. None of us was there
to see the siege of Troy, the fall of Constantinople, the
burning of Rome, the Great Fire of London, but weve
often wondered what they were like. This time there were cameras
present. Thats another answer, an uncomfortable one.
We might fancy ourselves to be a global village, tuned into
lives remote from ours and, thanks to technology, able to
leap vast distances and bridge cultural divides. But its
the West that owns most of the cameras. Even if it were minded
to (and wed be right to suspect the will of Rupert Murdoch
etc. to provide extensive coverage of Third World catastrophes),
the media cant so easily bring us Bhuj.
theres the final answer. The global village doesnt
exist yet, but London to New York has become a short hop.
Vast numbers of Britons have holidayed and weekended there
in recent years. Many work there. Some commute. There are
people in the southern half of this country who know Manhattan
far better than they do Glasgow or Manchester. In the designer
discount stores by the World Trade Center, half the shoppers
speak estuary English. They feel proprietorial, as though
the Big Apple were theirs to consume.
older generation might feel more kinship with France, say,
but to anyone born after 1945, America is where we are or
where were headed. Its no longer a story of two
nations divided by a common language. And its more than
the special relationship. The soaps and game shows have made
Uncle Sam part of the family.
its natural to feel haunted and moved. The eerie hush
in offices and on trains here. The washed-out faces of almost
everyone you meet (theyve not been sleeping muchbut
then neither have you). The knowledge that when you get up
each day the news will be as bad or worse. The indifference
to stuff that seemed important only days ago: a football match,
an exhibition, that new haircut you were going to have. The
incredulity, thinking further back, at the trivia through
the last decade we got ourselves worked up over. Monica Lewinsky,
Big Brother, Posh and Beckwho cares? What were we thinking
of? Time to get real. All this is part of the shock. Why feel
puzzled by it, or guilty? The puzzling thing would be having
the capacity to rise above it.
at U.S. foreign policy, distrust of George W. Bushs
temperament, fear of the hawks, understanding of the Palestinians
who cheered at the news, sympathy for other Arabs whose cities
have been bombed and children starved, indignation at the
huge imbalance in wealth between the Third World and the West.
None of this should inhibit our sense of tragedy and outrage.
Pentagon had blood on its hands. The World Trade Center was
a pillar of mammon. But no one deserved to die in that way.
Glutting? Over-immersion? Voyeurism? No. Something momentous
has just happened that demands our full attention. If were
going to moderate (the mot juste) when Bush and his cohorts
plot their vengeance in the coming days, we have to hear what
the American people are saying. Lets not minimize whats
gone on and whats at stake here. Were in a new
age now. When the dust clears, the scary new order will appear.
This is the last week of the world as it was.