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From the November 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 11)

This Time, There Were Cameras...

Blake Morrison, The Guardian (liberal), London, England, Sept. 14, 2001.

For 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. That’s how this tragedy gets you. Even if you’re lucky and have lost no one, it feels like family.

Familiar, 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 we’ve 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 hasn’t been there in our heads? It is as though we were always waiting for this to come.

Perhaps that is the answer to those accusing voices—some of them inner voices—that 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? Isn’t it time for us to move on?

And it’s 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 saw—orange 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.

Why the dust should be so emotive I don’t 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 Laden’s training camp in the Afghan hills—all sand and dust and craggy outcrops there as well—so 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, we’ll know not only the death toll but the vengeance the Bush administration has in store.

But haven’t there been other tragedies on this scale, the accusing voices say. Do you remember where you were then? What of America’s 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 hit—perhaps three times as many as those who died in New York and Washington. Admit it, you can’t even remember Bhuj. Why hasn’t it lodged in the same way? Where was your compassion then? Aren’t you guilty of supposing that black people matter less than white?

There are various answers here. Of course, Indian earthquake victims are equally worthy of our pity. But natural disasters aren’t the same as war raids or terrorist attacks. With acts of God, the events are beyond human control. With events like this week’s—though there never have been events like this week’s, and that’s part of it—we’re 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.

The 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.

Then there is the history and symbolism. America has just been violated as never before. We’ve seen the heart of the world’s greatest empire—its military brain and financial nerve center—going 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 we’ve often wondered what they were like. This time there were cameras present. That’s 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 it’s the West that owns most of the cameras. Even if it were minded to (and we’d be right to suspect the will of Rupert Murdoch etc. to provide extensive coverage of Third World catastrophes), the media can’t so easily bring us Bhuj.

And there’s the final answer. The global village doesn’t 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.

An older generation might feel more kinship with France, say, but to anyone born after 1945, America is where we are or where we’re headed. It’s no longer a story of two nations divided by a common language. And it’s more than the special relationship. The soaps and game shows have made Uncle Sam part of the family.

So it’s natural to feel haunted and moved. The eerie hush in offices and on trains here. The washed-out faces of almost everyone you meet (they’ve not been sleeping much—but 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 Beck—who 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.

Dismay at U.S. foreign policy, distrust of George W. Bush’s 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.

The 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 we’re 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. Let’s not minimize what’s gone on and what’s at stake here. We’re 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.

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