was at home on the afternoon of Tuesday 11 September.
I felt a bit odd earlier in the day and so I delayed eating
just in case. As I finished off a late lunch, flicking through
the cable channels to avoid starting the work I had to do,
work which I did not start, never mind complete on that day.
I came across CNN and saw the picture of one of the twin towers
in flames. I had been to the World Trade Center and I had
stood on the observation deck, with some trepidation since
I am not a heights person. Voice-overs were speculating about
whether it was a failure in navigation systems when the second
plane hove into view hitting the other tower.
I have never seen anything like it on live TV. I was watching
people being torn apart, crushed to death or turned to ashes
before my eyes. Needless to say, I set my sandwich aside.
There was worse to come as people jumped to certain death
rather than face the fate of being burnt alive. At least two
leapt to their doom holding hands. Maybe that gave them the
strength to leap into oblivion (or perhaps to paradise), rather
than be cooked alive by blazing aviation fuel.
Then the towers started to collapse. When I was a kid I had
a building kit (with real miniature bricks) that allowed you
to build structures using a mortar which was a water-soluble
paste. When I got bored with what I had built (mainly castles,
forts and block houses for my toy soldiers), I just put them
into water in the sink and the building crumbled and dissolved
into its component parts. That is what I saw.
Only later in the evening did the story become clearer. The
crushed fire tenders and the ambulances without crews. In
the era of mobile telephones the last words of so many on
the planes or in the buildings were recorded. Nobody had a
cellphone on the way into the gas chamber and maybe we should
be grateful for that.
Whole ladders of firefighters dead. Because the New York
Fire Department and the Police Department are family, in more
ways than one, the destruction of human life was not random:
brothers and fathers and sons dead. On the lists, so many
Irish and Italian names among the firefighters. Lots of blacks,
Latinos as well as Irish and Italians among the cops. To borrow
a phrase from John Lennon, a working class hero is something
to be. And we saw plenty of them on that Tuesday. I cannot
imagine that I will ever forget 11 September 2001.I knew how
I had to respond. I helped organise the three minutes silence
at myplace of work. I am not an American apologist. Whether
in south-east Asia, in the Middle East or over the new missile
defence, I have always been in the right, that is on the left.
Tony Parsons in The Mirror, summed up the problem
for those who have always been sympathetic to the plight of
the Palestinian people. '"Did you see the yuppies flying
out of the windows of the Trade Center?" laughed a young
man outside a mosque in North London. "That was so funny.'"
And I can't tell that young man how angry he makes me feel.
And I can't tell him how wrong he is and I can't explain that
there are many of us who have been sickened by the slaughter
of Palestinian children, who will probably now care a little
less about the injustices of the Middle East now that we have
an injustice of our own, now that we know that young man would
be amused if our own loved ones were burned alive, buried
in rubble, torn to bits.'
The scandal on the left is that inveterate anti-Americanism,
confused pacifism and unwillingness to face up to hard choices
has led some to opt for excuses for what happened. Scratch
the surface and there might be some grim satisfaction. The
Yanks have finally got their comeuppance.
Let us parade the usual suspects. In its editorial, the New
Statesman, a journal which will swallow any enormity committed
by 'New' Labour on the domestic front, let the cat out of
the bag on 17 September: 'American bond traders, you may say,
are as innocent and undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or
Iraqi peasants. Well yes and no: yes, because large-scale
carnage is beyond justification, since it can never distinguish
between innocent and the guilty; no, because Americans, unlike
Iraqis and many others in poor countries at least have the
privileges of democracy and freedom that allow them to vote
and speak in favour of a different order. If the United States
often seems a greedy and overweening power that is partly
because its people have willed it. They preferred George Bush
to Al Gore and both to Ralph Nader.'
Vote the wrong way and you get turned into dust in a landfill
on Staten Island! The moral bankruptcy of this is one thing,
but worst is the ignorance. More people who voted in November
2000 voted for Gore than Bush. America is a democracy (if
not a perfect one) and that is the reason why America must
and will take action against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's
networks. American public officials cannot shrug off the events
of 11 September any more than they could compromise over Pearl
Harbor. The people could not and would not let them. Implacability
is actually one of the prices we pay for democracy. Gore or
Nader would be in the same fix as Bush and would end up taking
roughly the same action. As the Romans used to say (sometimes)
the voice of the people is the voice of God.
Writing in the New Statesman of 8 October, Mark Thomas,
a humourist I admire, manages the easy escape. With one mighty
bound our hero was free. Seven thousand or more people dead
(once we include undocumented workers who have just disappeared
without trace). But let us shift the terms of debate. America
has behaved badly in Colombia, Nicaragua and elsewhere. Bin
Laden is America's creature: their Frankenstein's monster.
All this is true. It reminds me of the story (most likely
apocryphal) of the visit by fellow-travelling railway engineers
to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Over a long period they
are shown track, engine sheds and stations, but at one point
one of the party asks the guide: 'Why have we not seen any
locomotives on the tracks?' To which the guide replies, 'Yes,
but what about the oppression of the negro in the United States?'
Not everyone on the left has gone down this line. Salman
Rushdie has made the point: 'to excuse the atrocity by blaming
US government policies is to deny the basic idea of all morality:
that individuals are responsible for their own actions.'
In contrast, Noam Chomsky who is, mistakenly, often understood
as a figure on the left, bleats 'again we understand, or refuse
to do so, contributing to the likelihood that much worse lies
ahead'. Of course, the same person spoke out against action
against Serbia, which was being bullied by the West. Ironic,
of course, that mass murderer Milosevic claimed that his genocidal
policy was right because Osama bin Laden was being protected
by the Bosnian government. Square that circle. Chomsky is
so hostile to his own country that he cannot bring himself
to admit that America might be right under any circumstances.
George Orwell identified this tendency amongst the left in
the 1930s: a refusal to recognise that witch-hunts are justifiable
when there are real witches.
I do not often turn to The Spectator, or to the works
of Mark Steyn for guidance, but on this occasion he got it
right. 'Faced with the enormity of 11 September the pacifist
left has done what it always does - smother the issues in
generalities and abstractions - though never on such an epic
scale. On that sunny Tuesday morning, at least seven thousand
people died - real, living men and women and children with
families and street addresses and telephone numbers. But the
language of the pacifists - for all its ostensible compassion
- dehumanises these individuals. They're no longer flight
attendants and firemen and waitresses and bond dealers, but
only an abstract blur in some theatrical equation - not yet
"collateral damage" (the phrase they love to mock the militarists
for) but certainly collateral.'
In contrast, some of the left have been prepared to speak
up. The New Statesman may have proved a disgrace, but
Tribune has done its best to provide differing points
of view. Steve Platt wrote: 'There was a rush to comment,
before the dust of the twin towers had even begun to settle
on Manhattan, that made me cringe at the conduct of some of
Christopher Hitchens has expressed it well, and he cannot
be described as right wing in any realistic way, writing in
The Spectator, labelling the 'anti-war left' in these
terms: 'I have no hesitation in describing this mentality,
carefully and without heat, as soft on crime and soft on fascism.
No political coalition is possible with such people and, I'm
thankful to say, no political coalition with them is now necessary.
It no longer matters what they think.'
In Tribune, Paul Anderson commented: 'The mainstream
left response to the September 11 attacks in Britain, as elsewhere,
was one of horror at the inhumanity of the terrorists and
sympathy for the victims. A handful of cretino Leninists and
anti-globalisation activists - and to its eternal shame the
New Statesman - celebrated imperialist Amerika getting its
comeuppance at the hands of the oppressed, but these were
marginal voices, as they deserve to remain.'
Of course it is the case that Bin Laden is a product of the
Cold War, the unthinking and unreflective willingness of those
in the West to use any stone to break their enemy's head.
The creature has now arisen from the slab of the good Doctor
Frankenstein and is wreaking the havoc that we know from the
old story. The monsters may be our monsters (in one way or
another), but they are monsters nevertheless. We must break
them or they will break us.