(Originally published September 11, 2012)
It is a cliché but also a truism that everybody remembers where they were when it happened, or at least when they found out about it. Eleven years on, it is worth reflecting on this memory. I refer not to the need to pay tribute to the dead (also a worthy and, in my opinion, necessary activity) but to notice how an event that, for so many years, has seemed current has now passed into history. This does not diminish it as a climatic and game-changing event for the entire civilised (and uncivilised) world.
I recall that the day after the event, by strange and auspicious coincidence, I was to have my first class of ‘American History’ for my high school History course. We walked in and sat in silence, the air still abuzz with a surreal electricity from the events of the day before. Our teacher walked around the classroom with a handful of photocopies of the infamous image of the burning towers now seared on the brain of almost every human being, gave us each a copy, walked to the front of the class and simply said: “This is history”.
At the time it didn’t feel like history. I had studied history and there was something intangible about it, distant and arcane. This was the very essence of ‘NOW’, the rubble still smouldered, mobile phones still screeched desperately from under the rubble, fanatics ululated joyously around burning American flags and everywhere ordinary citizens fearfully contemplated ‘what’s next?’. We were at the threshold of a savage new millennium.
The foul architect of that atrocity lies dead at the bottom of the ocean, but the consequences of that day still ripple through global society and politics. Hatred towards Western secular society still ferments among fundamentalists, and the need to stand up to that hatred is still manipulated for political gain in the West. Britain and America are still dug into a seemingly intractable conflict in Afghanistan and much of the Middle East remains unstable. But the ‘now’ has extended into a kind of historical perpetuity. We are paying a price to history, a debt we did not ask for but incurred nonetheless.