Remembering 9/11

I found Peggy Noonan's piece for the Wall Street Journal very moving. She says something at the beginning which is obvious as soon as it is drawn to your attention, but which you might otherwise not notice.

New York saw the buildings come down.

That was the thing. It's not that the towers were hit -- we could have taken that. It's not the fire, we could have taken that too. They bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 and took out five floors, and the next day we were back in business.

It's that the buildings came down, in front of our eyes. They were there and proud and strong, they were massive, two pillars at the end of the island. And then they groaned to the ground and there was a cloud and when people could finally see they looked back and the buildings weren't there breaking through the clouds anymore. The buildings were a cloud. The buildings were gone and that was too much to bear because they couldn't be gone, they couldn't have fallen. Because no one could knock down those buildings.

Yes, I thought, that was it. That was the stunning incomprehensible part. I was in London that day. Colleagues called me in to watch the news on TV after the first plane hit. At that point it was an inexplicable accident. Then we watched as the second plane hit, and the meaning became clear. Yet it was possible, just, to take in even that. Watching the first tower fall, with all those people still inside, simply shut me down. I had no reaction. "It's not there," somebody said. It was paralyzing.

I can't say I have anything of value to add to Noonan's wonderful column or the other commentary I have read. My organized thoughts, ten years on, are pretty well captured in this FT editorial.

The cruelty of those who carried out the attacks added to the sense that this was new. No quarter or tactical restraint could be expected from those responsible. The unbounded hatred that motivated such a plot was among its most unsettling aspects. So too was its divine inspiration: "You love life, we love death." What might such people do, given the means?

That thought, of course, guided much of the subsequent US reaction to the attacks. The larger forces of history were not cancelled by the atrocity and what followed, but they were perturbed, and with lasting consequences...

The attacks and their aftermath changed a lot of lives--and they changed mine, in a small strange way. I'm sure it is too trivial to mention, but I will write it down anyway. After the attacks I had two days of working frantically with only a semi-functioning brain. I returned home late one evening that week, exhausted but too agitated to sleep. Hoping to vegetate a while, I turned on the TV and began watching the subsequently notorious edition of the BBC's "Question TIme". An invited audience puts questions to a panel of guests. That night, of course, there was only one subject. I found what followed intolerable. Questioners expressed qualified anger at what had happened; qualified support for the US. Some were openly hostile: now, perhaps, America can see how much hatred it has provoked in the world.

The US ambassador to London was on the panel. He looked amazed and distraught. He was struggling to cope, it seemed to me, on the point of tears. I felt the same way. In that hour, my sense of attachment to the UK--never perhaps as strong as it should have been--left me and has never come back. I understand how irrational this is. The program caused an uproar in Britain and the BBC had to apologize: it was not representative, and most Brits I'm sure felt as I did. But there it is. After September 2001 I no longer felt I belonged in Britain. I resolved to live and work in the United States. Ten years later, here I am; and here, immigration authorities permitting, I intend to stay.