The following was uploaded about 30 minutes later than intended. It’s a little trite, but sincere.
Where were you when the fires came down and blew us all to smithereens? When acts of unforgiveable violent martyrdom caused global suffering that echoed and continues to echo down the years. Man’s inhumanity to man is a perennial reality. I don’t mean to sound so Kurt, but we are all complex machines.
On this day 11 years ago, I went on a school trip to see a performance of Macbeth at the Globe Theatre. There was talk of cancelling the trip in light of the news, but it was felt that a distraction from having to discuss and attempt to make sense of the senseless events of the day was the right decision in the circumstances. We were British after all, and stereotypes exist for a reason.
Memories are unreliable things, but I recall a plane flying overhead during Lady Macbeth’s grand soliloquy – the actress’ big moment was blithely ignored as the audience stared up at the sky as one, frozen to the spot.
Vonnegut was profoundly affected by his experience of Dresden towards the tail end of the Second World War. His novels such as Cat’s Cradle are largely concerned with the notion of man’s technology as the cause of man’s demise. And perhaps we will burn in hellfire of our own devising as the technophobia writ large in much twentieth century film and literature suggests. But the obvious point remains that each generation has its struggles, its moment or moments of horror that shift the direction of history – an Archduke is assassinated in Sarajevo, a group of men in St Petersburg with terrifying clarity of purpose are inspired by the work of a German and a Briton/German to overthrow a decrepit Romanov regime. Uranium ore is stockpiled by Nazi Germany leading to an Allied project codenamed ‘Manhattan’ and a fat man and a little boy silence Imperial Japan; the Americans send ‘technicians’ to assist the South Vietnamese. The public lexicon grows to include the terms ‘Agent Orange’ and ‘fragmentation bombs’.
Shortly after London’s 7/7 attack I was on the train to Luton airport with my then girlfriend when an Asian man with a stuffed backpack came on board. To my enduring shame my mouth went dry and my heart rate leapt. In the grip of adrenalin and paranoia I came close to moving down the train to imagined safety. To be fair, most of the other people on the carriage soon became conspicuous by their absence until there was my girlfriend, me and the man at one end, and the smallest handful of people remaining at the other. To the eternal shame of my country, I imagine it took him considerably longer to get through security at Luton airport than it should have. And so it is that this, and countless other tiny inconveniences, injustices and small tragedies feed into reservoirs of tension and eventually explode into great tragedies.
I was reminded of all this not just by the date, but also by an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom that aired not too long ago, which portrayed the impact of the death of Osama Bin Laden. Now this isn’t the place to consider a TV show, but nevertheless, it seems appropriate to touch on the events of the previous decade given the date.
Bin Laden’s death, while no doubt providing some element of closure, despicable word that that is, is not the end of the matter. The scars and shattered lives of the conflicts of the previous decade will live long in the memory. However, in the same way that the First World War was not caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, merely sparked by it, the seeds of the events of 11 September 2001 and the wars it bequeathed were sown long before. And as with the First World War, there is the question of how to move forward, the question of what we actually do with the memories, with the horrors we have come through and the horrors still to come. To clarify, when I say ‘we’, I mean all of us regardless of nationality, political or spiritual affiliation. People are more alike than they are different, wherever they were born. Good guys vs bad guys might make for good copy, but reality is more complicated than that, and crimes have been committed by and against all sides.
As I’ve suggested, memories are deceitful things, and of course history is infamously written by the victors. A painful memory nursed and nurtured in a person risks becoming an all-consuming poison, the bitterest gall. In a nation the effects are that much more catastrophic. And the truth of 9/11, or rather its repercussions, is that it caused those of us in the West to face not just the fact of the attack itself, the death and destruction, but also the darker side of our nations and governments. It forced us to confront the nature of the true cost of what JFK so memorably called the burden and hardships to be endured for the success and survival of liberty; of the American way of life. In the past decade the public lexicon has grown to include the terms ‘covert war’ and ‘extraordinary rendition’.
I’ve referred to each generation’s struggles, to moments that divert the course of history. In my own lifetime we have seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, events of equal importance, and events which are equally worthy of remembrance. And perhaps it is healthier for us to concentrate our attention on the more positive events we collectively experience, to wave our flags and cheer our victories. But we mark the anniversaries of terrible events for a reason, to never forget, to hope to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
As for Vonnegut and his contemporaries, finding ways to remind us through fiction of the shadier parts of man’s nature, to warn us of the dangers of our technology and rhetoric in light of this fact, it might be glib to say it, but we’re still here as a species. And if we weren’t capable of learning the lessons of the past there’d be no value in reminding us what those lessons were. I choose to believe that this means there’s some hope for us yet.
For its part 9/11 should be remembered for the tragedies of those who perished, and of those they left behind. It should be remembered for its part in causing myriad tragedies across the globe for the following decade and perhaps beyond. We should honour the dead, whoever they may be, in humble ways, and with dignity. But we should guard against the temptation to continue using these memories of the dead in order to add to their number.
Perhaps that’s a little idealistic, not to mention naïve, but as a teacher from that old school of mine once remarked, those are hardly terrible qualities.