11 September 2008

The Pet Goat

At the end of the summer of 2001 we packed our bags, scrubbed our cooker and said goodbye to all our friends and headed west to the vast unknown spaces of wildest America, Connecticut to be precise. The Very Understanding Girlfriend was on her way to grad school, and holding an American passport I decided to come along for the ride. We stopped off in New York along the way to spend a few days doing the typical tourist things, with the Very Understanding Girlfriend taking many photos along the way, as is her want. About two months later she got her film developed, this being in the days before digital technology invaded all our lives, and as we looked through them we had actually forgotten what was on the roll, which made it all the more of shock when we found her panoramic pictures taken from the top of the World Trade Centre.

On the morning of September 11th, The Very Understanding Girlfriend was in her first week of classes, and so I got a phone call from her that something had hit the WTC. Not yet having a TV I headed into college to the Graduate Common Room, where I knew there would be people watching the news. I arrived shortly after the second plane hit the south tower and already the room was full of people crying and visibly in shock. Connecticut is a feeder state for New York, more than 200,000 people travelled everyday into the city to work, and many in the room were from New York originally.

As the day progressed I sat with these people, transfixed by what was occurring. Living up in Ireland in the 80's and 90's gave us all an almost hardened attitude towards horrific acts of paramilitary violence, we were aware that they happened, normally not to us or anyone we knew, and the frequency with they happened inoculated us somewhat. Such acts were almost unknown in the US, and most Americans had a sense of their own invulnerability that was badly shaken by this. The impossibility of such an attack was something that came up again and again in conversations in that room, and that supposed impossibility made it so much harder for them to take.

Over the coming days I braced myself for the sadness that would come from knowing people who had been directly affected by this tragedy, and yet as the days and weeks passed the only news that came were tales of close encounters and lucky escapes. Our good friend Andrew, a part-time travel writer and the only non-Irishman I have ever met who has heard of The Sultans of Ping FC, had a brother who had a 9am job interview in the South Tower. His brother missed his train that morning and was running 15 minutes late, which probably saved his life as the train he was on stopped one station before the World Trade Centre when all subways were closed down. I found myself working a few weeks later with a woman whose son was a volunteer fireman in southern Connecticut. When his station heard what happened they took all their engines and headed down to New York, arriving shortly after the collapse of the Towers. They worked side by side with their New York colleagues for the next few days searching the rubble for survivors. Over the next few months I heard more and more of these tales of joy, and the tragedy remained more of an idea than a reality, still that little bit removed.

Over a year after moving to America, I returned home to Dublin for the first time, and was out for a pint with friends when I heard news that affected me deeply. A good friend from college had lost a sister who had worked in the WTC, one of the almost twenty Irish victims of the tragedy. The last thing that I had ever expected living in America and working side by side with people with so many connections to New York was that what would connect me to the tragedy would be home.

But that was the point that had been evading me, it was a tragedy not just for the US, but for the world; the events of September 11th united us all. Ireland held a national day of mourning on September 14th for all victims, with all businesses and schools closed, and this feeling was echoed across the globe. Never had pro-American sentiment been so high, and for one brief moment the whole world stood shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity. Then the US invaded two nations and the moment vanished in a cloud of dust.

Perhaps the greatest sin of the last seven years has been the way in which that sentiment of solidarity was twisted, used and ultimately betrayed by the current US administration. The extinguishing of the sense of hope that emerged from the ashes of the World Trade Center is something that continues to grieve me today, and every anniversary since 2001.

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